These are some common use cases for The Accountability Project. Please note that property records and voter registration are not viewable without a login. (Read more about signing up here). The first section discusses backgrounding techniques generally; the second is organized by search topic areas.
The Accountability Project pulls together datasets from a wide array of sources. One of the most useful searches is to run a single name or addresses on the name search page. Here are some general guidelines on backgrounding. For more details on how search works see the search guide.
Name variations: The Accountability Project does not change names. Therefore a search for "Richard" will not find "Dick." Try searching on common variants of a name. We are considering adding an option to include nicknames in name search results, but this can introduce erroneous results
Quotation marks: Try using quotation marks to search for exact phrases. This can make searches take significantly longe, but may return better results. Note that this can also result in significantly worse results, especially with names. For instance searching for "firstname lastname" in quotes will ignore matches that invert the order as "lastname firstname," a fairly common occurrence in public records.
Filters: Be careful with filters. Many public records omit important details, spell them incorrectly, or even put them in the wrong field. Filtering records for "Florida" will omit all the misconfigured records.
Search by address: If you have an address, try searching by clicking on the address radio tab. Be careful how you interpret addresses with many occupants because these may include apartment buildings, private mailbox locations, or the addresses of law firms or other companies that provide professional services.
But it's important to understand how addresses work: Public accountability uses a standardized version of the address to search. If you enter an address, that same standardization process will be run on the search input. You also can search by both name and address, but, in that case, the address standardization will not be run. One solution is to pick an address used as *output* by Accountability that has already been standardized and search that.
Broaden your search after following results: If you follow a name search result to see the dataset-specific rows, you will be given the narrowest possible set of records matching that entity, e.g. 'HFNWA LLC 1601 E PUMP STATION RD FAYETTEVILLE AR' in federal contributions. But you may get better results by broadening that search to: 'HFNWA'.
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Also see: There are many conventional campaign finance tools. If you are simply looking for the total amount given to a candidate or from a particular standardized donor, check out Open Secrets for federal campaign finance or follow the money.org for state details; FEC Itemizer for on-deadline filings federal filings or the FEC's own site.
What's different here: We've made address a first-class attribute of the federal data, including federal campaign finance contributions and spending. We also include all contribution records reported by pass-through PACs (such as Act Blue) regardless of whether they aggregate over the federal threshold. It's simple to download a results spreadsheet without having to create an account.
State Data: State campaign finance data is a work in progress. Many states require a FOIA release the data in a machine readable format (and some states have legal restrictions on us posting the data). We've processed about 30 states' campaign contributions. We do not yet have data on state-level contracts, campaign finance spending or lobbying.
What's different here: It's free and easy to search and download nonprofit grants and directors / top employees. We're sourcing non-profit employees and directors from two places: the 990 xml forms and the 1023 EZ forms filed by new nonprofits.
Keep in mind: The datasets from form 990 only include forms filed electronically -- see the respective dataset detail page for more information. A small number of form 990s are filed on paper, but these often include groups that intend to fly under the radar. For full text search that includes these filings, try CitizenAudit.org. Most large nonprofits are required to file electronically and many smaller ones do for accounting convenience.
Addresses: The addresses that nonprofits use may not correspond to their physical location. It's not uncommon to find the address of a law firms that represents the nonprofit. Also note that the addresses of nonprofit directors are generally the same as the nonprofit, but this is not always the case.
One quick hack: The names that organizations use change. Whenever an EIN number is provided in a 990 grant it is listed as part of the organization's name (in the nonprofit grants) search. These are required in recent Schedule I's, but not in a form PF used by private foundations. Searching by EIN, therefore, can help find grants made with an erroneous / different name, but will not locate grants made by private foundations.
Code: The xml tax document datasets make use of the irsx project (available on github here) and many of its naming conventions. This can also be installed in Python environments using "pip install irsx".
Browse datasets here
About: Voter registration requires a login to view or search. Many states also require this information not be used for commercial purposes.
State quirks: In general, it's best to refer to the dataset documentation or run a test search to get familiar with output format. Different states use formats that are subtly different (e.g. middle initial vs. middle name). Other states are inconsistent about how data is collected.
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About: Property ownership requires a login to view or search.
The public accountability project is also collecting licenses, including the national database of health professionals and airplane pilots, public employees and business registration on an experimental basis. These sets are not well-fleshed out yet, but please let us know if you know of a data set that is readily available and should be included.