When Philadelphia passed its first-ever lobbyist disclosure law in 2010, there was hope the influence of money in city politics would take a step into the light of day.

But after spending nearly a quarter-million dollars earlier this year on a failed attempt to build a searchable online lobbying database, the city is now being beaten to the punch.

"I typed it in from the forms — by hand," said Casey Thomas, the local programmer behind Lobbying.ph.

Thomas spent hours manually entering data from publicly available PDFs of paper filings into a new searchable database. The revamped website, which launches today, turns clunky raw data into a powerful tool for tracking money used to woo city politicians.

Thomas teamed up with the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network on the lobbying website, which started as a "hobby project."

The goal is to help citizens and journalists see who's trying to peddle influence in City Hall.

"To see that some councilmembers got tickets [from lobbyists] to the flower show or to the auto show," Thomas said, "I think is pretty interesting.

"I mean, people had an idea ... that groups were spending money. But it's another thing to see it written down on a form and reported."

Thomas says his latest effort is a good example of what the region's growing corps of civic hackers can accomplish under Philadelphia's new open data policy.

Big spenders

This is the first year that lobbyists working in the city of Philadelphia have to register and file quarterly expense reports.

So which organization is leading the pack?

The far-and-away winner is the American Beverage Association, which has so far spent almost $240,000 fighting the possibility of a soda tax.