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June 8, 2011, noon

Inbox Influence reveals your connections’ connections

The Internet was supposed to usher in a new era of transparency. Groups like the Sunlight Foundation, the Center for Responsive Politics, OpenCongress, and even the government’s own Data.gov provide oceans of data for the curious, concerned citizen.

If the truth is in the data, however, you still have to go find it. That’s why open-government websites are mostly popular with journalists and activists, the people willing to pull up their sleeves and wade through the numbers.

A new tool from the Sunlight Foundation would seem to seek to tweak that paradigm. It’s called Inbox Influence, a Gmail plugin that requires exactly one step: installing it. When an email message arrives — from a company, a political candidate, a PR person, your aunt — you’ll see statistics about that entity’s political connections. The plugin detects names in body text, email addresses, and links.

For example, I received a news alert from The New York Times about Comcast’s successful bid to broadcast the Olympics until 2020. The company’s name is highlighted; when I mouse over, a popup graphic tells me:

  • Comcast Corp. has given $16.9 million to politicians
  • A majority of the cash has gone to Democrats
  • The company has spent $66.7 million on lobbying

That kind of information might help people make better decisions about whom they do business with. I pay Comcast $55 a month for Internet access, and I never thought to look up the company’s political history. Might I choose to take my business elsewhere? What if I find out my favorite grocery store gives money to causes I don’t support? Or that my aunt is a closeted Tea Partier?

The system is imperfect; it misses a lot of names. An email about Rep. Anthony D. Weiner correctly reveals his $4.2 million in contributions received and the top industries of his contributors (real estate, law, finance). An email about John Edwards, however, returned details for John Saul Edwards, a Virginia state senator.

The Sunlight Foundation provides other nifty, user-friendly tools, such as Checking Influence, a bookmarklet that ties in to your bank’s website to reveal what kind of influence you might be unwittingly supporting. Simple as it is to use, though, that tool still requires user action. Inbox Influence allows for accidental discovery, the kind of useful information you didn’t even know you were looking for.

POSTED     June 8, 2011, noon
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