Introducing Oligrapher: power mapping on LittleSis

The Endless Chain

A single example will illustrate the vicious circle of control–the endless chain–through which our financial oligarchy now operates:

J.P. Morgan (or a partner), a director of the New York, New Haven, & Hartford Railroad, causes that company to sell to J.P. Morgan & Co. an issue of bonds. J.P. Morgan & Co. borrow the money with which to pay for the bonds from the Guaranty Trust Company, of which Mr. Morgan (or a partner) is a director. J.P. Morgan & Co. sell the bonds to the Penn Mutual Life Insurance Company, of which Mr. Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The New Haven spends the proceeds of the bonds in purchasing steel rails from the United States Steel Corporation, of which Mr. Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The United States Steel Corporation spends the proceeds of the rails in purchasing electrical supplies from the General Electric Company, of which Mr. Morgan (or a partner) is a director. The General Electric sells supplies to the Western Union Telegraph Company, a subsidiary of the American Telephone and Telegraph Company; and in both Mr. Morgan (or a partner) is a director…

– from Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, published by Louis Brandeis in 1914

The “endless chain” of power elite relationships that we track on LittleSis can be challenging to represent in the space of a paragraph. Reading through a list of relationships is often a confusing and mind-numbing exercise; writing such a list can have a similar effect on the author. It is, however, extremely important that we find effective methods of representing these relationships and informing the public about them. Stories of power, corruption, and undue influence revolve around relationships and networks, and exposing this information can have significant policy impact.

The above excerpt, from Other People’s Money and How the Bankers Use It, published by Louis Brandeis in 1914, describes one such list of relationships – the absurd web of conflicts of interest surrounding J.P. Morgan. The book helped to inspire the Clayton Antitrust Act, which outlawed some of the relationships described above. Though Brandeis made his point well in the passage, trying to keep track of all the interlocking relationships listed is a confusing exercise, and the information seems to call for an alternative, or complementary, mode of representation.

The oligarchic networks Brandeis pointed to are with us today, albeit in a somewhat different form. This was especially clear during the financial crisis, when a small group of bankers crashed the economy and then engineered their own bailouts, leveraging cozy relationships with regulators and elected officials to multi-trillion dollar effect. Matt Taibbi pointed to the perils of trying to put this kind of information in an article in his classic Rolling Stone piece on Goldman Sachs:

But then, any attempt to construct a narrative around all the former Goldmanites in influential positions quickly becomes an absurd and pointless exercise, like trying to make a list of everything.

This is a central conundrum of the work of power research, whether it’s being done by journalists, academics, researchers, or activists. Information about the networks of a J.P. Morgan (the person in that era, the bank these days) or Goldman Sachs (the bank) is not easily conveyed in a narrative format, and rarely makes it into the media clips that inform how most people understand our politics. And yet, exposing the role these overlapping, self-dealing networks play in shaping our politics and economy is a critical task if we are ever going to challenge this power to any effect, as Brandeis and other muckrakers did a century ago.

Enter Oligrapher

Traditional narrative is always going to play an important role in exposing these corrupt dynamics, but social network graphs offer a way of supplementing narrative with accessible representations of complex relationships and networks. Graphs of this sort pop up in news articles from time to time – see these New York Times maps of Hillary Clinton’s network, from earlier this year, or this Washington Post visualization showing how industry dominates the Obama administration’s trade advisory committees. But the barriers to creating network graphs tend to be very high, given design and research costs, and the results can often be underwhelming.

This map, produced with Oligrapher, shows ties between FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and his staff and the telecom industry (a screenshot of the map was published by Motherboard in the wake of reports of the FCC’s net neutrality decision).

view this map on LittleSis

How YOU can use Oligrapher

If you are:

Just curious/interested in power networks: You can explore some of the existing maps on the featured maps page. If you would like to make maps yourself, sign up for LittleSis, start editing, and you’ll be able to earn the permissions required to make the map.

A journalist, blogger, or activist: Have a story, rich in connections and information on an elite network, that might benefit from a power map? If you don’t have the LittleSis permissions necessary to make the map (or the time to earn them) drop us a line and depending on our availability we may be able to make a map for you that you can then embed in your story/post. We can make the map private until you choose to publish.

An advanced LittleSis editor: If you’ve made significant edits to the database and have advanced permissions (like bulk adding and political contribution importing), you can start using Oligrapher today. You can start a new map here (a tutorial will be forthcoming).

Oligrapher is our first significant attempt at building a tool that facilitates social network visualizations of this sort using LittleSis data. At this point, rather than serving as a visual explorer of LittleSis data, it is designed to help advanced users create storytelling aides that represent particular slices of power network information in the database. We have often wanted to put graphs of this sort in our articles and reports, but have not always had the time or design capacity to make them. We have also wanted to give LittleSis editors a tool for creating these maps, and journalists, bloggers, and activists a way to embed them in stories on power networks.

With the first version of Oligrapher, this is all possible. Advanced LittleSis users can now create and save maps, share them with a wider audience, and embed them in blog posts and articles. The tool is fairly simple in how it represents LittleSis data, and opts for flexibility over automation – map editors can drag nodes and lines around or apply certain basic layout algorithms, delete nodes and lines that they do not want to show, zoom in and out, expand nodes’ relationships, and so on. Right now, data shown on the map is restricted to what is in the database, though new data can always be added. (Some of this functionality is available on public maps, though currently it is not possible to save new versions of the map unless you are the creator and have the proper editing credentials.)

  • Explore featured maps.
  • Create a map if you’re are an advanced LittleSis user – a brief editing guide is at the bottom of the page.
  • Sign up to start editing LittleSis (and earn map editing credentials).
  • You may have seen some of these maps popping up in our Twitter feed, where Gin Armstrong has been tweeting out power maps relevant to current events (follow us on Twitter!). Republic Report‘s Lee Fang recently embedded LittleSis maps in an article on the LNG revolving door.

    If you would like to see a particular map on LittleSis, but don’t have the credentials or time to create it, drop us a line and we may be able to find a way to make it. We would be especially interested in working with you if you plan to embed the map in a blog post or article.

    Many other projects have ventured into the territory of power network graphing, and we drew a lot of inspiration and guidance from them. They Rule, which first launched in 2001 and has been featured in the Whitney Biennial, MoMA, and elsewhere, is one of our favorite examples. Since 2011, They Rule has pulled data from the LittleSis API, though it limits data to corporate boards and some other powerful and well-connected institutions tracked in LittleSis. The artist Mark Lombardi’s amazing illustrations of power networks, which he described as “narrative structures,” have long been an inspiration for us. The Reuters/Fathom project Connected China is a beautiful tool for exploring political power networks in China. There are many other examples, such as NNDB and Muckety. Our friends at Poderopedia have a mapping tool live on the site and more advanced visualizations on the way.

    Notorious astroturfer Richard Berman has set up many noxious front groups, shown in this map.

    view this map on LittleSis

    Where resources permitted, we tried to integrate things we liked from the above examples. Simple design changes like making lines curved and images circular, for instance, were inspired by Lombardi and Connected China. This seems to improve the overall flow and legibility of the graphs.

    There is a lot that we haven’t been able to get to. The tool is not a finished product, nor is it intended to be a one-size-fits-all visualization toolset – it’s really just a start. We are still thinking through various design challenges, like detailed labeling of relationships, representing changes over time, highlighting groupings or types of entities, representing interlocks in a streamlined way, making map editing more efficient and intuitive, and so on.

    This map shows the ties between Melissa Bean, a former member of Congress, and JPMorgan Chase.

    view this map on LittleSis

    We would love to hear feedback and ideas for how we can improve the mapping tool, so feel free to drop us a line or leave a note in the comments. If you are a developer, designer, artist, journalist, scholar, activist, or anyone else with expertise to share or interest in helping improve the tool, please get in touch! (If you don’t like contact forms, an email to admin at littlesis will go to our core team.)

    Matthew Skomarovsky, LittleSis co-founder and lead developer, deserves the lion’s share of the credit for shepherding Oligrapher through its various stages of development. Matthew is the Brooklyn-based member of our merry band of power mappers, and brings a certain big city artisanal underdog ethic to the work, living and thriving in the shadow of Chuck Schumer (but still not sold on the benevolence of high finance). The code is on github for you to explore. Matthew is on Twitter if you want to say hi, thanks, or you idiot! you should have done it *this* way.

    The promise (and peril) of visualization

    Network visualizations have a sort of shiny object appeal – people seem to like them, even when they don’t add much to a story or are ultimately just a prettified hairball. Our users have long asked for more visually rich ways of showcasing (and exploring) LittleSis data, though we have been somewhat reluctant to take a shot at it, given our limited budget and UI/design skills, and the various design traps that we anticipated.

    We took a shot at it because we, too, like shiny objects, but also because we think network visualizations, if done well, can add a lot to the discourse on corruption and influence and complement the narratives constructed by a Taibbi or modern-day Brandeis. It is an interesting exercise, for instance, to translate Brandeis’s excerpt on the endless chain entangling J.P. Morgan to a network map format:

    A map of the connections described in the excerpt above, from Other Peope’s Money, on J.P. Morgan.
    This map shows some of the relationships described in Taibbi’s Goldman Sachs piece:

    From Wikileaks to Edward Snowden to the rise of investigative media organizations like ProPublica and First Look there are some signs that a century after Brandeis and other muckrakers took it to J.P. Morgan, Standard Oil, and other monopolists, we are entering a new era of modern-day muckraking. This seems true even in spite of the extraordinary pressures on the field of journalism. And whether modern-day muckrakers are looking at the defense and intelligence apparatus, Wall Street, Big Oil, or some other industry or issue area, corrupt and cozy elite networks often end up at the center of the story. Some of the information dug up on these networks can be molded into a compelling narrative, and good stories will of course always be essential. But sometimes having another way to look at these connections and networks can be really helpful – that’s where Oligrapher comes in.

    Happy power mapping!

    We love to hear from you! Map requests, questions, advice, feedback, and other notes can be sent to us here or with an email to admin at littlesis, on Twitter, or in the comments.

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