Celebrating the Sunlight Foundation
Reflections on the O.G. transparency advocate’s decade of success with some of the people who made it possible. And hear from some of the countless lives Sunlight changed for the better with open source and open data.
The Sunlight Foundation we’ve known and loved and looked up to for ten years is changing. A lot.
On Tuesday, Sunlight’s co-founder and board chairman Mike Klein posted some “important conclusions” about the future of this singular organization. While much is still up in the air, what we do know is that the lodestar, the O.G., the inspiring AllSpark of so much civic tech “will discontinue our tool building and database maintenance activities, and encourage others to continue our most promising projects,” as Mr. Klein put it.
Reading those words, my stomach dropped. My heart broke. My head spun. Where would our team at The OpenGov Foundation be without them? Where would our country be without the legions of civic technologists, data journalists, transparency policy experts, everyone who has come out of Sunlight? What would the world look like today if the Sunlight Foundation had never even existed?
All I know is our world would be far more opaque, far less livable, and far more frustrating for everyone except the rich, the well-connected, the politically powerful. That’s a darker place to which I hope we never return.
Yes, it’s an uncertain time, for Sunlight and for the rest of our community. But what is certain is the overwhelming amount of good the people and the projects of the Sunlight Foundation have brought into the world. What is certain is that many of us wouldn’t be in the civic technology business without Sunlight. What is certain is that many of us are thinking a lot right now about how central Sunlight has been to our lives, our careers, and our fundamental conception of what government should look like in the Internet Age.
I asked around, poked around online, and collected some of the wonderful stories, memories and anecdotes people shared. Please share yours, too, in the comments below or in-line here on the post. I’d love to keep adding to this, so that we can show the world how much Sunlight means to so many people and communities, and that the world will indeed be a darker place should a stand-alone Sunlight sunset.
Sunlight has Changed How Government Works Every Day
“When I first began working on open data and open government for Rep. Darrell Issa on Capitol Hill, in 2009, the Sunlight Foundation was unquestionably our strongest outside ally. My second meeting as a Congressional staffer seeking input on transparency legislation was with the Sunlight policy team, including John Wonderlich and Daniel Schuman. John, Daniel, and Sunlight provided by far the most useful help for my work as a staffer: sophisticated analysis, specific recommendations, and air support through public communications. Nobody else came close. And they kept it up, with the same goals and values, for year after year. Without John, Daniel, and Sunlight, the DATA Act probably would not have happened.” — Hudson Hollister, Executive Director of The Data Coalition
“We’re lucky enough to now be living in an era, one created in part by Sunlight, where more governments are publishing more open data — sometimes proactively, without even having to be badgered all the time. That’s fantastic, but it could very easily dissipate…One of the least obvious but most powerful things that Sunlight did was empower those civil servants, inside agencies and parliaments, to show that someone cared about the data, someone would make use of the data, and that someone knew what the data even was.” — Eric Mill, Public Servant at the G.S.A’s 18F and proud Sunlight Labs alumnus (via The Atlantic).
Sunlight Achieved Legend Status in its Own Time
“You can’t talk about open government data without talking about the Sunlight Foundation.” — Waldo Jaquith, currently helping to lead G.S.A.’s 18F Technology Transformation Agency, and former Sunlight Foundation advisor and director.
“My anecdote isn’t very long. But I work in government and for me, Sunlight Foundation sets standards that helps me in City government. They published open data advice that was extremely helpful to re-energizing our program. We need strong civil society groups like this to help us all strive to be better.” — Kerry O’Connor, Chief Innovation Office for the City of Austin, TX.
“Perhaps its biggest accomplishment was its success — along with Code for America — in helping to convince the federal government that it was time to modernize its use of technology and the Internet. When the government starts baking your standards into its own work and hiring your best tech people to come and help, that is surely a major victory.” — Micah Sifry, Co-Founder of Civc Hall and Civic Hall Labs, who was present at the creation of Sunlight, and who shares some poignant thoughts on the foundation here.
Sunlight Blazed Trails for Us All
Jen Pahlka, founder and leader of Code for America: “I have many memories, starting with Clay coming out to Web 2.0 Expo 2007 and having a hackathon for the 50 states project. Smack in the middle of the Web 2.0 boom, when it seemed that everyone in San Francisco was chasing a buck, he had dozens of developers in a room at the Moscone Covention Center hacking on government data. Light bulb moment.
“Then it was Transparency Camp West in August of 2009, on the Google campus,” Jen continued. “I walked in hoping I would find someone who would talk to me about state and local government tech. I sat down at a table and started to tell Leonard Lin about my idea for Code for America. Clay Johnson overheard me and shouted over a few other people from the other side of the table: ‘We’ll fund you for that!’”
“Arguably, I owe my current career to the Sunlight Foundation,” writes Joe Germuska, Executive Director and Chief Nerd at the Northwestern University Knight Lab. “I had left my commercial web development job in search of work that was more personally rewarding. I attended PyCon 2009 here in Chicago, and since I was just freelancing, I decided to stick around for the code sprints after the regular conference. Sunlight hosted a session for hacking on what was then known as the Fifty States project (later Open States). In those two days, I got to know Brian Boyer, who not long after, hired me on to the newly-formed Chicago Tribune News Applications team. (I’m also happy to report that I went on to work on the Illinois legislative scraper for Open States, and it actually came in quite handy more than once as a research tool for Tribune investigations.) Since then, I’ve been lucky to get to know a number of Sunlight Foundation and Sunlight Labs folks. It’s a remarkable crew of current and former staff, and I appreciate all they’ve done for journalism and smarter, more transparent government, individually and collectively.”
“I decided to leave policy wonking behind and learn civic tech in 2011. Sunlight people were the most welcoming patient and loving explainers of this mysterious new universe. I would never have become comfortable or confident in the tech world without them.” — Lorelei Kelly, leader of the Resilient Democracy Coalition.
“After writing the Sunlight Foundation to learn if they were going to expand Scout into local markets,” said Jerry Hall, founder of Civic Archive. “Eric Mill [Editor’s Note: the balloon-wielding gentleman below] responded with an email that began with ‘I love getting letters like these.’ I love getting responses like that, and that little spark evolved into a five-year odyssey…”
Sunlight’s People Matter the Most
“My favorite anecdote of Sunlight is really just amazing people. Many of them are still there, many of them went to start organizations or join government itself. Specifically, for me, it was around 2008–2009, as GovLoop was just starting, Gov 2.0 was blossoming, and I was lucky enough to often run into Jake Brewer representing Sunlight at many events. And every time, I saw him, he was so upbeat, uplifting, and would introduce me around “You got to meet Steve. Have you heard of GovLoop? It’s amazing” — which was awesome.” — Steve Ressler, Founder and President of GovLoop.
“While there are tons of great memories at Sunlight, my favorite moment has nothing to do with legislative battles won, websites we built, meetings with high officials, or engagement with civic technology activists from all around the world. It has to do with the people of Sunlight.
“Just about every day, around lunch time, we would tramp into the small kitchen and dining area. Many of the staff were excellent cooks or bakers and would share the food they had made the night before. Our systems administrator would read aloud from the columns of the various advice columnists and we would collectively try to solve the problems of the letter writers while we sat around the table and ate our lunches.
“This, of course, led to loud arguments. We would sometimes make fun of the letter writers, parse their concerns, and then — when the advice was read — take that apart, too. We got so heated that our office manager had to install glass windows on the top of the dining room to prevent the noise from disturbing people still working. It didn’t help.
“We talked about everything. We cooked for each other. We hung out together. We came back to the office in the evening, using it as a home base. We brought our different perspectives — policy, journalism, technology, communications, organization — and became a team; we became friends. Even today, we are still close even as we’ve gone our different paths in the world.
“The Sunlight Foundation isn’t just a place, it’s a way of approaching the world. It’s about being creative, having fun, doing good, solving problems That’s what we did. That’s what we still do. That’s what Sunlight means to me. While the organization is a shadow of its former self, it’s network is bigger and better than ever.” — Daniel Schuman
“…Sunlight has never been solely about Labs, and Labs has certainly never been solely about technology. Our legacy rests in people, and the impact people can have when they fuse subject matter expertise with technological innovation in order to solve a specific problem. I love Sunlight Labs to a somewhat irrational degree. But mostly, I love Sunlighty people who are trying to build a Sunlighty world. Labs played a formative role in building that community, and that community will continue to build new solutions long after Labs is gone. That is our legacy, and it’s something to celebrate.” — Kat Duffy, Director of Sunlight Labs. Kat’s full post is a must-read.
Have a favorite Sunlight Foundation memory, experience, anecdote or app? Please share it below in the comments or right in line with the post. Thank you, and Sunlight Foundation forever!