Before the Internet revolution, there was Sheila Krumholz. Trolling through record upon record in dusty Congressional filing cabinets, Krumholz and the team at the Center for Responsive Politics were living, breathing search engines working for a credo that’s come to shape the technology age: Information to the people.
The information they were aggregating and sharing was the money behind politics. And though today–20 years later–the filing cabinet searches are over, the immense data tracking lives on through the center’s online publication, OpenSecrets.org. The site is one of the nation’s premier watchdog outlets, and its philosophy fits seamlessly with new technological innovations that put a premium on transparency of information.
“It was the perfect marriage of platform and research,” says Krumholz, who started at the organization as an assistant editor on the first hard-copy Open Secrets tome and who now serves as the center’s executive director, pushing the group to expand rapidly in the virtual space. Not only does the digital move make collecting and tracking mountains of financial information much easier, but it puts that information a click away from voters. “People, as owners in our democracy, are going to take this technology and make their own perfect platform,” Krumholz says. “I think there is a lot of potential on the horizon for people to be more effective citizens.”
And given the host of big-ticket bills moving through Congress these days, demand from constituents for unbiased, open information shouldn’t diminish any time soon. “We kind of view ourselves as being the wonky sets, pouring over data–and that’s not sexy,” Krumholz says. “But really there’s a lively conversation that takes place on our fan pages, and on Twitter, and on our blog.”
That lively conversation is thanks to a decision Krumholz made in early 2009 to open up the center’s full database–at the time, 200 million records they had collected over the years. Even for a group that’s committed to freedom of information, the decision wasn’t an easy one given the funding challenge the center faced as a nonprofit. “Going open was a huge decision,” says Massie Ritsch, the center’s former communications director. “I think they were originally of the mindset that they needed to guard the crown jewels, as it were, and not to give it away. Sheila thought long and hard about that, but she took a leap of faith. She trusted that having more eyes on it and more platforms for it would ultimately have a greater impact.”
This unshakable commitment to transparency is a characteristic that comes up time and again as colleagues and industry counterparts describe Krumholz. “She’s one of the very few people who’s managed to have a completely pure reputation in Washington,” says Danielle Brian, executive director of the Project on Government Oversight, a peer DC watchdog. “You wouldn’t guess how strong, steely strong, she is. She gives on the surface a quiet, gentle appearance that is deceptive.”
Krumholz’s humble persona and refusal to play the Washington game has turned her into one of the lesser seen, but highly revered, figures in politics. It also gives her work the rare stamp of truly nonpartisan information, evidenced by the breadth of users that flock to OpenSecrets.org. “Our audience really runs the ideological gamut,” Krumholz says, adding, “a great day for us is when Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow both use our site.”
As the site continues to open its data doors, technical challenges–as much as opportunities–inevitably present themselves. Not least of these challenges is the task of keeping pace with an instant-information culture while maintaining the accuracy of such massive data aggregation and analysis. Transparency may be the modus operandi of the Internet these days, but precision isn’t quite there yet. For this, we return back to good ol’ human work, reminiscent of Krumholz searching the filing cabinets of Capitol Hill.
“The Open Secrets database is incredible. But there’s another database inside of Sheila’s head that has tremendous value as well,” Ritsch says. “You can always count on her to remember the ins and outs of the rules, arcane quirks in the data; she can tell you if something happening in 2010 has ever been seen before.”
And that, if our Krumholz prediction model holds true, may be a glimpse into what information technology will be able to do in the near future.