NDI launched a global initiative this week to ensure that voters and citizen groups have access to detailed election data that will give a true picture of an entire election process, including how candidates are certified, how and which voters are registered, what happens on election day and how complaints are resolved.
While election data should be owned by citizens, access to the information varies widely from country to country. When it is made available, the data is frequently released in formats that make it difficult to use.
The Open Election Data Initiative, openelectiondata.net, supported by Google, adapts open data principles that were designed to enhance government transparency in other areas, such as service delivery, to elections. The initiative encourages governments to be more accountable and citizens to take a more participatory role.
“Increased access to election data allows citizens to see what is right and what is wrong with election processes and to make improvements,” said Michelle Brown, senior advisor for elections and political processes at NDI. “But to be truly ‘open,’ election data must be made available in a timely way, in detail, in its entirety, without charge to anyone who seeks it and in a way that can be easily analyzed and reused.”
The initiative identifies nine principles for open election data. It should be:
Timely: made available as quickly as necessary for it to be useful;
Granular: available at the finest possible level of detail;
Available free on the Internet: easily available without any monetary restrictions;
Complete and in bulk: available as a whole, without omission;
Analyzable: available in a digital, machine readable format can be easily analyzed;
Non-proprietary: in a format over which no entity has exclusive control;
Non-discriminatory: available to any individual or organization without limitations;
License free: open for reuse and redistribution for any purpose; and
Permanently available: available via a stable Internet location for an indefinite period.
“Open data is just one part of the equation,” Brown said. “Governments and citizen groups have to understand what sort of election data should be made public and have the skills to make use of the data once it has been made public.”
To help them do that, the website includes an Election Data Academy that provides instruction for citizens and civil society groups on how to analyze and harness different types of election data. The academy includes a guide to reviewing polling station lists, an introduction to summarizing data, and how to summarize polling station data in practice. Other modules will be added to cover more advanced data skills as well as election data visualization.
As elections have become more common globally, so has the need for ensuring fairness at the polls and accountability of the process. Uses of election data have mostly focused on increasing participation; this initiative takes things to another level by calling for accountability. Access to open data helps groups learn from previous elections, increase transparency, reduce tension and hold institutions accountable for carrying out honest elections. In Ukraine, for example, the citizen monitoring organization OPORA used open data to analyze applications to run for office. The data provided information the group used to dispute rumors that some candidates were denied the chance to run for office on technicalities. In Colombia, civil society group Misión de Observación Electoral (MOE) used official data to identify and map high-risk areas in the 2014 elections. Drawing on data on political violence, paramilitary forces and historical invalid ballot rates, among other things, MOE devised early warning indicators and categorized levels of risk in municipalities across the country. MOE shared their analysis with authorities through regular meetings during the pre-election period, helping mitigate electoral violence.
If you would like to join the movement for open election data and receive updates when new learning modules are added to the Election Data Academy, click here.
Published June 12, 2015