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Saturday
Jul252009

LittleSis: an "involuntary" Facebook for political heavy hitters

Robert E. Rubin has 69 relationships, including 1 son (Jamie Rubin), a close friend (Richard Perry), and proteges such as Larrry Summers and Jason Furman. Former positions include Secretary of the Treasury and Chairman of Citigroup. He recently supported the Democratic Congressional and Senate Campaign Committees.

Sounds a bit like a Facebook profile, doesn't it? I'm not friends with Rubin, but I got all of this information in one place at LittleSis, an "involuntary" social network for powerful people and organizations.

LittleSis creatively, and provocatively, bills itself as an "answer to Big Brother". It seeks to bring transparency to influential social networks by "tracking the key relationships of politicians, business leaders, lobbyists, financiers, and their affiliated institutions." By contributing data to the site, citizens can be a part of the "surveilling of the country's leadership" in the name of "transparency, accountability, and the public good."

To be clear, the site is not interested in gossip or personal affairs, but rather the professional relationships, political contributions, and education histories that may shape or influence the actions of these people in power. All of this information is public record, but the current challenge is that it is scattered across a wide range of websites and resources. And in what may be an even more interesting application, the site will help to expose the well-connected, but less public-facing individuals who hold a great deal of influence but lack the commensurate level of scrutiny -- Robert Rubin is a good example. You may have thought that he was out of the limelight until you realize through his social network that he was the primary mentor to the current administration's top two economic advisors.

Anyone can ask to become an "analyst" on the site and work to build out the network. Some of the data is automatically scraped, but the power will come from the contributions of citizens filling in the missing details. While readers can ingest the data like on Facebook -- wih tabs for relationships, interlocks, and giving -- for analysts, the process is more like Wikipedia. It is an ambitious effort to crowdsource transparency efforts and make any citizen a watchdog against corruption and abuse.

LittleSis is a project of the Public Accountability Initative and is funded by a grant from the Sunlight Foundation -- the gold standard of transparency. While the wiki format is elegant, I would love to see a visualization of the social networks -- like Sunlight's health care lobbyist complex. The soon-to-be-launched API should make that happen.

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Reader Comments (2)

There was a site some time back that did this specifically for the oil industry and related institutions, purporting to document all the formal and informal relationships between oil industry personnel, politicians, lobbyists, etc. When I saw it, I wondered how long it would be before someone applied it more generally.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered Commenterasg

@asg I'm not familiar with that site, but I'm sure that we'll see a lot more of them now with the push towards transparency and gov 2.0. The Sunlight Foundation healthcare map is just one of many examples.

July 30, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterMelody
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