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Sept. 26, 2012, 10:43 a.m.
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New York Times, Washington Post developers team up to create Open Elections database

Standardized state-by-state elections database gets a Knight News Challenge boost.

Calling all data hounds!

Senior developers from The New York Times and The Washington Post are looking for volunteers to help collect more than 10 years of federal elections data from each state. With their help — and $200,000 in Knight News Challenge funding — Serdar Tumgoren and Derek Willis are working on creating a free, comprehensive source of official U.S. election results.

The goal is to end up with electoral data that can then be linked to different types of data sets — campaign finance, voter demographics, legislative histories, and so on — in ways that previously haven’t been possible on this scale.

Tumgoren, of The Washington Post, says the idea for Open Elections came from “mutual frustration that there is no single, free source of data — and more importantly, nicely standardized data.” Soothing this frustration isn’t necessarily going to be pretty. The task of finding state elections data — at least some of which will be a godawful, inextricable mess — will require some “brute-forcing,” Tumgoren says.

“If you look at Mississippi’s data, they make me not very happy — they make me sad, in fact,” Tumgoren said. “Just a sampling of a few states I randomly picked, they run the gambit from pretty good to oh-my-God-how-are-we-going-to-get-this-data.”

Tumgoren estimates it will take about two years to get to where he wants Open Elections to be, but the entire process will be open to the public. As data comes in, the team will clean it up, put it in a standardized format, and share it. What that format will be is still up in the air — as are many of the details, which Tumgoren says they’ll have to figure out as they begin to get a better sense of the state of the data they’ll get.

“There are going to be some states like Virginia that are wonderful and have very clean data,” Tumgoren said. “Other places — we don’t even know which ones yet — data is going to be less accessible because it’s not centralized or it’s in formats like image PDF.”

For now, Open Elections is building the infrastructure to begin collecting and sorting data. As they recruit volunteers, they’ll be looking for people who can dig up U.S. Senate, House, presidential, and gubernatorial elections results from the past 10 years or so.

“This is such a big project we’re limiting the scope initially,” Tumgoren said. “Governor, Senate, House, president: Whatever else we can get, we’re not going to turn our noses up at it.” While they may not be able to clean up, link, and standardize data from other races, Tumgoren says his team will still work to centralize it.

“It’s just an untapped resource,” Tumgoren said. “The ability to do this is very limited right now. We almost don’t know what we don’t know. I have a vague sense of some of the questions I’d like to ask but I bet there are tons of journalists and developers who are going to think of things that never even occurred to me. The possibilities for so-called data mashups are limitless.”

Photo by DonkeyHotey used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 26, 2012, 10:43 a.m.
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