Election Apps and Fun from the 2012 Election Hackathon

Oct 19, 2012
Originally published on October 22, 2012 12:27 pm

With a few weeks remaining before a clear winner can be called in the U.S. Presidential election, software developers have drummed up some pretty inventive, new ways for voters to learn more about the candidates and issues relevant to the race.

At the end of September, NPR joined forces with the Sunlight Foundation and The Washington Post to present the 2012 Election Hackathon. The event drew nearly 100 developers to D.C. for a 26-hour programming challenge: develop election-related web apps using open source data and information from the Post, NPR and Sunlight.

Before the Hackathon, we asked Facebook fans to tell us what capabilities they would like to see in an election app and the majority of people who responded asked simply for a fact checker. Well, turns out, one of the competitors had a similar idea and created the Truthiness Report, which includes a "Pinnochio rating."

In addition to the fact-checking device, products and tools produced over the weekend ran the gamut of functionality: games asking players to match politicos with a given quote and competing to win battleground states for one of the parties; informative apps tracking news coverage and quotes tied to body parts and some GE Color Effects Lights that color-code incoming tweets by whether they contain "Romney" or "Obama."

George Mason University student Josh Snider, who came to the election-themed event with plans to build a map showing how campaign spending varies by state, has participated in eight hackathons.

"It's like a part time job for me," the third-year computer science major said.

Snider's map plans changed when he joined a team of three (one other college student and two U.S. State Department employees, all of whom he met at the event) who had a different idea. The team created Contributions Tracker, a web-based search tool comparing every presidential political contribution with the number of times Obama or Romney mentioned the person or organization making that contribution. Contributions Tracker was awarded "Best Mashup" at the Hackathon.

"[Contributions Tracker] I thought was really fantastic," said Cameron Hickey, who took home the overall win. "It was my favorite, hands down."

Hickey, along with his wife Lauren Feeney came from New York for the weekend's event. For their app, Capitol Clout, they developed an algorithm that draws on publicly-available information to assign a political-influence score to legislators in Washington.

While are both familiar with data visualizations and digital content from their day jobs in the media industry - he as a photo journalist and cinematographer for science stories on PBS' NewsHour, and she as a producer for billmoyers.com - this was the first time they had collaborated at a Hackathon.

"She was the the producer, and I was the programmer," Hickey tell us. This was Lauren's first ever Hackathon and the third for Cameron.

"I've wanted to get more into [programming] in the last year, from the entrepreneurial perspective and for my documentary work. I've been involved in cross-platform documentary projects and institutions, so I'm interested in learning more ways to combine photography, film and interactive technology."

Hickey and Feeney plan to continue fine tuning their app and algorithm, so it can remain relevant even after the presidential election and offer accurate statistics on the candidates. Additionally, some of the APIs they've pulled from won't be open after November they will also have to adjust their sources.

"I was very impressed at the apps that came out of [the Hackathon]," says NPR Social Media Team Member Kate Myers, who came to the event to support and observe with her junior hacker (pictured at left).

"One of the great things about a hackathon is the concentrated time that we take to be creative — work on something we don't do in our day jobs, and often work with people we don't get a chance to in every day life. We try to bring that into our work here at NPR with Serendipity Days," where staff take a full day and a half away from their regular duties and devote time and energy to exploring new ideas.

Another Hackathon perk - the snacks. As predicted by Election Hackathon judge Brian Boyer of NPR, the food was aplenty. Both Michael Schonfeld and Tom Lee mentioned the high-quality provisions provided for the event in blog posts they wrote about the experience. See Exhibit A, munchies, to the left.

Check out some of the apps, read a review of the event from PBS NewsHour and see more photos from the 2012 Election Hackathon here, taken by Sunlight Foundation's Solay Howell.

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.