Broke Elections Database

Category: Best news application

Country/area: United States

Organisation: Broke in Philly, all newsroom partners

Organisation size: Big

Publication date: 5 Jul 2019

Credit: Broke in Philly

Project description:

The Broke Election Database is a tool for the public and journalists to see specific responses from candidates for Philadelphia City Council regarding the city’s economic mobility. The database was put together for Broke in Philly, a reporting collaborative of more than 25 newsrooms in Philadelphia that produces solutions journalism focusing on economic mobility. We leveraged community engagement and crowdsourcing tools to generate eight questions from the public that we then posed to candidates. After fact-checking and ensuring the responses were substantial, we published answers from TK candidates, a TKmajorityTK of the city’s largest city council race in thirty years.

Impact reached:

  • All City Council members are now aware of the collaborative reporting efforts and focus of Broke in Philly, helping the rest of the collaborative’s work to become a primary news source for elected officials.
  • The database now functions as a quick and easy accountability reference for reporters and citizens to see what candidates have promised and compare that to what they are delivering while in office.
  • Spotlight on Poverty, a national non-profit forum that discusses solutions to poverty, reached out to learn about how we used community engagement to crowdsource the questions for our survey with the idea of replicating the process for their organization in the 2020 election cycle.
  • MinnPost in Minnesota was interested in learning the process behind creating a collaborative election database in multiple languages.

Techniques/technologies used:

When preparing to send out the survey to City Council and Mayoral candidates, Broke in Philly partners leveraged digital community engagement tools to make sure that our work was based on community feedback and not produced in an editorial bubble. Google forms – Our first round of outreach was conducted with Google Forms, which helped us field more than 90 individual responses and generate more than 300 questions from Philadelphians. Hearken – Once we distilled the questions for candidates, there were still too many to include in a survey, so we used Hearken to conduct a voting round and select the top three questions out of nine. The Broke Elections Database had two main iterations: the first in time for the primary elections on May 21 and the second in time for the general elections on Nov. 5. The first round only included Republican and Democratic candidates for City Council and Mayor. Because Pennsylvania primary elections do not include third-party candidates, those folks were not included until the November version of the database was being constructed. Airtable – Once responses were edited, the content was transferred into an Airtable base that allowed us to use the API and publishable views to share the content in English and Spanish. We were also to update the content in real-time without rebuilding the site each time. HTML, CSS, JS – The database’s first version was built using Javascript, HTML, and CSS from scratch. The final public-facing version was built using HTML, CSS and Javascript that displayed views of the data gathered into Airtable. Translation – A critical part of this database was ensuring that as much of the content shown was not just in English, but also in Spanish. We accomplished this by leveraging contacts with our multi-lingual and Spanish-speaking partners to connect

What was the hardest part of this project?

The hardest part of this project was that it could not be owned by one specific newsroom partner in the collaborative, so the resources that newsrooms could commit to producing the database were very limited. This resulted in only having one person to coordinate, collect and then produce all of the responses. Many of our newsroom partners are small hyperlocal outlets, and therefore do not have development teams to specifically help with building the app. The newsrooms that do have development teams could not spare them to work on a project that required working on restricted servers and access (due to the site hosting being done through a specific partnership.) There was also little to no budget to complete the project, so technology capabilities were restricted to what the one person dedicated to the project knew how to do or had the bandwidth to learn. 

At one point in the project, we came very close to creating an entirely custom app using React. However, this was a brand new framework for the project lead and there was no time to fully learn how to use React effectively or contract someone to complete the development.

What can others learn from this project?

  • How to structure a long-term project related to elections
  • How to develop shared journalistic resources among newsrooms

Project links: