Archives For October 2014

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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.

At ONA14 in Chicago in late September we unveiled the new OpenElections data download interface. We presented at the Knight Foundation’s Knight Village during their office hours for featured News Challenge projects, as well as during a lighting talk. OpenElections’ Geoff Hing and Sara Schnadt showed off their handiwork based on in-depth discussions and feedback from many data journos. The crowd at ONA was receptive, and the people we talked to were keen to start having access to the long awaited data from the first few states.

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As you can see from the data map view above, there are only three states that have data available so far. These are Maryland, West Virginia and Wyoming, for which you can download ‘raw’ data. For our purposes, this means that you can get official data at the most common results reporting levels, with the most frequently used fields identified but without any further standardization. We will have ‘raw’ data on all the states in the next few months, and will work on having fully cleaned and standardized data on all the states after this initial process is complete.

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As things progress, you will see updates to both the map view and the detailed data view where you can see the different reporting levels that have data ready for download so far.

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A pink download icon indicates available data, and a grey icon indicates that data exists for a particular race at a particular reporting level, but that we don’t yet have it online.

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The race selection tool at the top of the page includes a visualization that gives an overview of all the races in our timespan, and a slider for selecting a date range to review races in the download table. For states like Maryland (shown in the full page-view above), there are only two races every two years so this slider isn’t so crucial, but for states like Florida (directly above), this slider can be useful.

We encourage you to take the interface for a spin, and tell us what you think! And, if you would like to help us get more data into this interface faster, and you are fairly canny with Python, we would love to hear from you. You can learn more about what this would entail here.