The homepage of LittleSis proclaims it the opposite of Big Brother, “a free database of who-knows-who at the heights of business and government.” Its creators call it an involuntary Facebook for powerful people. It is a collaborative open-content database started by thePublic Accountability Initiative, a research non-profit focused on government and corporate accountability, and it has just launched a new research project in solidarity with Occupy Wall Street called the One Percent Watch. This project is intended to compile a list of government officials who lavish money on big banks and corporations and then demand austerity for everyone else.
Matthew Skomarovsky, co-founder of PAI, says that while the notion of inequality is finally becoming part of the national and international discourse, the concept of the one percent can often remain vague. It is “a great metaphor for describing the position of powerlessness that people feel,” he says, “but if you’re just drawing the line at people who earn a specific amount of money, there are people who don’t make that much who have just as much power.” The One Percent database aims to fill in an abstract concept with faces and names by “lay[ing] the facts out there simply.”
LittleSis, started in 2009, uses a wiki format that allows citizen watchdogs to add information anywhere in the site, as long as they follow stringent rules for source-citing. Though all the data on the site is publicly available, LittleSis’s mission is to consolidate and clarify. The site allows users to search various categories of powerful people, ranging from the Congressional Budget Office to the Skull and Bones society (a secret society at Yale University that counts several US presidents among its alumni). The One Percent Watch list is the latest. Once you select an individual’s profile, you have access to their various roles in government and business, lobbying groups and think tanks, secretive PACs and front groups, as well as links to friends, family, elite universities and media connections. And of course there’s the money flow: who they donate to, who their money comes from. Journalists, activists and curious citizens alike will be able to search the list and locate, let’s say, Pete Peterson. Who is he? The billionaire co-founder of the Blackstone group, former Lehman Brothers chair, and former commerce secretary under Nixon, who spends hundreds of millions a year advocating for fiscal austerity through various foundations and think tanks.
Fellow PAI co-founder Kevin Connor says this project, though it is still in its preliminary stages, will eventually also involve several areas of strategic information for the growing movement. LittleSis is planning to develop a calendar of Wall Street fundraisers and conferences in the city so that protesters can locate and target specific members of the elite. Generalized rage at Wall Street hegemony is absolutely essential, but this tool, Connor says, can “help the 99 percent get in touch with the one percent.”
LittleSis is not a new idea. There are other similar online databases: NNDB, Source Watchand Muckety, but while NNDB and Muckety data is compiled by an inner team, Source Watch and LittleSis are open source. Source Watch is more narrative, whereas LittleSis looks into the properties of the networks themselves, providing a structure where users themselves can “discover new insights and make connections over several degrees that might take tons of work to compile yourself,” Skomarovsky says. So Peterson’s page, for instance, shows his government and business positions, his memberships, education, holdings, and donations. In addition, it also shows all the other people who are associated with the organizations in his profile. And finally, it shows other donors who’ve given money to the same recipients as Peterson. It’s not visual, like Muckety, with its interactive map graphics, but it is a mine of data for muckrakers looking for institutional connections.
While Connor and Skomarovsky say it’s hard to track exactly who has used LittleSis data and for what, the LittleSis team runs an investigative blog that they say models the ways in which the data mined from their site can be utilized. An April 2011 entry about tax day revealed that for the six banks that they profiled, half of their foreign subsidiaries were located in tax haven jurisdictions. Bank of America was one of the banks in the blog post. Snarkily, the writers say, “It may help that Bank of America director Charles O. Rossotti is a former IRS commissioner.”
LittleSis and the One Percent Watch fit perfectly into the DIY democracy moment of Occupy Wall Street. One hopes that open-access digital transparency and networking tools such as LittleSis, Wikileaks, Twitter, and Livestream will usher in a new era and give voice to the 99 percent.