New grant to help Stanford journalism students track political money flow

Jay Hamilton

Tracking the flow of money in political campaigns has never been easy. But thanks to a new project in Stanford’s Computational Journalism Lab, it may get easier – and make the world of political money more transparent to ordinary citizens.

This vision originates in the California Civic Data Coalition, a collaboration between Stanford, the Los Angeles Times, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the San Francisco Chronicle.

On July 22, the Knight Foundation awarded the coalition a $250,000 grant for winning its annual Knight News Challenge. The theme of the 2015 Knight News Challenge was elections.

JAY HAMILTON, a professor of communication and director of Stanford’s journalism program, said, “This support for the California Civic Data Coalition project will enable Stanford students to gain experience in turning public data into a more accessible public resource, through their work on both the programming side and the storytelling process.”

The funding will help the California Civic Data Coalition hire a full-time developer through the 2016 election, employ Stanford students for research work and hold a series of “code sprints,” or get-togethers for those involved in the project.

As Hamilton described it, the coalition aims to make California’s state political money database more accessible to journalists and researchers. It won the grant for this “improved access” approach to otherwise murky data – and was one of more than 1,000 projects entered in this year’s Knight news contest.

He said the main focus will be refining data drawn from Cal-Access, which he described as the “jumbled, dirty and difficult government database” that tracks campaign finance and lobbying activity in California politics.

CHERYL PHILLIPS, a lecturer in the Department of Communication and a founding leader of the Stanford Computational Journalism Lab, said, “The effort will make a difference in campaign coverage and will provide an opportunity for our students to be involved with cutting-edge data journalism efforts – both with programming challenges and analysis for stories with impact.”

The Stanford Computational Journalism Lab gives students the tools to tell data-centric stories and make them meaningful to the public. The lab plans to launch a website and switch into “high gear” in September, according to Hamilton and Phillips.