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Two Apps Now in Development Hope to Expose the People Behind Political TV Ads

BY Sarah Lai Stirland | Thursday, July 19 2012

Two new projects launching in summer or early fall seek to arm smart-phone-owning voters with new tools to navigate what is expected to be a $9.8 billion assault on their perception of reality.

One is a mobile app from developer Bob Lannon and the Sunlight Foundation* called "Ad Hawk." The other, "Super PAC App," is from two graduate school students who came up with the idea in a MIT class that tasks students to come up with apps in a world that assumes that all television will be social — upending the one-way nature of broadcast TV that's contributed to negative political television advertising's success.

The idea behind both the apps is to enable users to hold their phones up to their televisions, and to use audio-fingerprinting technology to identify the ads. The apps should then be able to instantly pull up information about who really paid for each ad. While ads have to be signed by the group that bought their airtime, many of those groups have names that are so comically vague as to now be the stuff of legend. Meanwhile, political groups are the anodyne faces of a small network of people with a lot of money to spend on pet political causes and do so with limited rules about how much they have to disclose about themselves. These applications would, in theory, help level the playing field for the outgunned viewer.

"In a way it’s almost like augmented reality," said Tom Lee, director of Sunlight Labs. "It’s trying to annotate an experience with information that they ought to have to fully understand what they’re seeing and hearing."

Lee said Sunlight's app will probably launch sometime in the late summer. The group is still working to pull all the information together and "polish" the app, which will be available on both iOS6 and Android. The goal is to identify all kinds of political advertisements, not just those from super PACs.

The "Super PAC" app is scheduled to launch at the end of August to coincide with the Republican National Convention, that project's two co-founders, Jennifer Hollett and Dan Siegel, said in an interview.

"What we hope is that this app is going to reach below the upper-crust politicos who are already inclined to dig up this information on their own," Siegel said. "We are hoping that this will reach a user base who finds it curious that every single commercial from August onwards is a political one, but doesn't really care to sign up for three hours of homework every night to Google stuff."

That app will be limited to ads for and against the presidential candidates and will include ads from all kinds of groups beyond Super PACs, despite its name.

The duo came up with the idea in a class at MIT taught by Henry Holtzman and Marie-José Montpetit. Siegel just graduated with an MBA from MIT's Sloan School of Management. Hollett just graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School with an MPA. She's a former television reporter for CBC in Canada, and has more than a decade of experience in that business. Her last job for CBC was covering social media.

After discussing their school project idea with another reporter, they realized that they had a viable project, landed funding from the Knight Foundation, and hired Bob Caslin, an independent developer, to create the application. Hollett and Siegel say that they're partnering with TuneSat to enable the audio fingerprinting.

After identifying the ad, the app will take users to a "snapshot" screen that explains who is behind the ad, the name of the commercial, how much the groups have raised and spent to support or oppose a candidate or issue, and the ad's claims. Users will have an opportunity to rate the ad and also see what peers thought of it. They will also be able to research the central claims and narrative in the ad by clicking on "claims." That will take users through to linked articles in non-partisan media outlets about the subject matter.

To create the database of ads, the Super PAC App will use a web crawler to check video sites such as YouTube as organizations upload new television ads, but the effort will also rely on help from a network of political reporters and the reporting efforts of the two founders themselves.

Ad Hawk will similarly look to the YouTube channels of advertising groups to create its database, and it will also rely on its own reporting efforts.

What is unclear is whether both projects will be able to keep up with the volume of ads that come out. The creators of both projects acknowledge that there will be a high level of data entry to begin with to keep track of all the ads, to find out who's behind them, and then to find relevant articles, in Hollett and Siegel's case, to link to the ads.

“Sunlight has always invested in speculative interfaces to political information," Sunlight's Lee said. "We really want to be there pushing the envelope, seeing what kind of experimental approaches will work, so there’s no guarantee of success, but we think this will be a pretty good way to connect people to the information about who’s trying to influence them.”

* Personal Democracy Media co-founders Micah Sifry and Andrew Rasiej are senior advisers to the Sunlight Foundation.