Maybe next time Elections Alberta can spend $1 million on something useful

Well there’s $1 million down the drain. Voter turnout for the 2015 provincial election here in Alberta ended up being 53.7%, down from 54.4% in 2012. The flashy ad campaign that Elections Alberta ran probably had very little impact on those numbers, if it had any impact at all. I’d wager than anger against the PCs and enchantment with the NDP’s orange crush did more to impact voter turnout than #ChooseYourAlberta did.

choose your alberta

They could have spent that money on things that would have actually, measurably impacted turnout. Like more voting stations. Or better educational resources on how to vote. Or online voting. Or, as I will argue for in this post, on a better website and on open data. Let’s start with the website.

Is a functional, reliable, up-to-date website too much to ask for in 2015?

The Elections Alberta website is an unmitigated disaster. It’s garish, uses tables for layout, and is horribly unfriendly to use on a mobile device. Worse, there’s not just one website, but many. Here are some of the subdomains I’ve come across:

There are probably others that I haven’t even found yet, too. Each of those sites has a different navigation menu even though they share a similar design, which makes them very disorienting. Worse, they change seemingly on a whim. Links are removed or change, redirects are put in place, and there is no revision history.

I suppose you could argue that we don’t have elections very often so it’s not worth putting a lot of money into the website. But I’m not talking about a fancy, complicated, expensive redesign. I’m talking about a simple, responsible, and trustworthy website that is actually useful.

I think being trustworthy is especially important. Elections Alberta is the authority on elections in Alberta – I would expect to be able to go their website to find accurate, reliable information. But it’s hard to trust a site that is constantly in flux, with information appearing for a few days and then disappearing again, or links that look like they were added almost as an afterthought.

For instance, I downloaded a list of candidates in the 2015 election in Excel format a few weeks before election day, as I was building my results dashboard. It was somewhere on the WTV site. Today that page is gone, and the WTV site redirects to results. Thanks to the Wayback Machine, I can see that a completely different site used to be there, with the link to the Excel document I had downloaded. Why remove that?

It seems they have removed nearly all of the previous information and functionality now that the election is over. Searching for your candidates has been replaced with finding your MLA. Which kind of makes sense, except that you’re on the Elections Alberta site, not the Legislative Assembly website. I expect to find election-related information at Elections Alberta, thank you very much!

A small fraction of the $1 million ad campaign budget would have gone a long way toward addressing these issues with the Elections Alberta website.

It’s time to get on board the open data bandwagon

I really like building things for elections. Whether it’s a results dashboard, a where-to-vote tool, a sign management system for a campaign, or something else entirely, I enjoy it all. These projects generally need data. Sometimes you crowdsource the data (where did volunteers drop all of the signs) but often you want official data from the election authority. In the case of the provincial election, I wanted to build a site that was useful before and after the election, with a where-to-vote feature, information on all of the candidates, and a results dashboard. I needed some data from Elections Alberta to make it happen. Here’s a rough overview of what I wanted:

  • A list of all parties (ideally with contact info)
  • A list of all candidates (ideally with contact info, their electoral district, etc.)
  • A list of all electoral districts (ideally with returning officers and other info)
  • A list of all polling stations (ideally with addresses and contact info)
  • The geographical boundary data for each electoral district
  • The geographical boundary data for each polling station
  • Results data for the 2015 election
  • Historical results data

Each of those datasets would allow me to build additional features, especially when combined with my own data. All of them are fairly straightforward in my opinion, and should be things that the authority on elections would have. Once I knew which datasets I needed, I set about finding them.

My first stop was the Alberta Open Data Portal: “The portal makes data the provincial government collects on behalf of citizens publicly available in machine readable formats with an open licence.” Like the City of Edmonton’s data catalogue, the Alberta Open Data Portal should be a one-stop shop for open data. But unfortunately, it contains no election-related data. I of course submitted a dataset request, but knew it wouldn’t be actioned in time. I still haven’t heard anything back about it.

I knew at this point that I’d have to hunt each dataset down individually, likely on the Elections Alberta site. And given what I wrote above about the website, I knew that was likely to be problematic.

As mentioned I found the list of candidates in Excel format. I also managed to find the electoral district boundary information and the polling station boundaries here. I ended up scraping nearly everything else, including the list of electoral districts. Just four days before the election, after repeated requests that went unanswered, they added an Excel document of all the polling stations (which you can see here via the Wayback Machine).

I’m pretty happy with the way the results dashboard turned out, but again it was all scraped. Instead if making a results feed available, or any kind of structured data, Elections Alberta only provides a static HTML page (which of course does not validate correctly making scraping even more difficult). Now that the election is over, I see they have added the resultsnew site, which appears to provide an option to download the results in Excel. Too little, too late.

One quick note on historical data. You can get PDFs here, but that’s pretty useless for anything other than manual lookups. I couldn’t find anything else. The only reason my results dashboard is able to show results data from 2012 is that I had saved copies of the static HTML results files that year.

This situation is untenable. Scraping data, hunting around a constantly changing website, and pleading for more complete datasets is not my idea of an open and accessible government. Open data is not a new concept, and the Province already has an open data catalogue. All Elections Alberta needs to do is make their data available inside of it.

There’s plenty of time to fix this before the next election!

I know that election time is crunch time, and that the folks at Elections Alberta were probably incredibly stressed out and constantly faced an uphill battle. And I know there are smart, dedicated Albertans who work there. Keila Johnston, Director of IT and Geomatics for Elections Alberta, was particularly helpful. But now the election is over, and I’d really like to see some positive change.

It would be an incredible shame if we got to the next election here in Alberta and found ourselves in the same position: with a website that’s out-of-date and unreliable, and a lack of open data to power new tools and experiences for voters. Elections Alberta has the talent and ability to fix both of those issues, if they prioritize it. And the best part? It shouldn’t cost $1 million to do so.

  • Katie

    The ads were cutesy, and made a certain point. Problem is, the ads drove people to the website…and the circularity and frustration begins. Well done, as always

  • Open Data Alberta

    Hi Mack, Interesting Read, thanks for bring this to attention. A very important topic.

    I am very sorry to hear that you did not receive a response from our open data team when you requested elections data for our open data portal. We are examining our processes around response times to dataset requests. Being responsive to citizens is at the heart of Open Government, and though we generally respond within 48 hours, your request was missed, so we will redouble our efforts to ensure that all requests are responded to very quickly.

    Mack; please double check when you enter your email address– it was entered wrong which was part of the issue – though, with very small effort from my team, we could have found the correct
    address and replied back. 🙂

    We will reach out to Elections Alberta to explore obtaining the data that you initially requested. We look forward to working with them and we will hopefully be able to provide you with the information that you are looking for.

    Please don’t hesitate to contact me directly if you have any other questions or concerns.

    Mark Diner
    Chief Advisor, Open Government
    Government of Alberta

    • Thanks Mark and apologies on the spelling mistake, I should have caught that. I have now received an email from Kirk and am happy to hear this is in process!

  • Lily

    I fully agree with everything that has been said here. I work with a population

    of new Canadians and young people, many who were excited to vote for the first time. Directing them to the website was a disaster. Navigating is a pain and even the FAQ’s required translation. Not a great start to voting in your first democratic election when you have two other people leaning over your shoulder attempting to figure out where you should be going and what you need to bring. Many other provinces do a much better job, Elections Saskatchewan being a great example.