Trying to find your next big story? Take a look at Vigilant

Interview with Mike Philips, the CEO of Vigilant and winner of the 2018 competition of Startups for News.

Mike Philips, CEO of New York based startup Vigilant, created a platform that enables journalists to break into public data in order to carry out investigative work more easily. The platform is also being heavily used in this year’s midterm elections by a range of advocacy groups and organisations, including, NextGen, Everytown, Emily’s List, the DLCC, and others. We spoke with Philips to find out where he’s at since winning Startups for News 2018, whether automation makes up for a lack of time and resources in newsrooms, and what you need to keep in mind when you’re a CEO of a media startup.

Mike Philips

GEN: After you started your career in politics, what made you start Vigilant?

Mike Philips: Before we started Vigilant, I worked in political research and consulting. We did a lot of projects that involved pulling together data from a range of public sources to do due diligence and investigations quickly. So we built a tool to do just that: to search and monitor thousands of public records data sources. This became Vigilant. Vigilant automates the processes of querying and monitoring datasets. It might best be thought of as a way to help significantly scale up the research that an individual researcher can do — giving them more resources and more leverage.

Vigilant was initially used for political campaigns and movements such as Everytown for Gun Safety and Hillary Clinton’s campaign. What was your first experience with Vigilant in a newsroom? Did you have to adapt your product?

Our work with newsrooms is primarily focused around monitoring for new records, while our political and public affairs clients are typically using the public data search side of the platform. It’s really mostly a difference in how the data is delivered. With newsrooms, we’re delivering notifications of new records detected via slack or email; in the interfaces where teams are already working.

Is automation the answer to the lack of time, people, and resources in many newsrooms?

I think in many ways it is less about internal constraints — though they obviously exist, and in many cases unfortunately are growing — than growing external demands. There’s just so much information that’s out there and available now, and yet there’s an expectation that you’re going to stay on top of it, or that the background research you do will be really fully comprehensive. And the reality is that it’s just well beyond what someone can do manually. And so that’s really where systems like Vigilant come in.

Notifications via slack

How does Vigilant enable newsrooms to monitor data breaches?

A lot of state attorneys general in the U.S. have set up databases of the disclosures that companies are required to make of data breaches to their customers in that state (you can read a bit more about it on our blog here). So that’s one example of a set of sources that we integrate with, and allow users to monitor for new records.

Your service relies on open and accurate data. What is the situation like in the US? Which datasets would you most like to see open to the public?

The U.S. has definitely long been a leader in open data in a range of respects, although some of the data available in Europe on companies is stronger. One place where the data is available but it’d be great to see more openness is around courts data (a lot of which is public, but not necessarily meaningfully open) — the pay-per-search/document model of PACER (the US Federal Courts) is a particularly good example of this.

Do you think that public bodies should help citizens and organisations navigate their data? Should they be building tools to help them?

Yes, definitely. Public data and public records should be a powerful resource for transparency and accountability, and a more general public good. But often they’re really difficult to access in meaningful ways. Some organisations are doing important work to improve on this — for instance, 18Fs overhaul of the U.S. Federal Election Commission’s campaign finance data source has made it vastly more useful, and that’s a really important improvement.

Do you plan to develop Vigilant in countries other than the US? What are the main challenges of adapting your product to other countries?

Yes, definitely. We cover some international data sources now and have just started working with a few partners around the world to expand and develop coverage in those countries. We’ve found that the biggest challenge is often around appreciating the true meaning and context of something — what particular significance it might have in that jurisdiction, what different data points really mean, and what fields need to be captured. Once you can get an understanding of that, translation is less difficult.

What are the biggest challenges of being the CEO of a startup working with media?

I think the biggest thing is that the customers are always very busy people. They’re trying to do a lot of things and working with us and figuring out how to leverage our platform effectively is just one more thing that busy people have to do. So that means that you need to be clearer up front about what the opportunities are — to really clearly articulate what the broader strategic value-proposition might look like, and also to do a lot of the set-up work to make sure it’s very easy for them to implement.

In what ways was participating in Startups for News 2018 helpful for Vigilant?

It’s been a great boost in validating our product for people, and helping us meet and connect with a really impressive range of smart, passionate, and innovative folks working in media. We’re very glad to have had the opportunity to be a part of it.

Editors note: Startups for News is an annual international competition that rewarded the best startups bringing novel solutions to newsroom challenges. Previous winners included Flourish, Trint, and Wibbitz.

Vigilant in Action

Technical.ly, a network of websites that grows communities by connecting organisations and people through news, events, and services, uses Vigilant to search for venture capital raises. They are using the tool to automate searches of federal SEC Form D filings. When filings in one of their markets publish, the details are scraped and sorted and put into paragraphs. The format is based on previous versions of text written by Technical.ly’s editorial teal. The copy then gets dropped into their CMS for fact-checking and approval by human editors. You can read more about this here.

Thanks, Mike!