Bots: Meet the ProPublica Election DataBot

For our previous segment of Innovation in Focus this month, Mizzou convergence student Lexi Churchill produced a video highlighting political advertising on Facebook related to the upcoming U.S. Senate Race in Missouri. Churchill’s idea for the video came from interacting with ProPublica’s Election DataBot. ProPublica launched this project in 2016 in partnership with the Google News Initiative.

James Gordon, Innovation and Futures Lab Senior Editor, chatted with news application developer Derek Willis about this tool and how journalists can use it to cover the midterm elections.

Gordon: How is this tool useful to newsrooms and journalists?

Willis: The idea behind Election Databot is to have a tool that can help particularly journalists really keep track of events that are happening in congressional races of interest to them. The idea was to aggregate a bunch of data sources and then try to provide like a firehose feed, sort of a news feed somewhat like Facebook and other platforms do, and the ability to get notifications when things occur.

Gordon: How does the decision to focus exclusively on congressional races affect what goes into the Election DataBot?

Willis: It’s not like a general interest tool. We never really envisioned it that way. It would be great if lots and lots of regular folks cared this much about congressional elections, but mostly it’s a tool aimed at people who really need to care for professional reasons. We are able to do a relatively compact narrative of each item that goes in the firehose because we don’t have to spend a lot of time explaining things like – this is a particular type of FEC filing and here’s why you might be interested in it. In most cases the folks who look at this either know exactly what they’re looking for or they can kind of filter down to what they’re looking for. 

Gordon: Heading into the midterm elections, what impact do you anticipate the Election DataBot will have?

Willis: We saw in the primaries that people used it to spot interesting things happening in individual races, which is exactly what we want it to do. Campaigns get covered often framed by a national environment or a national narrative, and while that can be very helpful in understanding politics broadly, sometimes individual campaigns differ and individual races differ. We saw that a little bit in the primaries with races in Kansas and other states where coverage actually reflected some of the stuff that was being surfaced by the DataBot. 

What I think the hope is for the remaining time for the midterms is that journalists use it to put into context where their race is in terms of like a national context: Whether there’s a lot of spending in this race relative to other races, whether there’s a lot of activity here. We’ve seen an increase in sign ups. I think we’re close to a thousand folks who are getting notifications. To me, that says there’s both greater interest in congressional races this year and that the DataBot is actually serving that interest. 

Gordon: For journalists who want to start using the tool, what first steps should they take?

Willis: They should sign up with it. At the moment you need a Google account, a gmail account, or if you have a Google for Work account, you can use that email address to sign up. I would do that, and then search for a particular candidate or a particular race and you can get alerts. 

Gordon: Any other advice?

Willis: The first way to get into it, if you’re not exactly sure what you’re looking for, is by geography. I would say find your state or your district or, if it’s a Senate race, just your state, and just take a look and see what the DataBot has to offer and whether it’s worth you signing up for notifications. 

Gordon: Is there any feature or thing you’d like to see added to Election DataBot, possibly after this election?

Willis: Because we’ve added this new home page with a map and activity, I would love for us to have like an activity for the presidential race. Because right now we’re judging activity in the aggregate for all congressional races, which works well for the midterms. But I think for 2020 I would love for us to come up with a way to judge the activity on a state-by-state basis that is reflective of the presidential race and involves different kinds of data. It might be things such as visits to particular states or visits by campaign proxies.

Similarly I’d love to get maybe a little more granular with Google Trends in terms of interests in particular states and even below the state-level and particularly areas of a state. We’re working with the Google folks to hopefully make that happen.

Editor’s Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


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