Sunlight Foundation

Sunlight Foundation

The Sunlight Foundation is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that uses civic technologies, open data, policy analysis and journalism to make our government and politics more accountable and transparent to all. Harvard IOP interns will have the opportunity to work with either the Open Cities team or the Web Integrity Project, each described below. Applicants may express interest in either or both teams!  


Do you care about improving local government and using data to inform local decision-making? Are you passionate about open data and government transparency? Does civic technology interest you? Sunlight’s Open Cities team is currently working on several projects related to open data and open information in local government:

  • Community-centered approaches to open data: We are currently part of a multi-organization initiative, called What Works Cities, that focuses on data and the use of evidence in public decision-making in U.S. cities. As part of this, we’re piloting a new approach to help governments facilitate community use of open data using principles of user-centered design.
  • Open contracting: Procurement is a key activity of government that has a big impact on the quality of services delivered and their cost to the public. We are currently partnering with the Open Contracting Partnership to improve procurement transparency in U.S. cities.
  • Digital rights: Cities around the world are looking to adopt new “smart city” technology. How can we ensure that decision making around this technology puts residents first? Although we don’t yet have a large program in this area, we are in the early stages of work on this front, and one of last year’s fellows focused on this. There may or may not be opportunities in this area in 2019.

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

Project focus areas
We envision the day-to-day work of your fellowship focusing on some combination of policy research and analysis and possibly web/tech tool development, depending on your interests and background. Here’s what some past fellows have worked on:

  • Analyzing public comments on draft policies about open data, including scraping websites to get the comments
  • Analyzing the increasing rate of adoption of our Open Data Policy Guidelines by cities around the country
  • Determining the most popular open datasets nationwide
  • Researching peer-to-peer relationships between city governments, including interviewing city officials around the country
  • Analyzing the relationship between open data and the number of requests for public records that cities receive
  • Researching trends in “smart city” technology and developing recommendations for cities considering adopting such technology
  • Compiling a library of user personas that cities have used to describe users of open data, and crafting recommendations for others who want to do the same

Opportunities with a focus on policy research and analysis
We’re looking to analyze the impacts of open data, highlight interesting case studies, craft recommendations on best practices, and create reusable resources for city officials. Research methods could include reviewing academic literature, reading news articles, 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 has been embracing the ability of web tools and resources to help advance open data in local governments. You could have the chance to contribute to that work. One example is our website that serves as a one-stop shop for cities interested in writing open data policies. 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!

What are the potential roles and responsibilities of a Harvard IOP intern?

Responsibilities may include:

  • Analyzing changes to federal websites: You will help track and classify website changes flagged by our version tracking software. You will be responsible for monitoring a set of web domains on a weekly basis, and attend weekly meetings with our volunteer analysts to discuss important changes, emerging themes, and project updates.
  • Investigating changes to websites to understand their technical components and significance
  • Researching and writing memos about policies related to important changes we see to understand how the changes we see on federal websites
  • Writing and reviewing our technical reports about important changes
  • Helping to source our reports to reporters through outreach

2019 Intern Reflection:

I'm splitting this summer interning for both of the Sunlight Foundation's teams: Web Integrity Project (WIP) and Open Cities. All my work thus far has been for the former. I've been writing Python programs and setting up a website hosted on the cloud to run programs that assist with WIP's processes for obtaining data on changes in .gov websites. The nonprofit is small so I have really gotten to know the team. Everyone is passionate about government transparency and protecting our Constitutional rights. Every member of the group has a different focus, and blog posts represent the culmination of work on a particular topic. While there is a work-remote culture, I still feel the pressure to stay focused, work independently, and take part in the Sunlight Foundation's mission. Many days I've show up early in the morning and stayed into the evening because the work is fascinating. If you have an interest, the staff give you the roof and the direction to let you own and research that interest from start to finish.

Gayatri Balasubramanian '21

2018 Intern Reflection:

From my very first day, the Sunlight Foundation team was incredibly welcoming. They took significant time out of their busy days to help me get acclimated to the office and to explain the types of work that they do. Throughout the internship, team members at Sunlight were constantly checking in on how I was enjoying my work and how they could make my experience better. They tailored the projects I was assigned to my interests, making sure that I was always learning something new and engaged in what I was doing.

As an intern on the Web Integrity Project (WIP) Team, I was immediately immersed into and included in all parts of the workflow. WIP tracks changes to government websites over time, looking closely at availability of information and the language used surrounding particularly relevant or controversial policy issues including environment/climate change, healthcare, and immigration. Sunlight gave me the opportunity to contribute to many stages of the process, from documenting and analyzing an important change to releasing a report on it, often in conjunction with a major media outlet. In addition, I was also able to develop my coding skills on a project that allowed the WIP team to analyze and graph aggregate statistics from web changes over time. They gave me complete ownership over writing this script from start to finish, but were always there for support as needed. Sunlight was a wonderful opportunity to merge my interests in technology, government, and policy, and I could not speak highly enough of the incredible staff.

Cate Pinto '20

Washington, D.C.