June 9, 2016

You might call it a recipe for transparency.

Want to know when the president signs a bill into law? When congress votes on a bill? When a new legislator is representing you? Since 2014, The Sunlight Foundation has been connecting its massive trove of government data to IFTTT, the popular web service that connects things on the internet to other things.

“It’s important recognize that you have to meet people where they are,” said Jenn Topper, the communications director at The Sunlight Foundation. “And if someone wants to know whether or not the president signs a bill, there aren’t always easy ways to figure that out. Now, by combining the notifications with that action, people can get information however they want.”

For those unfamiliar with IFTTT, it works like this: Users create recipes that consist of a trigger (the “IF” portion of IFTTT), such as “If I get a Facebook notification,” and a result, such as “send me an email.” The idea is to connect up the myriad services and information available on the internet to make them work in concert with one another. The function of the service is spelled out in its name, which doubles as an initialism: IF This, Than That.

The Sunlight Foundation has put IFTTT to work by bridging its Congress API to various online services. The foundation automatically pulls in lots of data from the government — the locations and zip codes of congress members, for example, and the crush of information that accompanies the legislature’s routines: floor votes, hearings, bills, amendments and nominations. With IFTTT, The Sunlight Foundation allows people to automatically get an email when the president signs a bill into law, or save that law to a read-later app like Pocket or Instapaper.

Some of the recipes have been fairly popular. Nearly 30,000 people have signed up to get an email whenever the president signs a bill into a law, and more than 5,000 people have subscribed to receive an email when Congress votes on a bill. Last year, The Sunlight Foundation also created recipes to post new laws to Tumblr and send a message to Slack when a law is enacted.

The Sunlight Foundation debuted the channel in 2014 after members of Sunlight Labs (its open-government skunkworks) noticed they were using the service for their own purposes outside of work. They added additional recipes in 2015, but there are no plans at the moment to create new recipes, Topper said.

Since the foundation created its channel on IFTTT, several other users have used the Congress API to create their own recipes, too. Nearly 2,000 people have signed up for a recipe created by a user unaffiliated with the Sunlight Foundation to add new laws to Safari reading lists. Another recipe, created by user jonofthefrees, automatically compiles a weekly congressional digest and sends it out; that has nearly 500 subscribers.

These recipes for transparency have applications beyond The Sunlight Foundation. Many news organizations across the United States regularly receive data from local and regional agencies — crime logs, budgetary information, demographic data. If they organized that information and made it available through an API, they could also enable their audience to access it using IFTTT.

“It’s something that’s not limited to people who know where to look for that information, a way for people to get information to come to them,” Topper said.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of Poynter.org. He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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