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NICAR14 = OpenElex Shot in the Arm

NICAR 14 Hackathon

By Sara Schnadt

This year’s NICAR conference was an especially great experience for me. Having spent the past year working remotely with volunteers around the country to develop the groundwork for the OpenElections project, I met so many volunteers in person, featured them in our project update session, and worked alongside them at our day-long hackathon on the last day of the conference, and this made working on the project so much more meaningful.

From meeting Sandra Fish by having her pass by me in the throngs of in-between-session milling to excitedly hand off a CD of Colorado results data, to Ed Borasky telling me over our computers at the hackathon that there is a large and close-knit network of journalists in his local Portland area who would be very supportive of our work, to noticing after many hours of working together that our own Derek Willis and Nolan Hicks have very similar senses of humor, NICAR was a great and constructive convergence of OpenElections supporters.

We were also very pleased to have new volunteers join us for the hackathon, including the likes of NPR’s Jeremy Bowers, and the Chicago hacker Nick Bennett helping with scraper writing and data processing. Bloomberg designer Chloe Whiteaker and civic dev extraordinaire Margie Roswell also blithely drafted us a new public-facing site in a matter of hours. And then there was Bloomberg visualization dev Julian Burgess, who spent most of the day with us, at first trying his hand at learning python just so he could pitch in, then giving an in-depth assessment of our interface and data acquisition strategies. I am new to digital journalism as of this past year, and I have to say I am very taken by the generosity, talent, and character of the people in this space.

More than anything else, meeting all these great folks in person brought home just how important it is to digital journalists to create new civic infrastructure where it doesn’t already exist, and to see how invested you all are in seeing this project succeed. During our session ‘OpenElections, a year in review’, in addition to a detailed update on our progress gathering metadata with our small army of volunteers, and defining a core results data scraper spec, there were spirited discussions about the technical nuances and interesting challenges of our system architecture. These challenges are inherent in taking a motley and wildly varied collection of individual states’ election results archiving methods and creating a new, clean, systematic, national infrastructure. The interest and investment were palpable in the room.

From all of this, it was clear that we are on the right track, and we left with new motivation, support, perspective, talent and stamina to bring the project home in our second year!