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Hands On With Inbox Influence, Gmail Tool Matches Names With Political Contributions

This week at the Personal Democracy Forum, the Sunlight Foundation -- a non-profit that uses technology to make government more transparent -- unveiled a new tool for Gmail that will allow citizens to see the political influence behind the people and companies mentioned in e-mail. Inbox Influence, an extension for Firefox and Chrome (that can also work, in a limited way, with Safari and Internet Explorer), utilizes data from Sunlight's Influence Explorer, Transparency Data and Party Time tools to serve up information on political contributions, all pulled from publicly available sources, of course. The tool is still in it's early stages, but we decided to try it out and see how well it works.

After we installed the Inbox Influence extension in Firefox and Chrome, a new button appeared at the top right of our Gmail window. A red circle indicates that the service is off. Just click to turn it on (the circle will turn green) and then whenever you open an e-mail, the program searches the sender field and text for relevant data. For every e-mail Inbox Influencer will try to report on the sender, but it won't always find matches in the body text.

The search happens in the background, so it won't slow down the load time of your actual e-mail; it just might take an extra few seconds for the Influence highlights to pop up. We noticed that it worked faster in Chrome than in Firefox. In the latter browser, it might take several minutes or not load at all.

When attempting to match sender names, the tool wasn't particularly useful, but the Foundation acknowledged that this would be the case at their press conference. After all, the tool is attempting to match the name of the individual with public records, but not all people list their full names in their e-mail from fields. Plus, if the sender has listed their last name, then first name, the search engine doesn't know how to properly parse that. If you do get possible hits, the people listed might not be the same as the sender even though they have the same name. Even the name plus the city isn't always helpful, especially if a name is pretty common.

I was surprised to find that the tool didn't know how to distinguish between people names and company names in the sender field. It assumes every sender is a person instead of also searching company databases. For instance, I got email from Barnes & Noble often, but "Barnes & Noble" is not a person. The tool did recognize that the e-mail address itself indicated that the person it was trying to identify worked for a company in its database, but this didn't happen very often.

When scanning e-mail body text, Inbox Influence did sometimes identify names of politicians and companies, but not always. I clicked through several emails already in my inbox and also had co-workers send me test e-mails. I discovered some interesting things. First, the tool was more likely to highlight politicians and companies when there were fewer non-relevant words around them.

With a larger chunk of text, it didn't catch the same names. I randomly inserted names in Lorem Ipsum text, then had a co-worker e-mail the paragraph to me. I also discovered that it didn't highlight the same words when I e-mailed the same text to a friend.

Inbox Influence doesn't do as well with HTML mail as it does with plain text. I was far less likely to see the yellow highlighted text in HTML mails, even political ones.

I wondered if the code might be to blame, so I sent names in a bulleted list with one half of a name the tool previously recognized in bold. Sure enough, that name did not highlight, probably because Inbox Influence reads the code, not the webpage itself.

These issues are actually fairly minor and likely to resolve themselves as the Sunlight Foundation refines the tool.

When Inbox Influence did work, it gave a very revealing snapshot of the individuals, politicians, and companies that offered good information at a glance and a link to go even deeper if you want. I found the Top Issues Lobbied section particularly interesting in company profiles. It's a good measure of what the executives at the top feel is most important. If that aligns with what I feel is important, I'm more likely to spend money with that company. I was also very interested to see which politicians received more money from PACs than individuals and the breakdown of money from In and Out Of State.

Currently, this tool only works with Gmail. I asked the organization if they have any plans to integrate with other webmail services like Yahoo Mail, AOL, and Hotmail or e-mail software like Thunderbird and Outlook. They aren't doing so at this time, but did say that feedback from users would guide their efforts in the future.

Though it's still rough around the edges, Inbox Influence makes it easy to be more aware of the politics and influence behind the people and companies you interact with via e-mail. Even when it doesn't work, there's always an indication that it attempted to search, which may prompt users to head over to the Sunlight Foundation's Influence Explorer search engine and start typing in names manually. The more you know, right?