Stump the Geeks

Technology helping to create more informed voters

CORRESPONDENTSeptember 16, 2012 

Whether you love or loathe election coverage, it’s only going to get more intense over the next few months.

And while the candidates are busy arguing over whether voters are better off now than four years ago, developers and open government advocates are working to make sure the answer is yes – at least when it comes to access to political information.

With an exploding interest in new campaign finance rules and the spread of powerful computing technology, voters have more access than ever before to the information they need to make informed decisions about political candidates. But despite these advances, trying to distinguish truth from talking points is still very much an arms race.

Consider, for example, some of the new applications out this election season developed to supply voters with information at their fingertips. With Ad Hawk (free for Android and iOS) and the SuperPACApp (free for iOS), users can employ their device’s microphone to help identify the financial backers of any campaign ad.

SettleIt! (free for Android and iOS), a new app from the truth arbiter PolitiFact, is designed to help you end political arguments on the go by assessing a candidate’s claims.

These apps are certainly slick (and a not-so-subtle reminder of how awesome it is to live in the future), but they rely on the underlying data about big-money backers and politico statements that researchers are able to track and record.

More accessible

That’s why developers like Tom Lee call these advances “interface innovations.” As the director of Sunlight Labs, part of the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation, Lee and his team are responsible for the development of apps like Ad Hawk and other projects that help make government data accessible.

But when disclosure rules and practices make that data harder to suss out – donations to 501(c)(4) organizations, for example – even the coolest new tools can fall short.

“There’s a limit to how much you can do on the interface side when the infrastructure for informing voters isn’t there,” Lee said.

Open government advocates are working on that angle too. Lee points to the FCC’s recent decision to require online disclosures about televised political ads as the sort of “green shoots” that eventually will help voters better track political money – even if such requirements aren’t perfect yet.

Government transparency

“The FCC deserves a big pat on the back for coming as far as they have in this short a time with as much pressure against them from broadcasters,” Lee said. (Sunlight is also hoping to fill in the gaps in these disclosures with a project called Political Ad Sleuth.)

For all its limitations, Lee said, one big benefit of the expanded tech toolkit for voter education is that it’s drawing more people into the conversation about government transparency. He said users have already identified thousands of political ads with Ad Hawk alone. And the more people experiment in the space of fact checking and influence tracking, the more they’ll want to see tools that can overcome current limitations.

“There’s a real appetite for this information,” he said.

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