I’m winding down after a couple of very long days preparing for our coverage of the 2008 Kansas (and local) primaries. As always it’s been an exhausting but rewarding time. We’ve come a long way since the first election I wrote software for and was involved with back in 2006 (where election night involved someone accessing an AS/400 terminal and shouting numbers at me for entry). Our election app has become a lot more sophisticated, our data import process more refined, and election night is a whole lot more fun and loads less stressful than it used to be. I thought I’d go over some of the highlights while they’re still fresh in my mind.
Our election app is definitely a success story for both the benefits of structured data and incremental development. Each time the app gets a little more sophisticated and a little smarter. What once wasn’t used until the night of the election has become a key part of our election coverage both before and after the event. For example, this year we had an overarching election section and also sections for indivudual races, like this section for the Douglas County Commission 2nd district Democratic primary. These sections tie together our coverage of the individual races: Stories, photos and videos about the race, our candidate profiles, any chats we’ve had with the candidates, campaign finance documents, and candidate selectors, an awesome app that has been around longer than I have that lets users see which candidates they most agree with. On election night they’re smart enough to display results as they come in.
This time around, the newsroom also used our tools to swap out which races were displayed on the homepage throughout the night. We lead the night with results from Leavenworth County, since they were the first to report. The newsroom spent the rest of the nice swapping in one or more race on the homepage as they saw fit. This was a huge improvement over past elections where we chose ahead of time which races would be featured on the homepage. It was great to see the newsroom exercise editorial control throughout the night without having to involve editing templates.
On the television side, 6 News Lawrence took advantage of some new hardware and software to display election results prominently throughout the night. I kept catching screenshots during commercial breaks, but the name of the race appeared on the left hand side of the screen with results paging through on the bottom of the screen. The new hardware and software allowed them to use more screen real estate to provide better information to our viewers. In years past we’ve had to jump through some hoops to get election results on the air, but this time was much easier. We created a custom XML feed of election data that their new hardware/software ingested continuously and pulled results from. As soon as results were in our database they were on the air.
The way that election results make their way in to our database has also changed for the better over the past few years. We have developed a great relationship with the Douglas County Clerk, Jamie Shew and his awesome staff. For several elections now they have provided us with timely access to detailed election results that allow us to provide precinct-by-precinct results. It’s also great to be able to compare local results with statewide results in state races. We get the data in a structured and well-documented fixed-width format and import it using a custom parser we wrote several elections ago.
State results flow in via a short script that uses BeautifulSoup to parse and import data from the Kansas Secretary of State site. That script ran every few minutes throughout the night and was updating results well after I went to bed. In fact it’s running right now while we wait for the last few precincts in Hodgeman County to come in. This time around we did enter results from a few races in Leavenworth and Jefferson counties by hand, but we’ll look to automate that in November.
As always, election night coverage was a team effort. I’m honored to have played my part as programmer and import guru. As always, it was great to watch Christian Metts take the data and make it both beautiful and meaningful in such a short amount of time. Many thanks go out to the fine folks at Douglas County and all of the reporters, editors, and technical folk that made our coverage last night possible.