New Apps "Listen" For the Secrets Behind Political Ads

Today is the day for Shazam-inspired transparency in open government. First came news about a new SuperPAC iPhone app from MIT Media Lab students that uses audio recognition to identify who's behind online and television political advertisements. A few hours later, a similar app from the Sunlight Foundation called Ad Hawk went live. Ad Hawk enables iPhone and Android owners to identify political ads by sound and uses FEC and FCC data to determine - and display - who spent the money that financed them.

Between the two new mobile applications, citizens now have more ability than ever before to learn which political groups are trying to influence their vote. Both are bonafide examples of how open data, thoughtfully integrated into a smart application, can create more transparency in the political system.

"Sunlight has long provided open data on political spending, but now we're excited to make this work even more accessible for voters, not just journalists," commented Sunlight Foundation spokeswoman Gabriela Schneider, reached via email.

Ad Hawk also flies a bit further into the maelstrom of political advertising than that SuperPAC App. "Our app is also for Android, covers ads for Congressional races (including radio) and goes beyond super PAC ads to include candidate and issue ads, too," commented Schneider.

Here's how Ad Hawk works:

The technology and the backstory behind Ad Hawk are interesting in of themselves. To arrive the "Shazam effect," open government developers at Sunlight Labs adapted open-source "audio fingerprinting" software called Echoprint and connected it the Sunlight Foundation's centralized database of information about political ads.

Ad Hawk is also a rare bird, in terms of its history: the idea originated at a Hacks/Hackers meetup in Philadelphia and initially developed at a Random Hacks of Kindness hackathon in December 2011. Developers at the Sunlight Foundation then brought the project in-house and then to market.

While hackathons don't always hatch sustainable open government apps, in this digitally enhanced political season, Ad Hawk just might have wings.