Alexander Furnas

Computational Social and Political Scientist

Most people call me Zander. I am a Research Fellow at the Sunlight Foundation. I graduated from Wesleyan University's College of Social Studies (CSS) with a B.A. in Social Studies, and hold an MSc. (oxon) with Distinction in the Social Science of the Internet from the University of Oxford, UK. Prior to joining the Sunlight Foundation, I worked as a research fellow at the Center for Legislative Research and Advocacy in Delhi, India, on national innovation policy.

At the Sunlight Foundation, I conduct quantitative studies of political influence and interest group representation working with lobbying, campaign finance and legislative datasets. Methodologically, I am particularly interested in network analysis, natural language processing, complex systems and bayesian analysis. I also conduct our transparency case study project, which evaluates the impacts of technology enabled transparency policy around the world.

Research

Examining Networks of Influence: using semantic similarity clustering and affiliation network analysis to reveal lobbying dynamics. (with Lee Drutman) Presented at PolNet 2013. Download

Scholars of lobbying have been limited in their ability to measure organizational lobbying agendas, positions and coalitions. They are either forced to rely on time-consuming interviews or overly-broad Lobbying Disclosure Act-mandated issue codes. We propose a new approach. We use a hierarchical agglomerative clustering (HAC) algorithm to group bills within LDA issue codes based on their similarity, calculated using latent sematic analysis of a corpus we constructed from summary text provided by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). This technique allows us to disaggregate within the existing categories and label individual bills with higher resolution than was previously possible. We then use the clustering groups to label bills within a weighted affiliation network based on the volume of lobbying by a given industry on a given bill. The topic labels of bills within the network provide more detailed insight into the specific policies or provisions different industries have supported, and might be likely to support in the future. As a test, we apply this approach to lobbying on immigration legislation during the 109th – 112th Congresses.

You Are Who You Follow?: Semantic Similarity of Political Partisans’ Ego-Networks on Twitter

Master’s thesis submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirement for the degree of MSc in Social Science of the Internet at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford. Download

Abstract:

Previous research on blogging and microblogging behaviour indicates that political discus- sion networks tend to exhibit a high degree of clustering along partisan or ideological lines (e.g. Glance & Adamic, 2005; Feller et al., 2011). This has led to some concerns over the emergence of echo chambers and information cocoons (Sunstien, 2006, Negroponte, 1995). This study addresses this phenomenon among Twitter users by measuring the degree of information homogeneity within the networks of a sample of self-identified progressive and conservative users, and comparing them to a control set of randomly selected users. Insu- larity is analyzed both in terms of homogeneity within individual user’s networks and by comparisons of content within and between groups. These comparisons are accomplished by situating content within a multidimensional concept space, using Latent Semantic Analysis (LSA) (Furnas, 1988). In adapting LSA to Twitter content for the first time, this study also lays the methodological foundation for future research using large-scale comparisons of Twitter content. Users’ ego network characteristics, use patterns and ideological aliation are explored as independent factors relating to information homogeneity and partisan insularity. Results from this analysis indicate 1) no link between ideological aliation and infor- mation homogeneity within individual networks, but 2) a significant relationship between ideological aliation and community level insularity. The dataset shows that insularity is particularly marked among conservative users with a specific network and use profile.

e-Pluribus Unum: Direct Democracy through Peer Production

Undergraduate Honors Thesis for College of Social Studies, Wesleyan University (2011). Download

This thesis proposes a digital institution for direct deliberative democracy called D4. D4 uses network topological filtering and peer production best practices taken from case study analyses to allow citizens to draft public policy. This thesis argues that such a system could produce more responsive policy outcomes than traditional institutions.

Writing

Selected works which have appeared in popular outlets. Work here has been featured, discussed or excerpted in the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wonkblog, BoingBoing, The Fix, Slate’s Future Tense, WaPo Labs, Time, CNBC, PBS, The Monkey Cage, and TechCrunch among others.

Transparency and Political Influence

Revolvers' Dollars - a four part series on revolving door lobbyist based on Lobbying Disclosure Act records.

Untangling the Webs of Immigration Lobbying - with Lee Drutman.

Untangling the Webs of Tax Lobbying - with Lee Drutman.

Creating Effective Transparency Policies - one of the innaugural posts in the OpenGov Conversations series.

Why Representative Democracies Can't Write Off Transparency - The Atlantic - a response to Amitai Etzioni's 'Transparency is Overrated.'

Technology and Society

Statistical Probability That Mitt Romney's New Twitter Followers Are Just Normal Users: 0% - The Atlantic - with Devin Gaffney

When You Can’t See Your Audience, but You Can See Your Social Life - The Atlantic

You Can’t Use Twitter to Predict Election Results - The Atlantic

Can Last Minute Amendments Redeem a Troubling Cyber-Security Bill - The Atlantic

Homeland Security’s ‘Pre-Crime’ Screening Will Never Work - The Atlantic

Everything You Wanted to Know About Data Mining but Were Afraid to Ask - The Atlantic

It’s Not All About You: What Privacy Advocates Don’t Get About Data Tracking on the Web - The Atlantic - Selected for inclusion in The Best Atlantic Technology Writing 2012

Can We Harness The Internet to Collaboratively Write Better Laws? - The Atlantic

Why An International Trade Agreement Could Be as Bad as SOPA - The Atlantic

Data Visualization

Good data and information visualization takes a diverse set of skills and is almost always the result of a collaborative process in which ideas are shared, mocku-ups diagramed, and different approaches explored. Below are some examples of visualizations that I have made while at sunlight, but in almost all cases these were the products of collaborations. In particular, the subtle hands and judicious eyes of Amy Cesal have been central to creating most of the charts shown below.

My work tends to be in the data, conceptualization and mock-up portions of a data visualization project, primarily using ggplot2 in R, as well as a handy whiteboard. I then tend to hand off charts to a designer more talented than I to finish them up in Illustrator. However, I can get buy in a pinch. I view the creation of information visualization as a moral act, and believe that visualizations have a power to motivate and illustrate that comes with a responsibility for judicious and precise use. In all my projects I work to ensure that visualizations accurately reflect the underlying data. I think improperly truncated axes, misleading labels and manipulative comparisons are cardinal sins.

Speaking

Community Detection in Political Networks. Panel Presentation at the Annual Conference of the Political Network Section of the American Political Science Association (PolNet), 2013.

Untangling the Webs of Immigration Lobbying, an invited presentation to the Data Science DC Meetup, June, 2013. Video. Write up.

Interview on June 3rd 2012 Episode (#184) of the CBC Radio Show Spark with Nora Young.

Interview on the Thom Hartman Show on April 18th. Description and video here.

Education

Oxford Internet Institute, University of Oxford, Oxford, UK

  • M.Sc. with Distinction in the Social Science of the Internet (2011-2012)
  • Researched ideological polarization and insularity in political discussion groups on twitter.
  • Coursework in network analysis, advanced quantitative analysis, technology and regulation of the internet and digital social research.

Wesleyan University, Middletown, CT

Brown University in India, St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, India (2009)

  • Coursework in Indian Politics and History
  • Intensive Hindi Language Program at Landour Language School, Uttarakhand

Experience

The Sunlight Foundation, Research Fellow, Washington, DC September 2012 - present

  • Conducted interview-based qualitative research into the impacts of technology enabled transparency policy for an 18-month case study research initiative funded by google.org.
  • Data collection, cleaning, manipulation and analysis in service of original research, primarily focusing on campaign finance and political influence.

Credit Suisse, Project Management Intern, Client On-Boarding Project, New York, New York. (2010)

  • Designed the high-level end-state architecture of a decision engine to drive client document meta-data tagging and indexing.
  • Conducted a labor study and analysis of global client on-boarding resources to determine 2011 needs.
  • Produced a business intelligence report on competitor firms’ recent client data project spending for upper management.

Center for Legislative Research and Advocacy, Research Fellow, Delhi, India (July 2009-March 2010)

  • Researched and prepared policy papers for Indian Ministers and Parliamentarians.
  • Helped in the political mapping of the Indian Parliament to inform future lobbying strategy.
  • Designed Center Climate Change brief for USAID report.
  • Event planning and coordination.

Memberships and Affiliations:

American Political Science Association, Associate Member
Political Network Section of APSA
Political Methodology Section of APSA
World Bank Digital Engagement Evaluation Framework Advisory Board Member

Founding Executive Editor of the Wesleyan Undergraduate Journal of Social Studies
I also started Rough Consensus, the Oxford Internet Institute Student blog.


Full Resume Available Here: Download

Find Me

Twitter: @AlexanderFurnas

GitHub: zfurnas

Skype: alexander.furnas

Telephone: 1-765-360-ZMAN

Electronic Mail: zfurnas (at) gmail.com