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KBIA launches site guiding you through contributions, voting records

I had just walked off a cruise ship on a refreshing winter vacation, and was walking to the ship’s long-term parking lot in New Orleans. In a sun-soaked daze, I noticed a car with an official Missouri State Senate license plate, and chuckled. Small world.

About half hour after I was on the road, I realized the legislative session had just started. So this legislator was likely skipping work. I looked up the legislator’s plate number, and of course it was one of the most controversial members of the Senate at the time. Back in the office a few days later, I tried to track down information about the absence – the only place it was recorded was in a .pdf daily journal for the state house. The senator had asked for leave, but no one even recorded (or asked) why he would be absent. From what I could tell, no constituents of the senator in the St. Louis area even noticed he was gone. It shouldn’t take an off-duty reporter trolling New Orleans parking lots to notice something as simple as whether a legislator is even at the Capitol.

For almost a year now, KBIA and MU Informatics Institute have been working on http://www.accessmissouri.org/. It’s a portal for state government data that’s meant to finally connect the dots that are all just sitting out there waiting to be connected. And there’s much more out there than attendance records.

The state government is required to make all kinds of data public, which is key to transparency in modern government. But the problem is, this data is kept in all kinds of different places and formats. A very small percentage of the population knows where to go and what buttons to push to answer basic questions like, “how did my legislator vote?” or “how much money did they get from a certain special interest group – and is that actually a lot?” There’s a difference between transparency and accountability. Access Missouri hopes to help the latter be more achievable in Missouri. Here’s a look at the site:

Until we created Access Missouri, there was no way for a voter to find out comprehensive information about their legislator’s voting record. The information was stored away in a series of cumbersome .pdf documents that only a handful of journalists pour through on a daily basis. But thanks to data scraping, we’re now able to deliver that information to Missourians in one click.

Voting records are just one of many features. Profile pages for each legislator in the state also feature information allowing voters to see campaign contributions and other data that can help voters make an informed decision.

The site offers a window into the legislative process by displaying timelines of activity. For the first time, all this information will be displayed in one place and in logical ways instead of in silos across state government websites. We’re going to continue to add more advanced data visualizations to the site in the upcoming year. One example that’s already part of the site is an influence map that shows the connections that can be made between the main campaign funders for any candidate in the state.

This is also going to be a growing resource for journalists covering state government. A former statehouse reporter myself, I’m guiding the design of this site to answer the most important questions people have about state government, and allow discovery of stories by accumulating relevant data in one place. For example, if your legislator changes his vote on an important bill, with two more clicks you can see what major political contributions they received between those two votes. Soon we’ll add the ability to see what lobbyist gifts the legislator received, too.

The project funded by the MU Interdisciplinary Innovations Fund, and MU students have assisted in its conceptualization and creation. Props to journalism students Katarina Sostaric, Madeline O’Leary and Matt Kalish. And to Mike Phinney and Abhishek Shah, under the guidance of MU Informatics Institute Director Chi-Ren Shyu.

What you see on the site now was simply what we could get done before this November’s election. So please, check back in the future, too. And don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions, concerns or ideas about what you’d like to get out of the site.

Ryan served as the KBIA News Director from February 2011 to September 2023