AP updates election reporting process with Google partnership, tools on Super Tuesday

This election season, Google has demonstrated how a political party can use free and freely available tools like Google Docs to distribute election results without the news media.

Tuesday, the Associated Press demonstrated that it had gotten the message – at least, the “freely available” part, if not the “free” part. It set up a shared Google Docs speadsheet so that it could get the latest vote totals as soon as the Idaho Republican party tallied them.

How’s that for competitive agility?

The arrangement coincided with a new partnership between AP and Google in which clients that pay for the AP’s election package could embed Google Maps with the results of the seven primaries and three caucuses on Super Tuesday.

The AP wouldn’t say how many news outlets used those Google Maps, although I saw a few and spokesman Paul Colford said he fielded “a number of calls” from interested clients.

Idaho Republican Party Executive Director Jonathan Parker said the AP approached the party with the proposal, which was fortunate because this was the party’s first caucus. (I don’t know if the AP reached similar arrangements in the other two Super Tuesday caucus states; I will update this if the AP responds to my inquiry.)

Here’s how it worked on Tuesday: The head of each county party called state headquarters with its caucus results, which were written down on paper and then announced in the “war room.” If none of the campaigns raised any objections, the state party political director entered them on a Google Spreadsheet.

Because Google Spreadsheets enable real-time collaboration, AP staff could see the numbers as soon as they were entered. The AP then distributed the results to clients – presumably after checking the figures as it does for all contests – that had paid for its live election results package.

Parker was happy with the arrangement. “Probably the smoothest part of the evening was working with the AP,” he said.

Google also asked the party if the two could work together, Parker said, but by then it had already decided to work with AP.

“AP is not competing with Google, nor vice versa,” said Paul Colford, AP’s Director of Media Relations. “Google has been a great partner in providing tools to help disseminate AP’s carefully vetted and reported election results.”

For the Iowa and Nevada caucuses, Google set up the state parties with Google Apps, which powered automatically updated election results maps. The data was free for anyone to use, and anyone could embed the maps.

In Idaho, however, the real-time results were not free, which The Spokesman-Review’s online director Ryan Pitts found frustrating.

When he saw a news release stating that the Idaho GOP would use Google Docs to share its data with the AP, he assumed the spreadsheet would be available to anyone. The party told him that because AP had set it up, it wouldn’t be.

“The guy I was talking to apologized for how complicated this was making it for us, but that they were just looking for the easiest way to report. I get that, I really do,” Pitts told me by email. “And I told him I’d be happy to set up a system for them next time around that would be just as efficient, but would make results available to everyone.”

Pitts told me by phone that he understands the business interests that motivated AP, but “I thought it was so lame that the Idaho GOP was entering stuff in a Google Doc and AP was turning around and selling that.”

The Spokesman-Review looked into AP’s elections package, but it would have cost $10,000, Pitts said. “I don’t know how our ad salespeople would have recouped $10,000 against just that data service,” he said.

The Spokesman-Review did get free, real-time results for the Washington caucuses on Saturday, but there were a few surprises. The Washington Republican party saved the results to a text file (technically, a .csv) on Dropbox. The newspaper wrote a python parser to import the figures and feed them to a news app.

It was going fine until the state party started changing the spreadsheet around as it was compiling the totals, which broke the news app. Pitts and another developer had to rewrite the importer several times.

“It’s user-generated content – that’s what it is. We didn’t pay anyone to clean it,” Pitts said. “If we were doing this again, I would say in advance, can you not mess with the structure on the fly?”

Parker said the party would consider working with Google or a news outlet like The Spokesman-Review to distribute results to anyone. “However, we won’t have to worry about this again for another four years.” Who knows what tools will be available then.

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