A few months ago I was reading an article on TechCrunch about a group of Congressmen that had penned a letter to President Obama in support of the AT&T/T-Mobile merger. Shortly after the article was published, a reader contacted the author noting that one of the Representatives had received over $25,000 from AT&T over the course of his career. Almost immediately the comments erupted with cries of corruption, with one user going so far as to say that “Our Congress is bought and sold by lobbyists.” Of course, this outcry never would have happened had no one taken the time to go and lookup the campaign contribution information. This made me realize that in order for campaign finance information to be useful, it has to be more easily accessible. As long as users have to navigate away from their current task and lookup each officials’ record by hand, the data will go unused by most.With this in mind, for my final project I developed a Chrome extension called Access Influence, with the goal of making campaign contribution data more readily available. Whenever a user is on a website that references a senator by name, a green $ notification appears at the right hand edge of the Omnibox. Clicking this notification results in a popup window containing the names and affiliations of all senators present on the page along with links to their “Top 20 Contributors” pages on OpenSecrets.org.
With this extension installed, the barrier to entry for accessing this data is significantly lowered. Still, the angry comments on TechCrunch left me wondering: what affect will the increased access to this information have on users’ perceptions of Congress? To explore this question I created a brief survey in which participants read two articles and answered a few questions. For Article A, participants were permitted to use the extension to research donation histories of the relevant officials, while for Article B they were asked not to. Participants were split into two groups, with one reading Article A first, and the other starting with Article B. The survey was conducted with 20 total participants, 10 in each test group. A few interesting results emerged.
First, it is important to note that among those surveyed, perceptions of congressional-corporate interactions weren’t terribly high to start with. At the start of the survey, participants from both test groups were asked how, in general, they felt about the way that Congress interacts with corporations. Responses fell on a five point scale, with ‘1’ being “strongly disapprove” and ‘5’ being “strongly approve.” The average across both test groups was a mere 2.6, between “neutral” and “disapprove.” After having read both articles and using the extension to research the officials mentioned in Article A, the participants were asked the same question at the conclusion of the survey. By the end of the survey, the average had fallen to 1.7. The distribution of responses are shown in the graph below.
As interesting as these results are, it is important to remember that they could change with a larger, more diverse pool of participants, or a different set of articles. One thing that does seem clear, however, is that there is some level of interest in the functionality provided by the extension; 17 of the 20 participants indicated that they would be interested in using the extension in the future.
This is just the first release of Access Influence. In the coming weeks I will be working to improve the search reliability and efficiency of the extension. I am also working to integrate the contribution data directly into the popup window, and I am experimenting with displaying the data graphically. You can download the initial release of the extension from the Chrome Web Store here. If you like what you see, please consider giving a donation to OpenSecrets.org.