Case Study: How Sunlight Foundation made the Health Care Summit Come Alive

Amy Sample Ward's picture

"Last week, we put together Sunlight.Live, a site that helped thousands of people follow the White House's health care summit, alongside real-time data on the members of Congress who were in the crowd," explains Gabriela Schneider, Communications Director at Sunlight Foundation. "I think there may be a lot of translatable material - even for issues far outside politics, or events that aren't live - as implementation process and necessary technology would (or could) be the same for a large number of other uses."

The following guest post by Jake Brewer, Engagement Director at Sunlight Foundation, was originally posted on the Sunlight blog here.

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During the bipartisan health care summit last Thursday, Feb 25, Sunlight tried something new by connecting a live political event to the government data and information we work to make more accessible every day. The hope here was to give real-time context to statements made by public officials using data, and let the numbers do a little more of the talking than just the politicians.

Dubbed “Sunlight Live,” our coverage of the joint Republican and Democratic event far exceeded our expectations, thanks to all of you.

These are a couple of notable stats that we think thoroughly debunk the notion that the public is disinterested in un-biased data-centric coverage of politics: 

- 42,954 of us watched the debate on Sunlight Live.

- 9,816 of us participated in Sunlight Live through our live blog, leaving several thousand comments or questions, 698 of which were ultimately displayed live.

- 1,364 tweets were sent out linking to Sunlightfoundation.com/live (or bit.ly/HCRLive), reaching a fuzzy estimate of 2.5 million people based on the number of followers those tweeters have.

…and in friendly-competitive comparison, just over 1,100 tweets were sent linking to WhiteHouse.gov/live.

- Over 2,000 people were active at any given time on the site during the last 4 hours of Sunlight Live coverage, with a high of 2,397 at 3:30 p.m.

- 2,826 replayed the live blog and all of the facts our team pulled throughout the event in the 24 hours AFTER the summit had concluded.

At the least, we hope these numbers demonstrate three things:

1) There is a demand for data-centric, unbiased coverage when it comes to understanding what is going on in our government.

2) Live coverage that challenges, or is even preferred to, that of major news networks can come from just about anywhere -even with relatively minimal development, production and promotion. (Or, in other words, a nonprofit can take on this type of thing with just about any issue – political or otherwise – and be successful.)

3) More and better government data must be made available so that government leaders can be held accountable in real-time as events unfold using platforms like Sunlight Live (or anything new we can create together).

As is part of our mission, this post is intended to share what was required to pull off Sunlight Live so that it can be improved upon with your feedback, and also be a starting point to figure out how to replicate Sunlight Live in a way that requires fewer resources so that it can be used as a model across the country for anyone to adopt openly.

Here’s what it took…

TECHNOLOGY and DEVELOPMENT

Putting together everything required for Sunlight live on the technical end wasn’t necessarily difficult, and almost all of it was done with publicly available tech, but clearly, the project did take the time and energy of several people to figure out. These are the primary components.

  • Video: The first, and perhaps most important, aspect of covering a live event as we did was access to a live, embeddable video feed (in other words, we needed the same type of HTML code included with any YouTube video to embed in our site). For the first time during the health care summit, the White House made the video feed publicly available for any blogger or organization to embed on their website, and we were able to take advantage of that. And we weren’t the only ones, as the White House has since reported that there were 3.9 million streams of the debate on Thursday. Thankfully after the success of the summit’s feed, every indication is that the White House will provide embed code for all events they host in the future. We hope a partner such as C-SPAN will start to do the same for Congress.
  • Hosting: Determining how to handle a deluge of incoming traffic was important to do well before the event started. We weren’t actually sure if we would get a lot of traffic, but we wanted to be prepared if we did. The day before we conducted the event, our tech team prepped our servers to host as many as 4,000 people at any given time on our sites. Ultimately, Sunlight Live had incoming links from such high-traffic sites as Huffington Post’s homepage, the New York Times blog, Andrew Sullivan’s blog at the Atlantic, Fivethirtyeight.com and others, so the forethought to prepare the infrastructure paid off. In our case last week, oddly enough, a totally unrelated post to Sunlight Live got linked on the homepage of Engadget on the same day, and the servers still held up with that extra load too. Creating that kind of capacity takes technical expertise, but doesn’t necessarily have to be that expensive. The “box” that we used for hosting costs less than $200/month. Getting a Tim Ball, however, can be a harder challenge.
  • Publicly available and customized widgets: Other than the video box, we hosted three other widgets that made the Sunlight Live site the interactive page that it was. The first was a custom built widget that provided data from OpenSecrets, illuminating campaign contributions to those who spoke during the debate. Given our survey responses, the campaign finance data was undoubtedly the most unique part of what we were able to do. The second widget was a tweet stream widget (of which there are dozens that are free and easy to implement, and just about any will do), and the third was a live blog module that is also open for public use. We chose CoverItLive as our live blog module because of past experience with it, and its ability to serve multiple contributors and a large number of participants and commenters.  In fact, the only time we’ve seen CoverItLive go down is when hundreds of blogs use it simultaneously during announcements by Steve Jobs for Apple. We know people care a lot about health care… but they don’t care as much as they do about the iPad.
  • Design: Designing something as simple and useful as Sunlight Live takes time and talent – it’s not just as easy as “throwing up” a page. Having someone pay attention to the size and position of the various components of a multi-use webpage is important both to functionality of the initiative as well as to making it as engaging as possible. The simple “4 box” set up for Sunlight Live made it relatively easy for people to see what was going on in a variety of ways and participate with it, and is also something we expect to be continuously tweaked.

In the future, we will  be able to provide different widgets to the public that display varying types of government information, similar to the campaign contributions “box” that was  displayed next to the video feed throughout the health care summit.

REPORTING and RESEARCH

  • Scheduling: In the case of the health care summit, a critical component to covering it successfully was that we knew the event was happening about a week beforehand, and we were given a list of attendees that was regularly and publicly updated. Because we knew what was coming, we were able to operationalize a game plan that would have been nearly impossible on a shorter term basis. That is to say, when attendees such as Rep. Marsha Blackburn 0r Sen. Max Baucus RSVP’d for the summit, we were able to begin research on them well-prior to the debate – using both past Sunlight research and new external sources – and the time made available for that research was incredibly important.
  • Research: For the health care summit, the sheer amount research into the background of attendees, health care laws and regulations, and much more can’t be underestimated as it fed our coverage throughout the 7+ hour event. In the case of our live blog coverage in particular, Sunlight Live used 6 full time reporters for the better part of three days to conduct research necessary for accurate coverage, and then those 6 spent several hours on the day of the summit responding in real-time as the event unfolded. If we as open government advocates do our job, a certain amount of this research can be automated in the future, but in general, any live event will require significant research. Our editorial director, Bill Allison, will post something in the next few days more fully describing our research methodology.
  • Visualizations: One of the elements that we prepared for before the debate, and spent a good bit of time creating during the debate (or trying to create in some cases), was real-time visualizations of what was happening during the summit. Visualizations can be an odd beast, because on the one hand, they are absolutely about engaging viewers in the event/content by making the data more beautiful and compelling. They may not, at first glance, seem to be part of “research.” In order to produce a useful, accurate visualization of data, however, you need visualization tools, design talent and exceptional research into the right data, and that’s why I’m putting it here. One piece our designer Kerry Mitchell created on the fly was a network graph reflecting the contribution connections of Senator Chuck Grassley (above). A few others we made were these TweetGraphs and Word Clouds created using freely available services StreamGraph and Wordle, as transcripts of certain sections of the debate were released.One of the things that we worked on, but weren’t able to complete in time, was an interactive seating chart with photos and basic information of all of the government officials that were at the debate – based on a .pdf seating chart provided by Politico. Another example was staff and contributor connections between various speakers at the summit in the order that debaters spoke. Ultimately, many of our ideas weren’t doable in time to be useful during the health care summit, but we expect to be able to do so in the future – especially as we are able to better engage the open government community around what should be visualized, and around the collection of data necessary to create visualizations.

PUBLIC ENGAGEMENT

  • Email: On the morning of the debate, we sent an email to all of those that have supported Sunlight in some way in the past, numbering in the tens of thousands. Of those who received an email, roughly 33% opened it and just under 6% of the recipients clicked through to the page before noon. As simple a step as sending an email is, both the timing of the email and the connectedness of the people who received it, was an important piece that drove early buzz around the project and helped it to get picked up by others.
  • Bloggers and journalists: In addition to citizen outreach, we sent a media advisory to the various members of the press that we are regularly in touch with, and similarly reached out to individual bloggers to let them know what we were doing. The aim here was less to get them to cover our work, but rather to be a resource to writers as they tried to cover the summit. In this case, by becoming a resource, we also became something that writers linked to and wrote about themselves, such as pieces written by Ari Melber or Jason Lenkins. Two of the first were the New York Times’ Prescriptions blog and Time Magazine’s “Swampland” blog, which helped to give credibility to what we were up to. The blogs that drove the most traffic were Huffington Post, New York Times, Daily Kos and Andrew Sullivan’s on The Atlantic.
  • Twitter: As noted in the statistics at the beginning of this post, the Sunlight team used both our organizational and personal Twitter accounts – which reach approximately 50,000 followers in total – as a primary means of spreading the word about what we were doing with Sunlight Live. Once the initial word was put forward, we relied on individuals who liked what we were doing (not knowing ahead of time that they would, in fact, like it) to share it both on Twitter and Facebook. In total 1,364 people tweeted the direct link to Sunlight Live, including such high profile online personalities as Tim O’Reilly (@timoreilly) and Erin Kotecki Vest (@queenofspain), as well as a slew of journalists such as ABC’s White House correspondent Jake Tapper. Additionally, Twitter served as one of the best tools for conversation with those watching the event.

MANAGEMENT and MONITORING

Keeping everything running and in order required both personnel and some technical tools. In our case we had one engagement director (me, in this cast) to keep everything organized internally and with our outreach. As our toolset, we primarily used Chartbeat, Twitter, and Google Analytics to keep track of what was going well and what wasn’t.

  • Chartbeat: If you do not use Chartbeat for your websites, go get it right now. It is inexpensive and invaluable. It’s perhaps one of the most useful tools I’ve ever used – especially in conjunction with Twitter, which Chartbeat feeds right into its reporting mechanism. In one instance, we lost about 300 viewers all at once because the video feed from the White House went down. As soon as the feed broke, we were able to communicate with those that were starting to leave and reassure them that nothing had broken on our end, and we would be back up shortly. We quickly returned to our original numbers. Similarly as new blogs linked to us, we could see where our participants were coming from and engage with them accordingly. And of course, like any organization trying to demonstrate their effectiveness, Chartbeat helped us to first and foremost see in real-time if the service we were providing was was actually working for folks. After the fact, Chartbeat has already been instrumental in helping us evaluate ourselves and been something we can point to that shows Sunlight Live’s effectiveness to donors, board members and potential partners.
  • Twitter: Filtered properly using a third party client like Tweetdeck, Twitter was/is undoubtedly one of the best ways to monitor conversation, engage with participants, respond to problems or criticisms and generally keep a finger on the pulse of what’s going on during a live event. Throughout the day, we were able to send thank you’s to public endorsers of Sunlight Live, and in several instances, those people actually sent a second note about our coverage and got more deeply engaged when they knew we saw them. Overall, in the case of the health care summit and Sunlight Live, Twitter helped us monitor and connect with incoming blog links (supplementing Chartbeat), participate in the broader health care conversation (beyond anything that we were facilitating) and reach out to those who wanted to engage directly with our team. Any organization, blogger, journalist or citizen out there who has not figured out how to filter and harness Twitter while covering a live event – or may perhaps still be resistant to Twitter as this type of tool – needs to get with it. [UPDATE: Another great, and mostly unknown, tool that we used was Back Tweets, which allowed us to more easily quantify the number of folks tweeting about us.]
  • Google Analytics: If Chartbeat was a critical component in monitoring the real-time effectiveness of Sunlight Live, then Analytics is a core piece of understanding overall effectiveness.  As a tool, Analytics shows numbers over time, and in aggregate, in a way that Chartbeat doesn’t. For instance, if Chartbeat tells you that the New York Times is linking to you and that there are 50 people currently on your site who came from that destination, Analytics will tell you how many people came from NYT over the entire day. Most organizations have moved to Google Analytics at this point already, so its merits go without saying, but having someone (or multiple people) that know how to analyze and use the data that Analytics provides is crucial to a successful live-coverage event.

Breaking down 7+ hours of coverage into 30 seconds, this video is something we put together with a stop-motion camera set up in the corner of our “war room.” It’s cheap and dirty and something that just about any organization or group can do. Great for following up with donors or supporters who love seeing their support in action. It’s kinda captivating actually. If you really want to have some “fun” (read: “geek out”), watch it frame by frame. I particularly like watching Tweetdeck and Chartbeat continuously pop up on my screen, which is the one that’s most easily visible on the left side of the table, as it shows just how useful that was for sifting and sorting conversation.

There are many ways to improve on covering an event like the health care summit – and we hope there are a lot of lessons here for any nonprofit or advocacy group, no matter what issue comes up. Already we are looking to opportunities to hone the Sunlight Live model in the next few months. Of great importance to us in the immediate-term is your feedback and ideas, so it means a lot to us to hear from you in the comments, or in this short survey if you joined us last week.

Some of the things you can undoubtedly expect from us before too long because of last week’s experiment with Sunlight Live are more embeddable widgets that will allow anyone to pull data about members of government in real-time from the databases Sunlight is creating, and more contextualizing of data with the political events of the day. Another idea that came to us through the feedback form is to host a “post game report” of sorts on the following day, to break down everything that happened as highlights, and connect additional government data to those high points.