Using ‘Twitter Vote Report’ in Your Online Election Coverage

“I thought it might be a good reporting exercise/cool experiment to set up a Twitter feed for us all to contribute to and report on any voting irregularities, voter intimidation, equipment problems, counting issues, etc. that we come across on Tuesday night,” said UMass Amherst journalism instructor Steve Fox via e-mail to a diverse group of news people and academics.

What a good idea, I thought — but as a perpetual Twitter user (drbarb), I recalled seeing a Twitter post (“tweet”) about that kind of site. My sense of where the future of news lies tells me that “newsies” shouldn’t be too quick to reinvent the wheel, especially when it’s a tech wheel. Instead of launching a DIY online project it’s important to first scout around online and evaluate existing efforts. When you find them, it’s best to work with them to build synergies between those sites and your own efforts.

Journalists and technologists do need to work together, as Amy Gahran has suggested. One way to start is to leverage social networking and the link economy to your benefit by sharing the workload with existing projects.

For the type of election watch project Fox was considering, David Cohn (digidave on Twitter) recommends Twitter Vote Report — a non-partisan, nonprofit site. Cohn also set up a Digg recommendation pointing to the project’s site. Twitter Vote Report also was mentioned by Ana Marie Cox in’s Swampland blog, the Orlando Sentinel, Rocketboom, and Mashable. And of course, the site has been getting widely tweeted and blogged, too.

How does Twitter Vote Report work? Here’s a video tutorial for those of us who weren’t born knowing what hashtags are. The short story is that this project has devised a series of easy-to-remember codes to provide fast, mobile input from poll locations. In 140 characters or fewer, voters can transmit their location (#zipcode), tell how long the wait to vote is (#wait), characterize their experience as good or bad, and even send an “#EP” message that will connect them to election officials in case they have problems with registration and otherwise casting their ballot.

What happens with this information? You can view the site directly, or watch for reports as they come in via Twitter. Of course, not everyone is comfortable with Twitter — so there also is an SMS (text messaging) number, a voicemail number, and even an application for the iPhone and G1 (Google’s new smart phone that runs the Android operating system).

How can this site serve news media? Beyond spotting a tweet with a local angle, you can also use the site’s embeddable, state-specific Google maps. This example shows Georgia, filtering for long waits and “bad” reports.

Note: If the map does not display, the server may be experiencing high traffic. See the “Caution” note below.

Several other types of visualization tools are expected to be online by Tuesday — including one that will show where wait times are long. You will be able to search by city to find tallies, machine problems, and wait times. Early voting times are already available in chart and tweet forms using Plodt (a program that allows tweet subjects to be counted, and then charted).

Additionally, Twitter Vote Report distributes data via several kinds of mapping and data feeds: RSS, KML (geotagged information for Google Earth), GeoJSON, and more. (However, the GoogleEarth view didn’t seem to be activated when I checked it just now.)

CAUTION: Twitter is notorious for service outages, especially during periods of peak demand. This can cause problems with sites that depend on data or input from Twitter. Today, at various times, Twitter Vote Report has been generating “internal server error” alerts (which also affect embedded Google maps like the one above). So expect occasional problems. However, don’t let this stop you from working with this project. Such problems can hit any site experiencing high demand — including yours.

The value of the live voting experience as revealed through Twitter depends completely on who and how many voters participate. And of course, the information that plays out on Election Day will not represent areas with poor cell coverage. The demographics of participants may skew younger than the average voter — although these days, who won’t have a cell phone on them when they are in line at the polls?

A pre-election call-out to your readers could increase the value of this site for your local area. Also, filtering the tweet stream to display reports from your city or state should draw viewers. The embeddable maps might increase the stickiness of your site and entice viewers to return.

Connecting a news site with Twitter Vote Report features — and calling attention to these features on Election Day — does serve a news and a public service function. It can help you spot trends, zero in on election problem hotspots, and become a real-time information nexus at an important time in our collective civic life.

Working with projects like Twitter Vote Report instead of going DIY also provides an opportunity to interact with and build communities through conversations with those “people formerly known as the audience.”

On Tuesday we might see an “evolving information construct” unfold via election coverage. You might recall Robin Sloan’s EPIC 2014 and EPIC 2015 videos, and wonder: Are we looking at the future through a rearview mirror?

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