NPR and The New York Times teamed up to make election reporting faster
Although its monopoly on election night race calls has weakened in recent years, The Associated Press is still the authority when it's time to tell America who won (and who lost) an election.
That's why journalists are bound to pay attention when The AP changes the way it distributes race calls and polling returns to its network of subscribers.
They did earlier this year, when the newswire released an updated version of its elections API — the interface by which journalists access The AP's information. The shift posed a problem for The New York Times, said Jeremy Bowers, an interactive news developer for the newspaper.
The crux of the quandary is that many news organizations, including The New York Times, have built software that isn't compatible with The AP's new and improved way of distributing elections results, Bowers said. By and large, news organizations transfer data using FTP, a somewhat dated protocol for moving information between networked computers.
There's nothing wrong with FTP — it still gets the job done — but news organizations that rely on it exclusively could be at a big disadvantage come election night. The reason? Owing to extra processing time required to transfer files en masse, FTP typically lags behind The AP's other protocol by more than a minute. And on election night, when states are being called in real-time, minutes matter. Seconds matter.
"To someone like me, it's a huge deal," Bowers said. "We want to get results as quickly as possible."
So, on Oct. 18, Bowers began rethinking the way the paper processes elections data from The AP. For years, The New York Times had used a program built by Jacob Harris, who was previously a senior software architect there. In Bowers' words, the program was "battle tested" and served the Times in good stead through multiple elections. But it was designed for the old FTP protocol, which The AP began using in 2004.
He got to work. After Bowers began building new software on Github — a collaborative social network for coders — he was contacted by David Eads, a news apps developer on the NPR Visuals team. NPR staffers, who were also bound to grapple with the updated API, had seen the progress underway and wanted in on the project. Bowers, who's based in Washington, D.C., decided to take Eads up on the offer. He visited NPR's headquarters and they began working together.
"We whiteboarded and shouted and did all the things that make software better," Bowers said.
The result? Elex, an open-source program that works with The AP's interface to provide files that The New York Times and other outlets can use. The resulting data can be plugged into a spreadsheet, which journalists can analyze and use to build graphics. And because it doesn't rely on The AP's older protocol, it can provide the information faster.
The AP doesn't have plans to discontinue the old method for accessing its elections data, said Brian Scanlon, director of U.S. election services for the newswire. He expects many news organizations will continue to use it as a backup for the new API. He likened the old protocol to a plane's second engine, which can keep the aircraft aloft in case of emergencies.
Although The AP makes information available on both protocols simultaneously, the API takes less processing time because it allows users to download smaller packets of information, instantly find what's new and look for differences in subsets of the data. It all adds up to a more nuanced and streamlined exchange between journalists and The AP.
The API has been around in one form or another since 2014, but Scanlon says this might be the year it sees widespread adoption among news organizations across the United States. If Elex becomes widely adopted, it could lead to a groundswell of support that tilts the news industry toward the quicker protocol.
Both Eads and Bowers say the creation of Elex is indebted to an open-source ethos among coders in newsrooms throughout the U.S. Many news developers, sometimes called "unicorns" by their colleagues because of their perceived scarcity, have formed professional associations in recent years that have fostered an atmosphere of collaboration.
"I believe that we need to end the elections arms race in the news industry," Eads wrote in an email to Poynter. "We should be innovating and competing over how to deliver our audience election coverage, not over who can build the fastest and most accurate results data parser."
Bowers compared Elex to the process by which journalists from different news organizations share reporting duties in the White House press pool. When important information like election data or the president's comings-and-goings is at stake, journalists are capable of working together for the public good, he said.
"This isn't the USSR versus the U.S. in the 80s," Bowers said. "This is a much broader, more collaborative effort."