Student app tracks political donations
Last spring four students, Tim Bauman ’13, Margaret Fortney ’13, Matt Dolan ’13 and Chris Kelly ’13, came together to create a website and iPhone app that would make companies’ political contributions more transparent called Buy Back Your Vote. They created the website for a project for COS 333: Advanced Programming Techniques last spring, a course taught by computer science professor Brian Kernighan. Kernighan assigned small groups to implement the coding languages they had learned earlier in the semester to design a larger project.
Their idea for Buy Back Your Vote came from a similar application they knew about called Boycott SOPA, an iPhone application that allowed people to scan a barcode and instantly see whether the product’s manufacturer supported the Stop Online Piracy Act.
“This allowed for people to boycott SOPA and not buy from companies that supported the act,” Bauman, a Wilson School concentrator, said.
Together, they thought about making a website with a similar function for other political causes.
“Over the past decade, the number of contributions to political campaigns has skyrocketed due to decreased regulation of contributions,” Bauman said. “If that’s going to happen, then it’s important that people know where the money is coming from.”
The website was mostly completed for the class, but the four students spent some time over the summer creating the iPhone application. Bauman explained that the process for creating the application was not simple, as the app had to meet strict regulations and requirements in order to be listed on iTunes. The first time the group submitted the application, they did not meet some of these and had to adjust the display of Buy Back Your Vote to gain approval.
Buy Back Your Vote combs data from the Federal Election Commission’s database and compiles it into a more accessible database. And while the FEC’s database only allows people to look up individual contributions, Buy Back Your Vote tracks the contributions back to that person’s company. The data in the application date back to 1980, when the FEC first started listing contributions.
“The big picture for this project was to increase transparency,” Fortney, a computer science concentrator, said. “All of this data is theoretically publicly accessible but up to this point, it hasn’t been easily understandable.”
Through the website and application, anyone can look up a particular company and view a list of all of its political contributions.
“These contributions include donations made directly to a campaign or through Super PACs that then spent the money on the campaign, through positive or negative advertising or things like that. It also includes donations made by employees over two hundred dollars,” Bauman said.
The main purpose of the application is to sort the large database from the FEC into data that are more easily accessible for individuals. Users can see contributions sorted by party or by individual politicians. In addition, users can learn which pieces of legislation companies publicly support.
Buy Back Your Vote also allows its users to sort the data by election.
“Let’s say you wanted to know how much Google contributed to the last California Senate election; you can find it,” Fortney explained.
Kernighan, who is also a columnist for The Daily Princetonian, said the course project that spawned the students’ app counts for about two-thirds of the course grade. He said he was impressed by their project and noted that the group got started well in advance of the deadline.
“It is a great piece of work,” Kernighan said. “It is a neat idea and extremely topical.”
The group said they currently do not have future plans for the application but plan to continue to update the app’s data and hope it will serve as a useful resource as the election nears.