by Deepak Puri

Maplight data analytics helps ‘follow the money’ in politics.

May 01, 20175 mins
AnalyticsBig DataData Mining

'Follow the money' was the advice for reporters investigating Watergate. Researchers now use technology to analyze the influence of money in government.

Follow the money – and it’ll lead you to the truth”. That’s the advice given to reporters investigating the Watergate scandal in the movie All The President’s Men.

The advice still applies, though it’s much harder to track money flow in politics today. How do you track who donated to whom? Who’s lobbying for what? What legislation may be influenced?

Data analytics, visualization and new datasets help analyze how money and lobbying influence politics.

True Blood

Synthetic blood is invented in this fictional TV series set in rural Louisana. This allows vampires to “come out of the coffin” and allow their presence to be known to mankind. Vampires struggle for equal rights and assimilation, while anti-vampire organizations begin to gain power. In this scenario, imagine that legislation is being proposed to lower the prices of ‘true blood’.

How do you find out who is behind this lobbying effort? How much have vampires donated to politicians to advocate for the bill? Which political action committees (PACs) are involved? As with vampires, much of this would be done in the ‘dark’. (This is a fictional example, and to the best of my knowledge there is no such legislation being sponsored by vampires).

Searching for the truth

MapLight provides a database that combines lawmakers’ votes, groups supporting and opposing legislation, and campaign contributions. The database has over 30 million records, including campaign finance data, legislative voting data, interest group support and opposition data. It provides transparency tools for searching, sorting, visualizing, and finding connections within this database. This allows users to analyze how campaign contributions affect policy. Some of the analysis and visualization tools offered include:
Total Contributions: Compares campaign contributions from interest groups that support a bill with contributions from interest groups in opposition.
Contributions by Vote: Correlates interest group contributions with how lawmakers vote.
Timeline of Contributions: Shows when a campaign contributions is received relative to a vote.
Topic Pages: Search for and track bills by issue area.
Company Pages: Profiles top-contributing companies, according to the total contributions made, documented bill positions they have taken, and bill positions they have “won.”
Contributions Search: Find out who gave what to whom and when.

Dark Money

“When donors give money directly to a campaign, political party, or super PAC, their names and the amounts they have given must be disclosed. Dark money is different. It comes from groups—typically limited liability corporations (LLCs) or politically active nonprofits—that do not have to disclose their donors. As a result of U.S. Supreme Court decisions in 2007 and 2010, those groups can receive unlimited amounts of money from individuals, corporations, and other organizations. They can then use that money to pay for television ads and other efforts to influence voters. Often the public doesn’t know who is funding those efforts”, explains Daniel Newman, President and Co-Founder of Maplight.


These five sites provide data sources, analysis and visualization tools to track the role of money in politics.
Little Sis – a project by Public Accountabillity Initiative. It provides a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government. Support them here.
Open Secrets – a project by the Center For Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan, independent and nonprofit. It is the nation’s premier research group tracking money in U.S. politics and its effect on elections and public policy. Support them here.
SunLight Foundation – a national, nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses the tools of civic tech, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all. It’s uses technology to enable more complete, equitable and effective democratic participation. Support them here.
GovTrack- It helps Americans participate in their government by making information about the United States Congress freely accessible, understandable, and actionable for public use.
Follow The Money – A project by the nonpartisan, nonprofit National Institute on Money in State Politics promotes an accountable democracy by compiling comprehensive campaign-donor, lobbyist from government disclosure agencies making it freely available. It researches and archives a 50-state federal/state database of contributions documenting $50+ billion, plus more than 2 million state lobbyist-client relationships that are registered annually. Support them here.

Deep Throat whispered “follow the money” to reporters investigating Watergate as a way to cut through the lies and deceptions. Maplight’s tools help both reporters and citizens in their search for the role of money in politics.