AP, Google join forces for live Super Tuesday election maps

The Associated Press and Google are rewriting the book this year on how to provide fast, accurate election results, and the theme of the latest chapter is cooperation.

Tuesday night, news outlets that pay AP for election results for particular states will be able to embed Google Maps of the results on their sites.

The deal highlights the two companies’ relative strengths: AP will focus on newsgathering; Google will focus on technology.

At least in terms of short-term tactics, it makes sense. With 10 primaries and caucuses across the country, Super Tuesday is a dress rehearsal for the general election. If it’s tough to gather, verify and quickly disseminate vote totals for one state, try 10 — each with its own processes and quirks. The AP has been here before.

Google, meanwhile, has developed a robust, ubiquitous mapping technology, and it has the server farms to churn out those maps. The brand awareness can’t hurt, either, with its logo next to AP’s on each of those maps.

On Tuesday, AP subscribers that pay for live election results can simply drop an embed code into their publishing systems rather than having to develop their own news apps.

That may not mean much for (comparatively) resource-rich news outlets like The New York Times or The Washington Post, but it does for a smaller newsroom with no developer or just one.

“Our subscribers have always had the option to create these maps on election night, but some of them faced cross-platform challenges. Now, we have a turnkey mapping solution,” said Brian Scanlon, director of AP Election Services, in an AP news release. “It’s an arrangement that not only makes sense for AP and Google, but also our customers and ultimately the end-user.”

When people talk about “cross-platform challenges,” they’re often referring to the inability of iPhones and iPads to run Flash. It would be a bit of a letdown to devote the home page to an election map, only to load it on an iPad and see a big blank spot with an error message.

Google Maps, however, use straight HTML, CSS and JavaScript – all of which display just fine on an iPhone or an iPad.

AP spokesman Paul Colford said AP has provided embeddable maps for general elections before, but not primaries. Several AP clients used Google Maps for the Arizona and Michigan primaries, he noted.

“We’re always looking for ways to help AP members and customers, now with Google doing the programming that they have always been permitted to do on their own,” he told me via email. “Based on positive response to date, we expect many more sites than last week to offer AP Super Tuesday results via Google Maps.”

This is the third chapter in in the AP-Google election results story. In the first, Google worked with the Iowa Republican party to tally the results with Google Apps, release them to the public via Fusion Tables and enable anyone to embed an automatically updated Google Map. It was a showcase for Google products, from the back-end data collection to the map that users clicked on. Some observers noticed that Google’s system was faster than AP’s, too.

In the second chapter, Google and Twitter worked with the Nevada Republican party, but they ran into problems getting results to state party headquarters and confirming the totals. The challenges were human, not technological. And AP dealt with it appropriately – by picking up the phone and calling local officials for the unofficial results.

Taking the sweat out of news apps

Speed wasn’t the reason WNYC’s John Keefe chose Google’s data for the Iowa caucus. He did it because as a self-taught developer, and the only one in WNYC’s newsroom, it was simply easier to build an app that pulled in voting results through Google’s API rather than store the results in his own database.

Building such a database isn’t necessarily hard – for the right person – but it’s harder. In fact, Keefe was so comfortable with Google’s Fusion Tables that even when he used AP data, he fed it into a Fusion Table so he didn’t have to build his own database.

“It’s still tricky to deal with their data,” Keefe said. “When you have a place like WNYC, which doesn’t have a news developer beyond me … it’s sort of like, we’re paying for data I know we could do something with, yet actually doing something with it is challenging.”

Other news outlets clearly feel the same way. Keefe offered his Iowa and Nevada maps, which mashed up voting results and Patchwork Nation demographics, to anyone to embed. Because he used Google’s data, he was free to share it with anyone, and several news sites did.

But when he used AP data, his contract prevented him from sharing those maps. He checked with the AP when a few news outlets approached him, and they gave him the OK after checking to see that no news site would use a map without paying for the underlying data.

Those ad-hoc deals and the Super Tuesday deal makes sense for AP, he said. “The easier it is to use AP data, the more folks will want to buy it from them,” he said.

Goodbye FTP, hello API?

While the arrangement most benefits technically challenged newsrooms, it does reveal that newsrooms don’t just want to get live data; they want it to be easy to work with.

The Washington Post has a long history of working with AP’s results, so it’s no trouble to FTP the AP’s data files, enter them into a database, and run an election results map. But it can be frustrating to have to build everything yourself. Post news app developer Serdar Tumgoren told me he’s been rebuilding the Post’s election data system, but he hasn’t yet integrated delegate counts. So when the Post wanted to display delegate counts, front-end developers had to figure out a way to pull in data from AP and extract that information.

If the AP enabled clients to access its delegate counts the same way Google let Keefe pull in the election data – from its servers, using its API – Tumgoren would have another option when he needed something quickly.

Tumgoren said he and other news developers have asked AP to create such an API.

“That’s a pretty big ask on our part,” Tumgoren said, “because that implies big architecture on [AP's] end. A lot of people are hitting their servers on Election night, live, and even with aggressive caching I think that would require a pretty big scaling-up of their architecture.”

Although AP’s partnership with Google doesn’t address this issue, could it portend a near future in which Google hosts AP data and makes it available through APIs? “That would be brilliant, if AP doesn’t want to get into the massive cloud computing business, but they wanted to share their results,” Tumgoren said.

In such a future, would AP be one step closer to handing its election business over to a technology company? Is this another chapter in another book that’s still being written, the one in which companies that build platforms are chipping away at the business of companies that create content?

The answer to that question lies partly in the troubles that plagued the GOP caucus results in Nevada. As long as elections are human-driven, with widely varying processes and incompatible systems, the solutions will be human-driven – and most likely, they’ll be provided by AP.

But if local elections officers band together and decide on common systems to collect and share data, the solutions will be technological – where Google has the advantage.

Also for Super Tuesday: Live chat today at 3 p.m. ET with Charles Apple and Sara Quinn about how election maps could be improved

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