The New York Times made a small splash today with the announcement of its new “Campaign Finance API,” which we’re told will let third parties search who’s donating money to political figures, or see total contributions by ZIP code. Great idea. The problem is, it’s such a great idea it’s been done before, over and over and over again.
We’re not political reporters, but probably our favourite website to look up campaign finance data is Newsmeat.com, whose tagline is “America’s Most Popular Campaign Donor Search Engine.” Search by name? Check. Search by ZIP? Check. There’s also neat extra features the New York Times API doesn’t/can’t offer, like celebrity campaign contributions. Of course, if you don’t like Newsmeat, you can access and massage campaign finance data at competitor sites like campaignmoney.com, opensecrets.org, or followthemoney.org* among others.
All of these sites (update — except followthemoney, which uses state data), including the New York Times API, get their info from the same source — data files offered by the Federal Election Commission. Essentially all the NYT is doing is taking the FEC data, organising it a bit, and stamping their byline on it. Presumably the FEC files are somewhat difficult for third parties to work with, but given the proliferation of sites already working very well with the numbers, it’s not that hard.
Doubtlessly we’ll see some cool mashups to come out of the API as coders and undergraduate political science majors play with it. But serious political journalists already have all the tools they need to access campaign finance data for their stories, and serious political websites can go direct to the FEC and do deeper analysis than the New York Times can offer. The new API is a neat toy, but that’s all it is. Certainly no cure for the Old grey Lady’s troubles.
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