Learning About African Election Data

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By Derek Willis

Opening election data isn’t just an American thing. Across Africa, organizations are at work gathering election results and voter data to make better tools and systems that help inform citizens about the political process.

I was a participant in a workshop organized by the Global Network of Domestic Election Monitors, which provides training and support for groups that monitor elections around the world. The three-day workshop, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, in September brought together more than a dozen representatives of organizations from across Africa as well as officials from the Electoral Commission of South Africa.

Governments in Africa publish their official results in a variety of formats, but most provide either electronic PDFs or CSV files. During the workshop, we discussed what else defined election data – in many parts of Africa, that includes not only voting locations but also details about observers, the security situation and the integrity of the voter roll. What I heard from participants like James Mwirima of Citizens’ Watch-IT in Uganda, Tidiani Togola of Mali and Chukwudera Bridget Okeke of TMG Nigeria was that election data was about so much more than the results.

Using OpenElections as an example, we talked about dealing with difficult to parse data, and even showed off the powers of Tabula for converting PDF tables into CSV files using Zimbabwean election results from 2013. Under the guidance of organizers Meghan Fenzel and Sunila Chilukuri of the National Democratic Institute, we worked on summarizing and visualizing voter registration data using Google Fusion Tables and Excel.

10628369_810827622271502_7667687462829274279_nSince most African countries have a single national election authority, results are often collected and published in a single location. South Africa, for example, publishes detailed results data in several formats and breakdowns, including by voting district. Some of the United States may want to take note: there’s a CSV download as well.

What I found at the workshop were election monitoring organizations who wanted to be able to use modern tools to help quickly and accurately  assess elections in their countries. Nigeria already has a robust effort preparing for elections next year.

A few times I was asked about the possibility of extending OpenElections outside the United States. While we’ve got our hands full with the variety of formats and results data that 50 state systems produce, there’s nothing I’d like to see more than our work being used in other places. That’s why I stressed the importance of publishing your code and data, not only so others can build upon them but so that people can see your work and evaluate its accuracy and integrity. Our elections – wherever they are – demand no less.