As Sunlight Labs Closes, Where Does Its Innovation Go?

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SDO Sees Spring Eclipse / NASA Goddard Space Flight Center

October 12, 2016; Sunlight Foundation

When the Sunlight Foundation announced it was thinking about merging operations with another organization and effectively closing down Sunlight Labs after its latest president departed after a mere 16 months at the helm, the first thing on the minds of many was where the collection of tools and databases they built over the years would end up.

Sunlight has played a big role in the civic tech space, and everything they have created has been open source, so there is no question that the still-relevant programs will be carried forward in some way and act as a foundation for future work. But, as Labs Director Kat Duffy wrote when asking if others were interested in adopting one of the several hundred current projects:

Sunlight has never been solely about Labs, and Labs has certainly never been solely about technology. Our legacy rests in people, and the impact people can have when they fuse subject matter expertise with technological innovation in order to solve a specific problem. I love Sunlight Labs to a somewhat irrational degree. But mostly, I love Sunlighty people who are trying to build a Sunlighty world. Labs played a formative role in building that community, and that community will continue to build new solutions long after Labs is gone. That is our legacy, and it’s something to celebrate.

Here is what she says they are rushing to do before November 11th, which is her leave date:

  1. Move all of our projects to GitHub.
  2. Add licenses to the projects. Without a license, our code isn’t open source and can’t be reused. Following Sunlight’s ethos, we’ve chosen GPL 3.0 as our default license.
  3. Pull out any secure credentials, API keys, passwords and other private information that shouldn’t be shared with the world.
  4. Document our projects so that everyone can tell what they’re for. Lots of our projects have clever, but not necessarily helpful, names that do not give any indication of what they do.
  5. Export all of the publicly shareable data from the live running projects, and put this somewhere that people can use it.

On top of that, the custom-built websites that belong to the Sunlight Foundation, including the Sunlight Foundation’s main website, the TransparencyCamp site, and Open Data Policies Decoded have to be shifted to platforms that are less technologically quirky—like WordPress—so others can manage and interact with them easily.

Bill Hunt, the Foundation’s Senior Technology Advisor, has some words of wisdom that are truly reflective of the times and the evolution of this kind of tech-based transparency work:

We have a lot to accomplish in the weeks remaining before we wind down Labs. Having watched so many projects shut down recently, my goal here is to preserve as much of the legacy of Sunlight Labs as possible, for future work to build off of. At The OpenGov Foundation, I brought an ethic of open by default to all of our work, and it’s in this same spirit that I’m approaching the closing of Labs—using solid, open source principles to make sure these tools are available to the community for years to come.

No one can predict when a project or organization will end when they’re just starting out. Making sure that you have a plan for your work, with a logical beginning, middle and end, is critical. The tech world is increasingly unpredictable—make the effort now to make sure your work is preserved for the future. Whether you’re a nonprofit, a for-profit or a government agency, open whatever you can, however you can!

—Ruth McCambridge