I. In Focus This Week
D.C. Board of Elections works with civic hackers for voting insights
By Ursula Kaczmarek
D.C. Board of Elections
Election administrators generate heaps of data beyond the election night returns that take center stage, but the data revolution that now drives decisions in campaigns, business, and parts of government has yet to transform how we run elections.
As the Presidential Commission on Election Administration noted in its report, a “new technological gap is beginning to emerge, between the data analytical capacity that has improved customer service in the private sector, and the lack of data-driven efforts to improve the experience of voters.”
A lack of money for election administrators to pay skilled data pros is largely responsible for creating and sustaining this gap. But fear not, cash-strapped election administrators, there is hope.
One of the great things about the data and tech communities in the U.S. is that they are eager to volunteer their skills to improve government processes and systems. These are hackers for good (also known as civic hackers), and they’re an untapped resource for election administrators.
Open Data Day is a worldwide hackathon that brings together local groups of civic hackers including statisticians, geographers, and coders to explore publicly available data sets and create useful things by analyzing them.
This year, the D.C. Board of Elections made its HAVA-mandated electronic voter file available to the Open Data Day D.C. crowd and got some insights about early voting in the bargain.
Open Data Day hacking is structured around project pitches that include a problem statement, available data sources, and the skills needed to arrive at a solution. Participants who are interested in the subject matter and have the skills or knowledge gather in project groups and get to work. At the close of the event, teams present their findings, their methodologies, and the tools they used.
We wanted to use our voter file data to inform our strategy for early voting outreach, and asked any interested analysts, geography nerds, and statisticians in the house to join us. After 5 hours of hacking, our project team learned the following:
1) Early voting has increased since its debut in 2010;
2) On a precinct level, early voting rates in the primary are partly predictive of early voting rates in the general; and
3) And voters who live within a half mile of an early voting site were likeliest to have ever voted early.
More of our findings are here.
Open Data Day happens only once a year, but there is a growing number of local civic hacker groups that meet regularly. Check out meetup.com to see if there’s one near you, and look at nationwide organizations that seek to partner with local government, like Code for America.
If you decide to join in a hackathon (and we certainly hope you do), here are some pro tips:
- Make doubly sure to abide by your jurisdiction’s laws and regulations governing the dissemination of voter information or other data sets. A quick guide to the rules governing HAVA voter files is available at the United States Elections Project.
- Learn about the open source tools hackers are using. These web and software applications are not only free, they come with super helpful user communities who are glad to assist people who are learning on their own. The open source tools we used at Open Data Day that don’t require coding skills included Tableau Public for visualization, and QGISand CartoDB for geography. We also used R, an open source statistical package that does require coding skills, but the free-to-use Swirl greatly helps with the coding learning curve.
- Get the most from your data by combining it with data sets available on open government sites. The Census Bureau is a great place to start for demographics, and many cities and states host catalogues on their Chief Technology Officer and open data sites. At Open Data Day D.C., we used the Master Address Repository available from D.C.’s open data site to calculate distances and create maps.
- Go to the workshops. If you’re a newbie, they demystify tech. Create your first data visualization. Learn how to use an API.
- And most importantly, collaborate! If civic hackers have a motto, it’s “build with, not for.”
Ursula Kaczmarek works to answer questions with data at the D.C. Board of Elections and serves as secretary of the board of US Vote Foundation. She tweets about elections and D.C’s woeful public transit at @uakinwdc.
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