August 18, 2010

Poligraft is a new tool released by the Sunlight Foundation that tries to add political context to news stories. It scans news articles for the names of donors, corporations, lobbyists and politicians and shows how they are connected by contributions.

It’s easy to use: Just submit the URL or text of a news article, and Poligraft will create a sidebar containing the relevant information from data provided by the Center for Responsive Politics and the National Institute for Money in State Politics.

The sidebar shows the aggregated contributions from an organization to a politician (for instance, from various employees of one company). The second section, “points of influence,” shows campaign contributions received by politicians, as well as contributions made by organizations. You can click on the names of people or organizations to learn more about them, such as who their contributors are or what lobbying firms they’ve hired.

Poligraft has a handy bookmarklet so you can use the tool to analyze any story from the browser.

Anyone can use this, but it could be especially powerful in the hands of hands of journalists, bloggers, and others reporting or analyzing the news. It would take hours to look these things up by hand, and many people don’t know how to find or use the information.

Journalists could paste in their copy to do a quick check for connections they might have missed. Bloggers could run Poligraft on a series of political stories to reveal the web of contributions leading to a bill. All this information is public record, but it’s never easy to dig through. What is possible when investigative journalism is made just a little bit easier?

I can see how news organizations could apply the Poligraft model to any type of story — crime, business, anything for which additional context could be useful. For example, a crime story sidebar could search for names of people involved, addresses, type of time and display the information in a sidebar. It’s a twist on the crime map.

TechCrunch does something similar. Below each story is a widget with information about some of the businesses mentioned in the story, such as website URL, when the company was founded and a summary of what the business does. (The CrunchBase Widget, as it’s called, can be customized and added to any site.)

As simple as the Poligraft tool is, users need a certain amount of background knowledge to really benefit from it. And the sidebar could do a better job of providing more information about the politicians, lobbyists and organizations. I realize that you’re expected to read the story, remember the names, and look over in the sidebar for context, but there’s just a little too much back-and-forthing. Still, it beats looking up contributions one by one — and it may highlight a connection that would be otherwise overlooked.

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