Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight Foundation

Do you care about improving local government and using data to inform local decision-making? Are you passionate about open data and government transparency? Do you have an interest in civic technology? We at the Sunlight Foundation have a summer internship program that’s specifically catered to Harvard IOP students, particularly those with an interest in open government, civic tech, and city government. 

Sunlight’s Open Cities team is currently engaged in a program focused on the use of data and evidence in public decision-making in US city halls. This program, the What Works Cities Initiative, involves Sunlight’s support of dozens of mid-sized U.S. cities in their efforts to become more transparent and accountable by:

• creating policies about open data,

• engaging residents in policy drafting, and

• facilitating community use of open data.

Harvard IOP summer interns will have the opportunity to work on projects that will be meaningful—not only to Sunlight but also to city governments looking to improve their democratic practice with open data.

Project focus areas

We envision the day-to-day work of your internship focusing on some combination of research, writing, and, depending on the intern’s skills, web/tech tool development and statistical analysis. Here are some examples of projects previous Sunlight interns and fellows have worked on:

• Analyzing public comments on draft policies about open data, including scraping websites to get the comments.

• Administering and recommending changes to the US Cities Open Data Census.

• Researching open data practice in the context of local school districts and education data.

• Analyzing the increasing rate of adoption of our Open Data Policy Guidelines by cities around the country.

• Creating a website with visualizations to show the potential of open data standards.

• Researching peer-to-peer relationships between city governments, including interviewing city officials around the country.

• Determining the most popular open datasets nationwide by analyzing open data portals.

Opportunities with a focus on research

In our work partnering with cities, we’re trying to show them how embracing open data can  have an impact on specific issues, rather than just being good for its own sake. To that end, we’re looking to produce research on those impacts, including examples of policies and use cases for open data. Such research could include reading news articles, reviewing academic literature, analyzing data, and interviewing city officials and community members. You would be expected to write about your findings, and potentially visualize some of the information. (We can teach you about information visualization and help tailor your writing style to an audience of government officials.)

Opportunities with a technical focus

Our team also works on projects that utilize web tools and resources as well as statistical analysis to help advance open data in local governments. You could have the chance to contribute to that work. Examples of recent projects include our website featuring all the local and state open-data policies in the country, research using data to analyze open data policy impact, research analyzing the most popular open datasets, and our open-data policy wizard web tool.

Experience with any of the following is a bonus but not required: web/software development, JavaScript, HTML, CSS, web/interface design, user-experience research, Git/GitHub, Jekyll/GitHub Pages, mapping, and data visualization. If you’ve never worked on web tools before, that’s okay — as long as you have decent technical aptitude and an eagerness to learn!


The two focus areas listed above are not a binary. You are welcome to work with our team to design a project that involves a mix of both.

2016 Intern Reflection:

True to its name and mission, the Sunlight Foundation ensures that interns are welcomed into all aspect of its work. Every intern has the opportunity to collaborate on projects, do the work which interests him or her, and pursue the leads which he or she finds most interesting.

Without exception, all staff here has been more than happy to engage with the interns and talk about the work they invest in to make government more transparent and accountable. In my case, I've been working on a project connected to transparency in superPAC donations, specifically contributions coming from shell corporations or other nontransparent entities, like 501c(4) groups. In an election year, it's especially interesting to learn more about the superPAC world, and to investigate some of its darker corners. I have also contributed to a separate effort to create a website containing different municipal data policies, as a means of helping other cities in their efforts to open up their data, and as an example itself of open legislation.

Since Sunlight's work is broad in its scope, an intern here has the opportunity to contribute to projects which differ in domain and type. These include collaborations connected to the federal, state, and municipal policy spheres, all containing their own challenges. Moreover, interns can work with groups like the policy, communications, and labs teams. Each of these teams does different kinds of work, ranging from writing blog posts to researching policy questions or programming a new app. In my case, I was happily surprised to find myself doing a lot of coding in order to do my work, which was a fun opportunity to bridge the tech/policy divide in a place which specializes in doing just that. That being said, Sunlight is a place with opportunities for any intern regardless of technical background or ability.

Gabriel Karger '17

2015 Intern Reflection:

I've been told that being an intern at some places can be an uncomfortable series of awkward interactions with co-workers furrowing their brows to try and place your name, listless days of mindlessly searching the web waiting for a task to appear in your inbox, and the unpleasant creeping reality that you are not being that helpful. Fortunately, that does not describe my experience at the Sunlight Foundation -- not in the least. Upon arriving at Sunlight, the entire staff, not just the policy team that I am on, welcomed me with introductory emails, warm smiles, and donuts in the kitchen. Although the organization strives to improve transparency and open data, a very serious task, it possesses a friendly, relaxed culture, more akin to tech startups. Instead of cubicles, people work in large open rooms and are constantly walking into a different part of the office to ask a question, chat, or collaborate. At lunch, people sit around the table in the kitchen trying to crowdsource crossword solutions, read advice blogs, or debate a new restaurant or recent concert -- it should be noted that the staff are total foodies and huge music fans. Despite the easy-going nature of the staff and office environment, people care deeply about their work and Sunlight's overall mission, are remarkably knowledgeable about their area of expertise, and happily put up with numerous ignorant questions from interns, especially those technical, code-related ones. I've learned about a variety of topics beyond transparency due to the helpful, collaborative nature of the staff. It is such a pleasure to work with intelligent, savvy, and diligent co-workers who also take the time to give you restaurant recommendations.  

Sunlight's policy team works on the municipal, state, federal, and international level, and my internship has incorporated all of these aspects of the department. Since Sunlight prioritizes giving interns the flexibility to craft a uniquely engaging experience, I've been able to transition between policy and reporting -- writing blog posts about topics such as Congressional developments on government contractor disclosure and presidential candidates' campaign funding. I've helped craft model legislative language about open data requirements and campaign finance reform at the state-wide level, researched the variety of methods used by U.S. individuals and corporations in an attempt to influence international politics, and investigated Congressional Research Service. I have the pleasure of aggregating and curating a variety of news articles that I email out to the open government community. I also have assisted with an effort to reform the federal government's open data policies and examined the E-Government Act. With the support of the Sunlight Foundation staff, I've been able to explore any topic that has piqued my curiosity.

The Sunlight Foundation continues to provide high-quality tools and insight into government activity because of its dedicated staff who envision and demand an accountable, transparent political world. It has been fantastic to contribute to that goal.

Jonah Hanh '17

Washington, D.C.
Advocacy/Policy, Technology, Research