Knight News Challenge winner will make historical election data easily accessible

The winners of the latest Knight News Challenge announced today include a collaboration between developers at The New York Times and The Washington Post to create a free, comprehensive database of past U.S. election results.

New York Times interactive news developer Derek Willis and Washington Post news apps developer Serdar Tumgoren are working together on the project, named Open Elections. Their employers are not officially involved, but are supportive of the idea.

How could journalists use this data once it's available?

In an interview, Willis suggested merging the elections data with demographic data to examine how changing population patterns have affected voting trends. A journalist could show one candidate's base of support shifting across multiple elections. The data could even provide simple context for a daily news story, such as quickly looking up the last time a Republican won a certain office.

"Serdar and I both work on elections in our day jobs, and year after year, election after election, we would have to put together previous election results. You want them for comparison's sake -- to show how things have changed in a state or a county," Willis said. "I've done this three or four times now, and it's always a pain. It's always much more complicated than it needs to be. ... There's no centralized place to go."

"You're looking at multiple sources and formats, and trying to shoehorn those all into a single standardized format. It's tricky. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of time," Willis continued. "It starts to dawn on you that this should be easier, we shouldn't be repeating the same thing every two years."

The end product will include a catalog of the available data, and data sets accessible through an API and through bulk downloads in common data formats.

"We want to make this useful to developers, but not just to developers," Willis said. "If all you know is a spreadsheet, then you can get election data and work with it. Or if you are a developer and you want to start incorporating election results into an app that you're building, then you can do that too."

The project will start by recording election results from all states for all federal offices and most major statewide offices.

Willis said initially they will try to get data back through the 2000 election cycle, and then see what else is possible beyond that. The further back in time you look, he said, the more likely it is that records are not available digitally.

It will be a long-term effort, beginning after the more-pressing matter of this November's election is concluded. By early next year, there may be data posted from a handful of states, Willis said, then they will take feedback and continue building more data sets.

If you want to follow along or get involved, the code is shared on Github, there is a Google Group for questions and updates, and a Twitter account @openelex.

Winners of the next challenge, on mobile technology, will be announced in January followed by three more 2013 contests, the first of which will be on open government.

Knight News Challenge: Data Winners

Six winners, including Willis and Tumgoren, were awarded a total of $2.2 million in the latest Knight News Challenge, whose theme was "data." The winners will be presenting their projects via a live stream at 4 p.m. ET today. Here is information on them, provided by Knight in a press release.

Project: New contributor tools for OpenStreetMap

Award: $575,000
Winners: Development Seed Inc. / Eric Gunderson, Washington, D.C.
Twitter: @developmentseed, @ericg, @mapbox

Summary: OpenStreetMap, a community mapping project, is quickly becoming a leading source for open street-level data, with foursquare, Wikimedia and other major projects signing on as users. However, there is a significant learning curve to joining the growing contributor community. With Knight News Challenge funds, Development Seed will build a suite of easy-to-use tools allowing anyone to contribute data such as building locations, street names and points of interest. The team will promote the tools worldwide and help contribute to the growth of OpenStreetMap.

Eric Gundersen is president and cofounder of Development Seed, where he helps run project strategy and helps coordinate product development. An expert on open data and open-source software, Gundersen has been featured in The New York Times, Nightline, NPR, Federal Computer Week and elsewhere. He frequently speaks on open data, Web-based mapping tools, knowledge management and open-source business models. Gundersen was also a winner of the Federal 100 award for his contributions to government technology in 2009. Gundersen earned his master’s degree in international development from American University in Washington and has bachelor’s degrees in economics and international relations.


Award: $450,000
Winner: Joe Germuska, Chicago; John Keefe, New York; Ryan Pitts, Spokane, Wash.
Twitter: @JoeGermuska; @jkeefe; @ryanpitts

Despite the high value of Census data, the U.S. Census Bureau’s tools for exploring the data are difficult to use. A group of news developers built for the 2010 Census to help journalists more easily access Census data. Following early positive feedback, the team will expand and simplify the tool, and add new data sets including the annual American Community Survey, which informs decisions on how more than $400 billion in government funding is distributed.

Joe Germuska is a senior news application developer for the Chicago Tribune. He leads development of special online projects that amplify the impact of Tribune investigations, as well as stand-alone projects such as the award-winning Tribune Schools site and the new Crime in Chicago project. He was also an advisor to the Knight News Challenge-funded PANDA project.

John Keefe is the senior editor for data news and journalism technology at WNYC, New York Public Radio. He is part of WNYC’s Data News Team, which helps infuse the station’s journalism with data reporting, maps, interactive applications and crowdsourcing projects. Keefe led WNYC’s news operation for nine years and grew its capacity for breaking news, election coverage and investigative reporting. His career also includes time as a police reporter at two Wisconsin newspapers, as science editor for Discovery Channel Online and as president of a small digital production company. He blogs at

Ryan Pitts is the senior editor for digital media at The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Wash. He works with a newsroom Web team that built the newspaper’s content-management system, works with reporters and editors on data projects, and continues to develop mapping, multimedia and revenue-generating tools for local journalism. Pitts worked as a reporter, print designer and editor at two Northwest newspapers before moving into online journalism full time in 2002. He was a board member for the Knight-funded PANDA Project, and is currently working with Knight-Mozilla OpenNews to help build Source, a site covering the journalism and coding community.

Project: Safecast Radiation & Air Quality

Award: $400,000
Winners: Safecast / Sean Bonner, Los Angeles
Twitter: @safecast

Summary: Safecast, a trusted provider of radiation data in post-quake Japan, is now expanding with challenge funding to create a real-time map of air quality in U.S. cities. A team of volunteers, scientists and developers quickly formed Safecast in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster, when demand for radiation monitoring devices and data far surpassed the supply. The project has collected more than 4 million records and become the leading provider of radiation data. With News Challenge funding, Safecast will measure air quality in Los Angeles and expand to other U.S. cities. Disclosure: Knight Foundation Trustee Joi Ito is an officer of the Momoko Ito Foundation, which is receiving the funds on behalf of Safecast.

Sean Bonner is a Los Angeles-based entrepreneur, journalist and activist. He has been featured in Cool Hunting, GOOD, Wired, Playboy, Salon, Forbes, The Associated Press, and has been included in Yahoo’s Best of the Web. As cofounder and global director of Safecast (an open global sensor network monitoring radiation levels in Japan), Bonner spends a lot of time thinking about maps and data. He cofounded Coffee Common (a customer-education brand collaboration launched at TED 2011) and Crash Space (a Los Angeles hacker-space). He has been a regular contributor to BoingBoing and has written editorials for MAKE, Al Jazeera and others.

Project: Pop Up Archive

Award: $300,000
Winners: Bailey Smith and Anne Wootton, Oakland, Calif.
Twitter: @popuparchive, @annewootton, @baileyspace

Today, media is created with greater ease, and by more people, than ever before. But multimedia content – including interviews, pictures and more – cannot survive online unless it is organized. Pop Up Archive takes media from the shelf to the Web – making content searchable, reusable and shareable, without requiring technical expertise or substantial resources from producers. A beta version was built around the needs of The Kitchen Sisters, Peabody award-winning journalists and independent producers who have collected stories of people’s lives for more than 30 years. Pop Up Archive will use News Challenge funds to further develop its platform and to do outreach to potential users.

Before arriving in California, Anne Wooton lived in France and managed a historic newspaper digitization project at Brown University. Wootton came to the University of California at Berkeley School of Information, where she received her master’s, with an interest in digital archives and the sociology of technology. She spent the summer 2011 working with The Kitchen Sisters and grant agencies to identify preservation and access opportunities for independent radio.

Bailey Smith has worked as an editor, journalist, Web master and information architect and has contributed to projects as a user experience researcher and designer for Code for America. She has also engaged intimately with media production as a transmedia consultant and as the producer of the radio documentary, Local Hire, an exploration of the rise and fall of film production in North Carolina. Smith has a master’s degree from the UC Berkeley School of Information in information management and systems. More at

Project: LocalData

Award: $300,000
Winners: Amplify Labs, Alicia Rouault, Prashant Singh and Matt Hampel, Detroit, Mich.
Twitter: @golocaldata

Summary: Whether tracking crime trends, cataloging real estate development or assessing parks and play spaces, communities gather millions of pieces of data each year. Such data are often collected haphazardly on paper forms or with hard-to-use digital tools, limiting their value. LocalData is a set of tools that helps community groups and city residents gather and organize information by designing simple surveys, seamlessly collecting it on paper or smartphone and exporting or visualizing it through an easy-to-use dashboard. Founded by Code for America fellows, the tools have already been tested in Detroit, where they helped document urban blight by tracking the condition of thousands of lots.

Alicia Rouault is an urban planner and interactive product manager. Before becoming a Code for America fellow, Rouault worked in economic development and urban planning on the development of a national urban manufacturing tool kit for cities. On the East Coast, Rouault worked as assistant editor of Urban Omnibus, in community development with the city of Newark’s Division of Planning and Economic Development, and with nonprofits Pratt Center for Community Development and Citizens Committee for New York City. Rouault has studied at University of Toronto, Pratt Institute and Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Matt Hampel is a Web developer and student of the changing landscape of civic information gathering. Hampel has worked with nonprofits, newspapers, universities and other organizations to build tools for the public good. Before joining Code for America, he worked as a technology project manager at the University of Michigan.

Prashant Singh is a Code for America Fellow on the Detroit team, where he creates technology for citizens and communities. Before that, he worked for Microsoft on television products for the Xbox, phones and set-top boxes. Singh likes to make, tinker and dirty his hands with software, bicycles, furniture and whatever else will fit in his apartment. Before working on consumer technology, Singh was a signal processing researcher. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in electrical engineering from Rice University.

Project: Open Elections

Award: $200,000
Winners: Derek Willis, The New York Times; Serdar Tumgoren, The Washington Post, Washington, D.C.
Twitter: @derekwillis; @zstumgoren

Summary: Elections are fundamental to democracy, yet the ability to easily analyze the results are out of reach for most journalists and civic hackers. No freely available, comprehensive source of official election results exists. Open Elections will create the first, with a standardized, linked set of certified election results for U.S. federal and statewide offices. The database will allow the people who work with election data to be able to get what they need, whether that’s a CSV file for stories and data analysis or a JSON usable for Web applications and interactive graphics. The project also will allow for linking election data to other critical data sets. The hope is that one day, journalists and researchers will be able much more easily to analyze elections in ways that account for campaign spending, demographic changes and legislative track records.

Derek Willis is an interactive developer with The New York Times, working mainly on political and election-related applications. He maintains The Times’ congressional and campaign finance data and contributes to other projects. Willis has worked at The Washington Post, The Center for Public Integrity, Congressional Quarterly and The Palm Beach Post. He lives in Silver Spring, Md., with his wife and daughter. More at

Serdar Tumgoren is a newsroom developer at The Washington Post who builds political and election-related Web applications. He previously worked at Congressional Quarterly on campaign finance data. Prior to becoming a full-time data geek, he worked as a local government reporter in Connecticut, California and New Jersey. He lives with his wife in Washington, D.C.

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    Jeff Sonderman

    Jeff Sonderman is the deputy director of the American Press Institute, helping to lead its use of research, tools, events, and strategic insights to advance and sustain journalism.


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