How Google beat AP with Iowa caucus results (and why it matters)

WNYC's John Keefe decided to use Google's election results for his map tracking the results of Iowa's GOP caucus for three reasons:

  • Google's data were easier to deal with than the files provided by the Associated Press.
  • He could share what he built.
  • It was free.

Tuesday night, he also learned that Google was faster.

As GOP workers in Des Moines entered and verified each precinct's results on a system set up by Google, the current totals were pushed to a map on Google's elections page, to the home page of the Republican Party of Iowa, and to precinct and county-level tables accessible by anyone, including the AP.

Google's experiment showed how an innovative technology company can push in on the turf of a venerable news organization that prides itself on getting it first and getting it right.

The AP, normally at the front of the line, found itself behind Google – and behind WNYC, which paired its data with a news application built by one person over Christmas vacation.

People noticed. “Google was ahead, definitely ahead,” said Aron Pilhofer, whose news applications team at The New York Times used AP results for its election news app.

The Guardian's U.S. newsroom was watching various outlets closely that night.

“It's fairly common knowledge that the only place to get primary/election data is from AP, and through various sources we knew that the NYTimes, MSNBC and HuffPo were all using AP feeds,” Gabriel Dance, Guardian U.S. interactive editor, told me by email. But early in the night, Open Editor Amanda Michel noticed that the map on the Iowa GOP site was the same as the one on Google's elections site.

“We quickly pieced together that Google was providing them the map, and they were providing Google the feed,” Dance said.

“Interestingly enough, Keefe's dashboard did an even better job than Google's at displaying what total percent was reporting, and it was clear that Keefe was always a percentage point or two more updated while still being accurate,” Dance said.

Google and the Iowa GOP were working more closely together than the people at the Guardian figured. The Republican Party was using Google's Web applications to keep track of results phoned in from 1,774 precincts around the state.

Why use Excel when you can use Google Apps?

Here's how things worked on Tuesday night. People gathered at caucuses and voted for their candidates on pieces of paper. Someone at each precinct called the state party in Des Moines, where staff and volunteers used Google Apps to record the results.

“The spreadsheet with all 1,774 precincts in Iowa, that was all aggregated in a system that we worked with Google to create,” said Nicole Sizemore, spokeswoman for the Iowa GOP. “Once we got the numbers and were able to verify [them], they would go to Google and anyone else who was having some sort of real-time tracker.”

The Google representative I spoke with didn't specify exactly which of its Web services were used, but this sort of thing could be done with a combination of Google Docs and Fusion Tables, which can be used to update a Google Map.

Director of AP Election Services Brian Scanlon wasn't available for an interview Thursday, but spokesman Paul Colford relayed a statement from him:

We pulled from those tables as a key source, but we also performed AP's customary, scrupulous verification of the numbers. … We also called out to counties to verify what we were getting from the party and to receive updates.

Will Google manage election results again?

Google doesn't plan to repeat Iowa's election setup in New Hampshire or South Carolina. But the experiment poses interesting questions about the mechanics of election results reporting.

Could Google challenge the AP as the sole provider of all state and national election results in the U.S.? Whom do we trust more to give us early, reliable information on voting: a nonprofit journalism outfit or a private corporation that makes its money selling ads? And once all those votes are counted, to whom does that information belong?

“If it could be repeated, it would be the democratizing of our real-time election results, really,” Keefe said.

Besides being free, Keefe was attracted to Google because he could share his news app with other websites. Keefe knows of eight sites that used it, including PBS, the Texas Tribune, the Star-Ledger, the Houston Chronicle and Minnesota Public Radio. The AP doesn't allow clients to post the results on other sites.

But as long as it remains so onerous to collect the data for a national election – the AP says it has a stringer in nearly every county in the U.S. on Election Night – Keefe expects it to remain a commercial enterprise.

News outlets pay extra to get the AP's election results; Colford said the rates depend on a variety of factors. “It is a huge revenue source, and they invest heavily in getting it right,” Poynter business analyst Rick Edmonds told me.

Although Pilhofer doesn't think Google wants to get into the business of providing election results, “if they chose to compete with the Associated Press ... I think they could do it.”

But he emphasized just how hard it is to deliver fast and accurate election results for the entire country, not just the Iowa caucus. “There are quirks in every state, in the way each state reports election results and how delegates are chosen, and all kinds of little details that have to be figured out,” he said.

“And an organization like the Associated Press, which has been doing this sort of thing forever, brings a lot of value to that.”

AP Senior Managing Editor Mike Oreskes echoed that point. "It's a bit of apples and oranges to say that Iowa, which has one of the simplest election systems in the country, tells you anything about what the rest of the American vote counting system is like. ... If all of America were like Iowa, what Google did would work across the rest of the country."

Moreover, he said, "there is a huge danger in a one-source system. It isn't only about speed. Google simply took the feed from the state party ... Our system is journalism. We're actually out there checking the numbers."

AP Washington Bureau Chief Sally Buzbee said the AP uncovered a few problems on Tuesday night. Totals for a few counties seemed to be inaccurate or incomplete, so the news outlet called county party officials, and the information was later corrected. And at least two counties (Sioux and Dubuque) were slow to report their results to the state, so AP called, got them and added them to their figures. Those changes were later reflected in the official tallies.

I don't know whether Google would find it worthwhile to act as a public-facing election results service. But I'm intrigued, especially by the part we didn't see: the system it set up to track all the votes and feed them to its Google Maps.

The company already sells Google Apps packages tailored for government. Voting machines and software are a big – and controversial – business. Meanwhile, an organization called the Open Source Digital Voting Foundation is trying to establish “a freely available, publicly owned elections and voting systems and services infrastructure.”

If you wanted to standardize the collection of voting results nationwide, you'd start with the local, state and party officials responsible for making sure everything runs smoothly. Seems like that would help organize the world's information, and make some money in the process.

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


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