OPAL (Open Political Advertising Library)

OPAL is three things.

  1. An effort to create a searchable database containing political ads bought and placed on the internet. 
  2. It’s global. OPAL improves transparency in the democratic process, covering advertising in elections around the world.
  3. It informs policy — helping set the rules for how online political ads are governed. 

Why do we need one?

Political advertising doesn’t have to be a problem for democracy. Even highly targeted messages, which many people feel uncomfortable with, if they’re responsibly and transparently used, can increase engagement and participation.

Here’s what we think of, when we talk about responsible political advertising.

  • Electoral campaigning should be a largely grassroots activity, mostly done by people actually running for office and their supporters. 
  • Voters have a right to know who’s saying what in election campaigns and to be able to interrogate their motives for doing so.
  • Money should have a limited impact on electoral outcomes.
  • Platforms that allow political ads should be transparent about their policies, the way they’re constructed and enforced, and provide specific, timely and detailed data on the political ads bought on and delivered by their services.
  • Regulators, journalists, academics and civil society should have access to the data they need to maintain accountability during and after campaigns.
  • Policy for and regulation of political ads should preference free expression, low administrative burden and simplicity.

Transparency is one part of the solution, accountability is another

Political advertising has been around a long time, and generally, hasn’t been particularly transparent. From handbills, pamphlets and posters, to TV and radio ads, to direct mail then email, to contextual digital advertising, targeted digital advertising and to even newer forms such as ads placed on streaming services, in video games, through influencers and beyond, there are large gaps in the information available about the use and effect of political ads. 

But political advertising, particularly in its digital forms, doesn’t have to be opaque. Far from it. Thanks to pressure from transparency campaigners like us, there are a growing number of datasets of digital political advertising. Facebook provides two (their Political Ads API and Ad Library Report), Snapchat and Google offer one each. Some electoral regulators and transparency organisations provide databases of financial information. Who Targets Me and other civil society projects offer data that’s crowdsourced by volunteers.

Using this data, a growing number of researchers and activists are building tools and running analyses to interpret and explain how political advertising is being used and increase accountability of candidates, campaigns, platforms and regulators.

But the proliferation of datasets has led to some obvious challenges. How can the community of people working on these (including the platforms themselves):

  • Develop standards for bringing these datasets together in a common, open way?
  • Work towards common definitions of what a political ad is and what data should be made available about them?
  • Work towards a common structure and interface for an “ad library”?
  • Reduce the duplication of effort by organisations (including our own) in terms of gathering and accessing data, leading to more efficient analysis by a wider range of researchers, journalists and civil society organisations?
  • Create methods so that organisations and individuals can enrich the datasets with additional context (e.g. by crowdsourcing the tagging or classification of ads and advertisers or by applying computational techniques)?
  • Share code?
  • Build new tools and data sources for generating summary statistics, reports and visualisations using this new data?
  • Inform policy by improving the evidence-base for regulating democracy in the digital age?

The goal of the OPAL is to collect together different datasets and projects related to them. 

How we’re organising datasets and advertising projects

TypeCreated byAttributes
Ad LibrariesPlatformsContain all ads, usually limited to political advertising, maintained and stored for a period of time (e.g. 7 years).
Closed or semi-closed Ad LibrariesPlatformsUsually only available to a limited number of vetted researchers, these include data about which users were exposed to which ads.
CrowdsourcedIndependent researchersContain advertising data shared by opted-in volunteers.
Spending dataPlatforms, RegulatorsContain information about the amount spent on ads. Granularity and periods covered vary.
Advertiser codingResearchersMaps the relationships between advertisers (e.g. linking a candidate to a party)
Advert codingResearchersContent analysis of individual adverts (e.g. to determine the goal of the ad)
Advert parametersResearchersE.g. analysis of URL parameters, targeting methods, landing pages
Proposals for standardsResearchersWays of standardising political ad transparency data
CodeAllLibraries of code used for getting and/or manipulating political ad data
Interpretive toolsAllIncludes browser extensions, notifications, visualisations and explorers – a catch all for things people have made to help individuals and researchers better interpret the data.
IdeasAllProjects which could be beneficial, but have not moved beyond the idea stage. Could act as a roadmap for the field.