How journalists can use open APIs to improve election coverage

Election season is upon us. As the presidential candidates work to garner support and funds, journalists are trying to inform and educate voters on the issues and personalities at play in 2012.

Part of our job is to help people make sense of government data. Thankfully, with the help of APIs, data is increasingly accessible. In this piece, I’ve outlined some of the APIs that you can use to enhance your elections coverage and turn data into compelling pieces of journalism.

Putting congressional votes in context

Voters no doubt look to news organizations and watchdog groups to keep an eye on how their elected officials represent their interests. ProPublica has developed a simple application to show where local Congress members stand on SOPA and PIPA.

With The New York Times’ Congress API, you can look up vote data, biographical information, floor appearances and role data for Senate and House members. You can also see attendance records and how local representatives voted.

Using the data, you could quickly create a graphic showing how a representative voted on key pieces of legislation, or how their attendance and committee involvement compares to that of their peers. You could also create a graphic showing their campaign promises alongside how they voted on the issues. Lastly, you could create a sortable table with the data (see this and this) so that voters can peruse the information themselves.

Highlighting campaign finance data

Savvy voters care about who is supporting the candidates. The New York Times’ Campaign Finance API has a plethora of data on the largest financiers of parties, PACs and politicians. Again, a sortable and searchable table related to your local official would be useful for voters looking to dive deep into the information to turn it into a spreadsheet.

When I worked at The Washington Post, we developed a state-wide look at the money for the 2008 gubernatorial race. The feature, which lets users see campaign donations on a ZIP code level, proved to be a useful tool for both reporters and voters. You’ll need to find a local source for information like this, as The New York Times API does not provide a deep look into local campaign-finance data.

Pairing census data with voting data

When creating data mashups, look for ways to pair census data with voting data. Maps showing voting patterns alongside census patterns offer a large-scale view of how areas evolve both demographically and politically. The USA TODAY Census API is a robust warehouse of census data.

You could also create a map highlighting patterns in voting and census data over time. Of course, this would require an application development team and some time and attention, but it would provide great insight into your local area and it would be something that, if properly built, your news organization could use in coming years as well.

Looking to the future

As more national news organizations build open APIs to interface with, local and state-wide newsrooms can benefit from data that’s increasingly updated and available. In addition to the news organizations I’ve already mentioned, there are other organizations that are opening up their data to application developers and data journalists alike. Here are some notable ones:

Given that there’s more data available than the average person could consume, our job as data storytellers is becoming increasingly essential. By taking advantage of API’s, we can show voters how government data relates to them and help make them more informed voters.

This piece is part of a Poynter Hacks/Hackers series featuring How To’s that focus on what journalists can learn from emerging trends in technology and new tech tools.

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