Is Sunlight Foundation’s Health Care Summit Coverage a Gamechanger?

While many people were yawning their way through the news networks’ coverage of the White House’s Health Care Summit, a government transparency advocacy group turned the event on its head and used social media and streaming technology to possibly become the next C-SPAN, PolitiFact or Nate Silver’s

Relying on “data jamming” (a kissing cousin of “culture jamming”), the D.C.-based  Sunlight Foundation gave readers and viewers an endless supply of information–from donor data for members of Congress  to information on health care expenditures–by using live-streaming video, live-blogging, Twitter-feeds, and seven hours of endless data and information to thousands of people who participated on the live event.

“One of my favorite comments was that our approach was a ‘smackdown to CNN,’ ” Sunlight’s Jake Brewer told Mediaite. Brewer, who has blogged about the experiment including a a great “how we did it,” said the goal of the effort was to “let the data do the talking” and provide an alternative to the talking heads on the cable news shows or even the talking politicians on C-SPAN.

Susannah Fox, of the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project was tweeting about the project days after the summit, speculating on what impact the Sunlight Foundation would have on coverage of medical conferences.

“Sunlight’s coverage was one of those moments where it all came together,” Fox told Mediaite. She is an associate director at Pew Internet, focusing on the intersection of  health care and technology. “Pew had just released a report on millennials, and there was a perfect example of the remix culture in action with raw data and social media.”

Like more and more people, Fox says she follows events and news stories through Twitter and other social media.  Sunlight’s ability to harness that approach with live-video and data is what made the coverage significant.

During the seven hour summit, people who went to Sunlight Live could watch the summit via a live-video feed embedded into Sunlight’s site.  When a Congressman would speak, a list of that member’s top political contributors, previously sponsored legislation, or even fundraising events attended would be displayed on the screen. When a piece of research was mentioned, Sunlight would immediately provide a link or some sort of data illustration.

The coverage became an instant Twitter and blog sensation. According to the foundation, 1,364 tweets were sent out linking to the coverage, reaching an estimated 2.5 million people  based on the number of followers those tweeters have. Jason Linkins at Huffington Post said “anyone following the summit on their website was treated to a rather innovative ‘Contextual Content and Data Stream’ that presented a side-by-side take on the extent to which the various players in the summit have been bought and paid for.”

During the summit, the coverage got linked by Andrew Sullivan, ABC’s Jake Tapper, Time magazine, the New York Times, The Nation ProPublica, and Twitter all-stars like Tim O’Reilly.

Brewer, who heads Sunlight’s engagement efforts and has a background in organizing and as a “social entrepeneur,” said that while the efforts got a lot of social media and press attention, there were a lot of “real people” outside the wonkosphere paying attention.  His favorite stat from the analytics showed that some 9,800 people participated in the live blog and that half of the people who spent time on the coverage were actively engaged–blogging, commenting, or scrolling–while they were on the site.

“The White House making the video embeddable was what really made this possible,” Brewer told Mediaite. “This is an idea that transparency advocates pushed for in the Open Government directive and something that is a real step forward in terms of transparency.”

If the White House and other parts of government make live video embeddable–as opposed to requiring viewers to go to another website–Brewer predicted Sunlight would do other efforts given the success of the summit.  He said he’d like to see contributors participate in the research and data collection, “taking crowdsourcing to a whole new level,” and also find more ways to engage viewers in finding out more about how government works and operates.

Pew’s Fox suggested that Sunlight was on to something important, providing a way of consuming the news that also gets people involved in the news.

“There is a renewed interest in raw material, especially if it can be remixed into a compelling and interesting portrait of an event or ongoing conversation,” Fox said.

What makes Sunlight’s project important–even gamechanging–is the combination of social media, interactive data, and a live event.  The approach allows almost instantaneous background information for the reader to begin evaluating the claims being made by, in this case, elected officials.  There’s no reason to wait for Paul Begala or Liz Cheney to explain it to you, the information is right there while the official is talking.

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