The LittleSis team is currently working on a new version of its visual maps tool, Oligrapher. In collaboration with groups from the Influence Mapping network, this new version will be much more easily deployable by other projects and will facilitate storytelling through story maps.
Monitoring power networks with extreme influence over policymaking, the goal of LittleSis, as the opposite of Big Brother, is instead of watching down, watching up: “expose and challenge dynamic of undue influence and corruption, and particularly the role of corporate power, since corporations occupy such a special position of wealth and influence in our society”, says Kevin Connor, one of the founders of the organization.
With this in mind the team has come to develop an “involuntary Facebook of powerful people, with a particular focus on the ties between them”. LittleSis’ community is built by several hundred users contributing data regularly and a much larger community of journalists, academics, activists, and watchdogs who are using the data.
To help users create visual maps of the data they are working with, the five person LittleSis team developed Oligrapher, a tool that has been essential to their community. “Data on power networks is inherently structured, and a visual map can sometimes be a more suitable format than more basic narrative representations”, explains Connor as the principle behind Oligrapher. Some examples of its use have been classic revolving door stories such as the story of Covington & Burling’s ties to the Justice Department (featured on Vice) and the Wall Street networks around privatization of housing.
Oligrapher 2 These days, the LittleSis team is working on a new version of Oligrapher, that will help readers digest information in maps by walking through them more iteratively, while coupling them with narrative. This new version will maintain the possibility of manually manipulate the layout of nodes and edges as they see fit but will also present new features.
In collaboration with the Influence Mapping network, the team is also working to improve the Oligrapher code so that it can work with other external data sets and be deployed on external sites. So, for instance, if you had your own data set that you did not want to import into LittleSis, you could create your own map, or series of maps, on a new or existing site. They are also planning to spread the word more widely to potential users.
Sustainability The nonprofit behind LittleSis is Public Accountability Initiative. To finance their work, the team relies on a mix of funding sources, mainly donations, grants and some fee for service research revenue through partnerships in the academic and social justice fields. “Our vision from the start has been to keep LittleSis free and open, which creates sustainability challenges, but we are not in this to build another proprietary database”, says Connor, noting that now the initiative is in a stronger financial position that when it started.
Given the chance of receiving a big influx of resources, their first priority would be to improve the code base so that it is a more reliable and user friendly technology, but also so that it is more sustainable: “we would like to improve the code to the point where open source developers can more easily deploy instances of it and contribute to the open source code base”.
Inspiration Future Farmers’ They Rule project, a site that maps corporate boards and the connections between them and launched back in 2001. “We connected with them around the time we started LittleSis, and They Rule has been drawing its data from the LittleSis API for a few years now.”
The work of the artist Mark Lombardi, who “did some incredible work mapping power networks as they related to various scandals. Some of the design choices we made were influenced by that work”. They first learned about Lombardi from Ben Fry, whose firm, Fathom, later built Connected China for Reuters.
“There is an important, underappreciated history in the US of academics, journalists, and activists doing this work, and having an impact, because they saw it as key to understanding – and challenging – entrenched power (…) I recently learned that the civil rights movement, particularly SNCC, used these kinds of research methods as a core part of their organizing program (an example). Fascinating!”