Knight News Challenge Winner Will Make Historical Election Data Easily Accessible


Originally published on poynter.org on 20 September 2012. This excerpt is republished with permission.


The winners of the latest Knight News Challenge announced on 20 September include a collaboration between developers at The New York Times and The Washington Post to create a free, comprehensive database of past U.S. election results.

New York Times interactive news developer Derek Willis and Washington Post news apps developer Serdar Tumgoren are working together on the project, named Open Elections. Their employers are not officially involved, but are supportive of the idea.

openelections.net.pngHow could journalists use this data once it’s available?

In an interview, Willis suggested merging the elections data with demographic data to examine how changing population patterns have affected voting trends. A journalist could show one candidate’s base of support shifting across multiple elections. The data could even provide simple context for a daily news story, such as quickly looking up the last time a Republican won a certain office.

“Serdar and I both work on elections in our day jobs, and year after year, election after election, we would have to put together previous election results. You want them for comparison’s sake — to show how things have changed in a state or a county,” Willis said. “I’ve done this three or four times now, and it’s always a pain. It’s always much more complicated than it needs to be. … There’s no centralized place to go.”

“You’re looking at multiple sources and formats, and trying to shoehorn those all into a single standardized format. It’s tricky. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time,” Willis continued. “It starts to dawn on you that this should be easier, we shouldn’t be repeating the same thing every two years.”

The end product will include a catalog of the available data, and data sets accessible through an API and through bulk downloads in common data formats.

“We want to make this useful to developers, but not just to developers,” Willis said. “If all you know is a spreadsheet, then you can get election data and work with it. Or if you are a developer and you want to start incorporating election results into an app that you’re building, then you can do that too.”

The project will start by recording election results from all states for all federal offices and most major statewide offices.

Willis said initially they will try to get data back through the 2000 election cycle, and then see what else is possible beyond that. The further back in time you look, he said, the more likely it is that records are not available digitally.

It will be a long-term effort, beginning after the more-pressing matter of this November’s election is concluded. By early next year, there may be data posted from a handful of states, Willis said, then they will take feedback and continue building more data sets.

If you want to follow along or get involved, the code is shared on Github, there is a Google Group for questions and updates, and a Twitter account @openelex.

Winners of the next challenge, on mobile technology, will be announced in January followed by three more 2013 contests, the first of which will be on open government.


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