What is the State of the Union Address Really About?

The State of the Union Address has been an American tradition since 1790.  The President of the United States addresses Congress, reports the current condition of the country, and also presents legislative plans.  But, does the content of speeches change over time?  To examine this question, DASIL staff downloaded the full text of every State of the Union Address, and I used NVivo to analyze them.

Some topics have been more pressing in recent times—like terrorism.

Graph of Mentions of Terrorism in State of the Union Addresses

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Federal Election Commission Data Forecast: Occasional Clouds

About a century ago, Louis Brandeis – before taking a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court – gave his oft-quoted recipe for transparency: “Sunlight is said to the best of disinfectants.” Regulation of campaign finance taps into that principle when it mandates disclosure – reporting – to the Federal Election Commission (FEC).

Political committees – like parties, candidates and PACs – have to detail receipts and disbursements in regular reports filed with the FEC, a provision of the regulatory framework that policy makers seem to have gotten right. The data generated, analyzed by legions of scholars, are key for tracking the influence of money in politics. The picture that emerges for those traditional political players may not be pretty, but at least it’s a picture.

Newly active “dark money” organizations, backed by deep pockets, evade FEC disclosure requirements. Hence, the “dark” tag. But disclosure may even be a little shaky for the old-school organizations that report to the FEC. Research by Grinnell College juniors Becca Heller and Emma Lange reveals that the sun may not shine as brightly as it should.

Becca’s and Emma’s Fall 2014 Mentored Advanced Project research examined the Court’s recent decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. Like others, they were intrigued by the impact of the abolition of aggregate contribution limits, which had been in place for decades. Though the jury is still out on McCutcheon’s impact, Becca and Emma identified some data quality issues in the course of their research. They can tell you the rest.

We noticed several irregularities, some possibly due to human error in data entry. Whether the donor, the committee or the FEC were responsible, there were a variety of typos, misspellings and variations in names and occupations in the records. This is more problematic than it might seem, since compiling an individual donor’s history requires matching information. These minor errors also make us wonder whether there are inaccuracies in stated donations amounts.

To get a donor’s history, we relied on the donor look-up function of the FEC website. Beyond those typo-related issues, we saw other lapses in reporting. For example, many donors who gave at the $2,600 maximum in the Iowa US Senate contest did not show up in the donor look-up, while their records were included in the campaign’s own disclosure reports.

Occasionally we also saw evidence of apparent illegal donations to candidates, going beyond the $2,600 limit. In time these dollars might be returned to the donor, with a FEC paper trail documenting it. But while we were looking, the data suggested that some donors had given beyond the legal limit.

In one case – an important one for our research – we couldn’t get to the necessary data because of FEC time lags. Data updates for many committees happen quickly, almost instantaneous upon submission, with one notable exception: reports from Senate campaigns, which are exempt from mandatory electronic disclosure. No, it doesn’t make sense, and the most recent correction attempt never made it out of committee. But it means that updated data are not always available in a timely fashion.

We didn’t run into the senate campaign data problem, since the candidates we focused on filed electronically. However, we did have a time-lag problem with Joint Fundraising Committees (JFCs), a rather obscure fundraising vehicle, but one hypothesized to become more important in the post-McCutcheon era. The JFC data were not available after the November election, and the FEC – when we inquired on the phone – said that it couldn’t even project how long it would take to process the large volume of 2014 JFC reports.

These various campaign finance data problems surprised us. Academics and journalists fail to mention irregularities, though possibly they only emerge when looking at the granular level, as our research did. Maybe there’s an implicit judgment that the problem is minimal, especially against the backdrop of millions of data points. Or maybe everyone just acknowledges that collecting data is a human enterprise, subject to error.

The political significance of these data problems could cut either way. A disclosure system without sufficient transparency might be lacking as a disinfectant. Yet possibly the threat of transparency – as opposed to the reality of it – is the important factor for democracy.

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Geovisualizing the Ebola Crisis

Media coverage of the Ebola virus outbreak has thus far represented a geospatial and cartographic moment.  Mapping of the outbreak and geovisualization of its different facets is doing much to frame public understanding of the crisis as well as the policies that are attempting to address it.

Population flow measured by mobile phones from Worldpop.org.uk/Flowminder

One the one hand, the widespread use of geovisualizations to report on the Ebola epidemic reflects the high density of information that maps provide.  This has only been increased by the swift integration of traditional cartography with animated graphics and other web-based media to create ever more visually appealing infographics that have a geographic twist.

Geovisualizations demonstrate the importance of place and scale—two fundamental aspects of geography—to the Ebola epidemic.  Maps of the worldwide locations of where infected patients are staying, the locations of medical centers equipped to handle Ebola are located, not to mention the geographic concentrations of new cases give readers a place-based sense of either unease or hope.  Maps of Ebola-related travel restrictions tell us how national governments are responding to the ongoing risk of spread.

But West Africa remains the epicenter of this Ebola outbreak and the region is already suffering a tremendous human and economic toll from the virus.  Using geospatial approaches to understand patterns of human mobility will is playing a central role in efforts to prevent the outbreak from reaching even greater proportions.  One of the best examples of this is work done by researchers associated with the Flowminder Foundation which reveals at an unprecedented level of detail the movements of people in and around the parts of West Africa with the highest concentrations of Ebola cases.  What made this work possible was the use of cell phone records, which are proprietary to the providing telecom companies and sensitive information for the phone users themselves.  Given the growing need for this type of spatial epidemiology to address fast breaking and complex emergencies like the Ebola outbreak, we can expect that norms around data availability and use to change quickly and in unexpected ways.

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Ad Buys: FCC Data and (Partial) Transparency

Data about political advertising historically have been difficult to access, though recently the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) began implementing new disclosure requirements for TV stations.


FCC data allow for the examination of campaign spending in the Iowa Senate race. More about these graphs below.

Who advertises and how much they spend intrigues political observers, not to mention campaign competitors.  Intrigue aside, this information is important for a democratic system aspiring to offer candidates equal access to paid broadcast media – and to put some stops on the ability of the broadcasters to pad their own pockets.

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