Edmonton does not have a debt problem

There has been a lot of talk about Edmonton’s debt recently, with some candidates going so far as to highlight debt as a key election issue. Debt is one of those topics that is easy to complain about but difficult to understand. Throwing out a billion-dollar number and proclaiming it bad is easy, understanding how we got to that number in the first place and how it fits into the broader context of the City’s financial situation takes more effort.

Here’s a look at Edmonton’s debt history for the last fifteen years:

So we can see that at the end of 2012 our city’s debt totaled $2.2 billion, which is 53.4% of our debt limit as outlined by provincial legislation. Is that high or low? Let’s make some comparisons. Here’s what Edmonton’s per capita debt looks like compared with Calgary:

So we’ve got less debt per person than Calgary does, and have had significantly less over the last decade. What about the rest of the province? Municipalities collectively owed about $7.7 billion at the end of 2011, with Calgary and Edmonton together accounting for 69% of that amount.

Here’s a comparison of the amount of available debt used by Calgary, Edmonton, and all other municipalities grouped together:

Notably Edmonton has used less of its available debt than Calgary, with the gap narrowing only in the last few years. It wasn’t until 2003 that we started to take on more debt. Why is that? And what is the impact?

Here’s what current Ward 6 candidate Scott McKeen wrote in the Edmonton Journal back in 2003:

And of all the cities in Canada, Edmonton stands out for being a skinflint among cheapskates. Our per capita debt is about one-fifth of Calgary’s and one-tenth of Vancouver’s.

As you’re maybe already aware, Edmonton’s hell-bent determination these past two decades to eliminate civic debt has created its own set of problems: neglected and decaying roads; inferior civic services; dated, second-class public facilities.

But we so loved the idea of getting out of debt that we ignored our mounting repair bills. We also ignored the fact that some other cities — Calgary and Vancouver, for example — were busy borrowing money to pave the way for growth.

The kind of debt Edmonton has taken on in recent years is “smart debt”, money for which the debt servicing costs are tied to revenue. It’s not debt for operating costs, it’s another financing tool the City can use to build the infrastructure we desperately need.

The 2007 Debt Management Fiscal Policy Review also discussed this history:

At the end of the 1970s, tremendous growth pressure resulted in a relaxation of the City’s debt limit, leading to a threefold increase in the City’s annual borrowing.  This resulted in Edmonton’s tax-supported debt being higher than most other major Canadian cities at that time.

The recession of the early 1980s and high interest rates necessitated a revised Policy.  Under this new debt policy, tax-supported debt issues were limited to $25 million per year.  Moreover, new tax-supported borrowing was prohibited after 1990. Subsequent to 1990, an exclusive pay-as-you-go approach was adopted for capital expenditures. Shorter borrowing terms for utility debt (self-liquidating) were also required.

In 2002, to address growing infrastructure issues and flat sources of financing, tax-supported debt was reintroduced through an amended Policy.  A five-year borrowing guideline called for an annual approval of $50 million in debt-financed projects for 2003-2007, totalling $250 million.  Adoption of the five year guideline has enabled the City to construct a number of much needed projects such as fire halls, a senior’s centre, libraries, parks, an interchange and other road works.

It also included this chart which shows the amount of debt Edmonton had outstanding throughout the 1980s and projected amounts through 2016 as permitted under higher borrowing limits:

The jump might look significant, but Edmonton’s outstanding debt is still well within both the provincial debt limits and the City’s own more strict debt limits. The City’s credit ratings remain very strong.

It’s true that Edmonton’s debt has grown significantly over the last decade. But it’s also true that taking on that debt has enabled us to invest in much-needed infrastructure to support our growing city. Candidates that don’t recognize this risk pursuing a policy that would take us back to the 1990s, reversing any progress we’ve made toward tackling our ever-growing infrastructure deficit. As the City says, “an appropriate and sustainable level of tax-supported debt is recognized as a legitimate part of any long-term capital financing plan.”

Note: Much of the data in this post came from the Government of Alberta. While figures are available for 1994-1996 at that site, I excluded them because the values for Edmonton were highly inconsistent with the rest of the data and were extremely different from the City of Edmonton’s published values for those years. I have submitted an inquiry about the validity of the data.

Edmonton Election 2013: Update #4

On tonight’s #yegvote Hangout we had special guest Kathleen Smith join us! You’ll probably know her better as KikkiPlanet, her sassy online persona. We talked all about signs, the race in Ward 5, candidates’ use of social media, and Kathleen’s own political ambitions. It was a fun hour – thanks for joining us Kathleen! Check out the video at YouTube or embedded here:

Here’s my latest election news roundup:

edmonton
Photo by Paul

You can follow Edmonton Election news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegvote and you can see my coverage here.

What have I missed? Let me know!

Disclosure: I’m actively volunteering for Don Iveson’s mayoral campaign.

Edmonton Election 2013: Update #3

Today’s guest on the EdmontonPolitics.com #yegvote Hangout was Councillor Don Iveson. As you know he’s running for mayor this time, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to grill him on a number of subjects. Here’s the archived video:

We look forward to chatting with the other mayoral candidates in upcoming episodes!

Here’s my latest election news roundup:

You can follow Edmonton Election news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegvote and you can see my coverage here.

What have I missed? Let me know!

Disclosure: I’m actively volunteering for Don Iveson’s mayoral campaign.

Edmonton Election 2013: Update #2

Here’s my latest election news roundup:

 

You can follow Edmonton Election news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegvote and you can see my coverage here.

What have I missed? Let me know!

Disclosure: I’m actively volunteering for Don Iveson’s mayoral campaign.

Edmonton Election 2013: Update #1

The format seems to work well for my weekly Edmonton and Media notes, so I’m starting a weekly series for the election. Thursday evenings will be the day, mainly because that’s when you can expect to have a #yegvote Hangout at EdmontonPolitics.com.

Tonight was our third Hangout and our first with a special guest! We spent some time talking with Aliza Dadani, founder of ActivatED, a self-described group of “concerned, young forward-thinking Edmontonians.” Here’s some coverage they got recently from Metro. You can watch the video at YouTube:

Here are this week’s notes:

 

I decided to put Dave’s declared candidate data into a spreadsheet. There are currently 6 mayoral candidates, 47 ward candidates, 16 public school board candidates, and 11 Catholic school board candidates. That compares to 7, 62, 24, and 20 on nomination day in 2010. Here’s the mayoral and ward races broken down by gender:

Some forum and other event dates to note:

You can follow Edmonton Election news on Twitter using the hashtag #yegvote and you can see my coverage here.

What have I missed? Let me know!

Disclosure: I’m actively volunteering for Don Iveson’s mayoral campaign.

EdmontonPolitics.com: #yegvote Hangout #2

Tonight we held our second #yegvote hangout over at EdmontonPolitics.com. What’s a #yegvote hangout? Basically it’s a video conversation that you get to tune into! Dave Cournoyer, Ryan Hastman, and myself decided this would be an interesting way to offer coverage of the municipal election. If you missed our first episode, you can watch it here.

We covered a range of topics tonight, prompted mostly by questions from viewers on Twitter using the #yegvote hashtag. Here’s the archived video if you’d like to watch it:

One of the things we talked about briefly was voting records. Councillor Diotte has a reputation for voting no, but if you look at the data it turns out that Councillor Sloan is actually the contrarian on council. Here’s a visualization of the data (which is available to anyone at the open data catalogue):

http://public.tableausoftware.com/javascripts/api/viz_v1.js

<a href=”#”><img style=”border-top-style: none; border-left-style: none; border-bottom-style: none; border-right-style: none” alt=” ” src=”http://public.tableausoftware.com/static/images/Mo/MotionsVotes2011-2013/Whovotesno/1_rss.png&#8221; /></a> 

There are other tabs there for a few other data points such as who makes the most motions and who seconds the most motions. Very interesting stuff to dig into, something I’ll be doing more of in the coming weeks.

If you have suggestions on topics we should cover in the future or guests we should invite, let us know!

Under Mayor Mandel’s leadership, Edmonton has thrived

Mayor Stephen Mandel announced today that he will not seek a fourth term as mayor. It’s the first time since 1988 that an Edmonton mayor has left the position voluntarily, when Laurence Decore resigned to enter provincial politics.

Had Mandel run again, he would have won. Councillor Diotte was the only person on Council who was willing to run against him, and it is doubtful that another serious challenger would have come forward, let alone had a chance at victory.

The change this year to four year terms likely had an impact on his decision – Mandel would have been into his 70s had he won another term. Three year terms were introduced in 1968, and Mandel has supported the idea of adding another year in the past. "My belief is that a four-year term allows you to be successful," he told the Journal in 2005. "It’s a more substantive time for trying to complete an agenda."

Mandel has also supported the notion of term limits for mayors, noting the demands of the job. "That takes a great deal of energy, and to be creative for a long period of time, there is a simply a limit," he said in 2005. "I mean, how many years can you do it and still be effective?" Like his predecessor Bill Smith, Mandel’s three consecutive terms are more than he or anyone else expected him to serve.

Stephen Mandel at Candi{date} Sept 29, 2010

After failing to win a seat on the public school board in 1995, Mandel was elected to City Council by just 33 votes in 2001. Working alongside Karen Leibovici in Ward 1, commentators at the time noted that Mandel learned a lot and matured politically over those three years.

As the 2004 election approached, Mandel found himself deciding to run for mayor. He did not want to serve another term under Bill Smith, who aside from being a cheerleader was often described as a "lone wolf." Mandel also felt that Robert Noce, the other serious contender that year, was not someone he wanted to work with. "We can wait forever for somebody else to do it, but I’m not going to do that. I believe that one of the real problems of our city is that we wait for everybody," he said at the time.

Mandel handily won the election that year, defeating Smith by more than 17,000 votes. "You have no idea how I feel. This is unbelievable," he told supporters after the results had come in. Despite being snowy on election day, turnout was relatively good at 41.8%. In 2007, Mandel earned 66% of the vote, defeating Don Koziak by more than 60,000 votes. It was a clear mandate for Mandel and the big city vision he had brought to Edmonton. Turnout was just a dismal 27% that year, a sign that Edmontonians were happy with the direction Mandel was headed.

Mayor Stephen Mandel

In the last election in 2010, Mandel earned 55% of the vote, defeating David Dorward by more than 50,000 votes. Turnout improved slightly from 2007, jumping to 33.4%. It was an important election for Mandel. "This election was about building a positive future for Edmonton," he said in his 2010 swearing-in address. "It embraced long-term thinking and a broad vision of an ambitious Edmonton." Just two new councillors were elected that year, suggesting once again that Edmontonians liked where things were going.

Mandel has accomplished a number of the things he originally set out to achieve. Expansion of the LRT, tackling the problem of homelessness, reducing crime, and raising the profile of the arts, to name just a few. He has always pushed for improved relations with the Province, and for Edmonton to get its fair share of attention and money. On regional issues, Mandel regularly pushed for more cooperation rather than competition, though he was willing to be the bully if he felt it was appropriate.

Mayor Stephen Mandel

Mandel wanted Edmonton to be a capital city again, to be a big city. As he said today, “we want our city not just to exist but to thrive.” Under his leadership, it has happened. The feeling of being left behind that Edmontonians felt in 2004 no longer lingers, and any jealousy of Calgary has given way to the realization that the two cities need to work together.

These are not easy challenges to have tackled, and they have certainly demanded a lot of Mandel. He was known to have a temper before becoming mayor, and Edmontonians got a glimpse of that during his first term on Council. While Mandel has learned to control his language in public, he’s been known to passionately express his viewpoint behind closed doors. Occasionally his anger got the better of him, such as when he learned that Edmonton had lost federal support for its bid to host EXPO 2017.

Mandel will certainly be remembered for many of the capital projects he had a hand in, such as the South LRT extension, the closing of the City Centre Airport, and of course the downtown arena, but I think his true legacy is actually a little less tangible.

Edmonton City Council Swearing in Ceremony

I have always appreciated Mandel’s view that councillors should be involved in citywide issues, not just ward issues. In his 2007 swearing-in address, Mandel stated: "No matter what community has sent us here, we all share a responsibility to do what’s right for the city as a whole." His approach as mayor was markedly different than Smith’s before him. Mandel often complained of feeling excluded as a councillor under Smith, and that certainly influenced his style. In his remarks today, Mandel again reiterated his view that the mayor “is just one small voice” on Council.

Over his three terms, Mandel has brought an increasing level of sophistication to the City of Edmonton and to the way City Council operates. He showed us what could be achieved by building consensus and working together. He showed us what’s possible when everyone is aligned, both inside and outside of City Hall. That to me is his lasting legacy. He’s changed the way we do things. In Mandel’s Edmonton, we make things happen together.

Mayor Mandel

I’m very grateful that Mandel dedicated over a decade of his life to this city; Edmonton is a better place because of his efforts. I wish him all the best in his next adventure!

Will he retire? If not, what will Mandel do next? Here’s what he told the National Post in 2010:

"I’m not a hobby guy. I like to volunteer when I’m not doing this job, but right now this is busy and I don’t. So I don’t have a hobby, but I wish I did, you know. I wish I was a woodworker. I think when I retire I’m going to try to learn how to cook. I like to cook. I’m not any good at it."

Mandel did hint today that he has been discussing future plans with his family, but said today was not the time to share them.

Mandel’s announcement makes the election this fall much more exciting. Not only does it mean we’ll have a new mayor, but it likely means a large number of new faces on Council. Expect to see a number of campaign announcements over the next month. On that, Mandel shared a few thoughts as well. “I’m excited to know that our citizens will have many diverse options to consider this fall. I want to wish the best of luck to all those who will put their names forward to be Edmonton’s next mayor.”

Edmonton should introduce online voting

City Council will decide tomorrow whether or not to go ahead with online voting in municipal elections. Executive Committee referred the item back to Council without a recommendation, but Administration’s position is clear. Their recommendation states:

  1. That an internet voting option for the 2013 General Election be approved, subject to the necessary Local Authorities Election Act regulation changes.
  2. That Administration request that Alberta Municipal Affairs make the necessary regulation changes to allow implementation of an internet voting option.
  3. That Administration bring forward amendments to Election Bylaw 15307 to address legislative requirements for internet voting.

You’ve probably heard about the Jellybean Election that was held last year to test the viability of online voting. The feedback from that and other public involvement activities was also clear:

Overall, the responses from those who participated in all of the public involvement processes indicated support for the use of internet voting as another voting option. The responses were qualified with an expectation that the City ensure that the voting option provide auditability, security, reliability, be user friendly and be provided at a reasonable cost.

With a projected cost of $400,000 to implement online voting for the 2013 General Election, I think the City can meet those qualifications. Online voting is a viable option right now, and we should offer it in Edmonton.

Voting Station
Is this the best we can do?

I could write about how pretty much everything can be done online now. We pay our bills, share our thoughts, file our taxes, buy goods and services, look for love, and much, much more, all online. I could write about how Scytl, the company we used for the online voting system in the Jellybean election, “has provided internet voting for elections all over the world including France, Madrid and Halifax.” But I’m not sure any of that would convince you more than this CNN article from 2011:

In all, 80 Canadian cities and towns have experimented with Internet voting in municipal elections. The town of Markham, in Ontario, has offered online ballots in local elections since 2003.

We’re not even close to leading the pack in Canada, let alone the world! Estonia has allowed online voting in its national elections since 2007. Online voting may be new to Edmonton, but its old hat elsewhere.

Read just about any article about online voting and amidst any concern you invariably hear that online voting is the future. The article in the Journal last week was no exception:

While Coun. Karen Leibovici feels online elections are the way of the future, she’s not sure the city can be ready to introduce this approach in less than nine months.

Online voting may be the future, but it’s not futuristic. As this Mashable article discussing online voting in the US says, “Internet voting systems are already being used in elections of consequence” and “widespread online elections will be a reality in the near future.”

Understandably, the most vocal concerns about online voting have to do with security. No system is 100% secure, but generally speaking it’s not the technology that is the weakest link, it’s us. For an eye-opening look at the human side of security, I’d encourage you to read Kevin Mitnick’s book The Art of Deception. In it, “Mitnick explains why all the firewalls and encryption protocols in the world will never be enough to stop a savvy grifter intent on rifling a corporate database or an irate employee determined to crash a system.” Or someone motivated to interfere with an election. If you really want to hack the system, you’ll find a way.

For me the question becomes, is online voting any less secure than offline voting? I don’t think it is. How do you know that that piece of paper you drop into a cardboard box ends up where it should and is counted accurately? How do you know that someone hasn’t interfered with the system somewhere in between you voting and the results being published? You don’t. A technology-based system would still require a certain amount of trust, but unlike with paper-based systems, that trust can be backed up with audit records and digital copies.

No one is suggesting that we get rid of paper-based voting and move entirely online (at least not yet). But adding online voting as an option would make the next election more accessible, and would give us the opportunity to gain some insight and knowledge on how to improve the system in the future.

The corporate outcomes section of the report going to Council states:

Providing voters with secure voting options enhances the democratic process and our citizens’ connection to their community, and supports the goals of the Way We Live.

I can’t say it any better than that. Let’s move forward with online voting in Edmonton.

2012 Alberta Election: Social Media Highlights

I don’t think there’s any doubt that social media played a significant role in this year’s provincial election. From witty tweets to conversation-shifting blog posts and everything in between, there’s no shortage of social media highlights to look back on. In an effort to capture how social media impacted the election, I have been tracking some of the most popular and memorable blog posts, photos, tweets, videos, and links.

Very early on, Danielle Smith’s campaign bus was the talk of Twitter for its unfortunate wheel placement. It attracted so much attention that even Jay Leno joked about it! The Wildrose quickly fixed the bus, sharing a new photo on Facebook that was liked nearly 800 times with more than 220 comments.

danielle-smith-bus-628

Social media proved to be an effective tool for the mainstream media to share their stuff throughout the election. For example, CBC’s Vote Compass was shared more than 5300 times on Facebook and more than 870 times on Twitter. Over 115,000 responses were completed.

On March 30, PC staffer Amanda Wilkie (@wikwikkie) posted a tweet questioning Danielle Smith’s lack of children. There was an immediate backlash which forced Wilkie to apologize and delete the tweet. Smith released a statement explaining that she and her husband had tried to have kids with the aid of fertility treatments, and Alison Redford released a statement announcing that Wilkie had resigned. The two leaders spoke on the phone and vowed to move on.

Smith’s tweet was retweeted more than 100 times.

On April Fools Day, the Wildrose issued a news release saying that if elected, the party would pursue a merger with Saskatchewan to form a new province known as Saskberta. It was shared on Facebook more than 2100 times and on Twitter more than 360 times. The Wildrose tweet itself was retweeted more than 140 times:

Candidates first felt the power of blogs on April 2, when Kathleen Smith (@KikkiPlanet) posted her widely-read piece entitled Pruned Bush: Confessions of a Wilted Rose. An impassioned and well-written post, it racked up more than 1400 likes on Facebook, more than 330 tweets, and 136 comments. More than that, it brought “Conscience Rights” into the spotlight.

Kathleen’s post even attracted an angry response from a Wildrose supporter. Paula Simons has a good recap of the whole story, so check it out.

Just two days later, Dave Cournoyer (@davecournoyer) posted an even more popular blog post. His entry titled thorny candidates could be the wildrose party’s biggest liability attracted more than 4700 likes on Facebook, more than 600 tweets, and 150 comments. Though we didn’t know it at the time, Dave’s post would be cited countless times over the next few weeks as Wildrose candidates made gaffe after gaffe. Even his follow-up post on April 16 attracted more than 600 likes, more than 70 tweets, and 75 comments.

The next day on April 5, Dave Cournoyer noticed that a Twitter account named @PremierDanielle had been created and was being followed by @ElectDanielle, Smith’s official account. While it only came to light during the election, it was actually created back on October 12, 2010.

I didn’t think there’d be many audio clips to note during the election, but on April 7 the Alberta Party launched its official campaign song, composed by JUNO winners Cindy Church and Sylvia Tyson. The page was shared on Facebook more than 100 times and on Twitter more than 40 times. The song itself, hosted on SoundCloud, has been played more than 3500 times.

It didn’t take long after Danielle Smith announced a $300 dividend for all Albertans for Sean Healy to launch Dani Dollars, a website that let users pledge their cash “to Wildrose Relief”. It was shared more than 280 times on Facebook, more than 130 times on Twitter, and attracted more than 170 pledges for a grand total of $51,600.

The leaders debate took place on April 12, and while it ended up being fairly boring (aside from Raj Sherman’s unintentionally comedic outbursts) there were a couple of highlights. One was Alberta Party leader Glenn Taylor’s live blog, which was followed by more than 1700 people. It was shared more than 480 times on Facebook and more than 300 times on Twitter.

The debate also resulted in one of the most memorable tweets of the election, retweeted more than 340 times:

Edmonton Journal videographer Ryan Jackson posted a really unique video on April 13. By stitching together four different videos, Jackson made it appear as if you were sitting in a coffee shop with four of the party leaders. The video was shared more than 140 times on Facebook and more than 50 times on Twitter.

On April 14, a new Twitter account known as @Adamwyork posted a tweet about Wildrose candidate Allan Hunsperger. It linked to an old blog post that Hunsperger had written that contained the shocking statement that gays and lesbians would “suffer the rest of eternity in the lake of fire, hell.” You can see a screen capture of the post here. It wasn’t until April 26 that the person behind the tweet was identified. Turns out it was Blake Robert, better known online as @BRinYEG. Paula Simons’ post about the outing has already been shared more than 275 times on Facebook and more than 144 times on Twitter.

Though the original tweet was only retweeted 13 times, the impact it had on the election cannot be overstated.

On April 16, the domain name INeverThoughtIdVotePC.com was registered. A couple of days later, the website launched featuring a short video that asked Albertans to vote strategically against the Wildrose. The website has been shared on Facebook more than 3700 times and the video itself has been seen more than 88,000 times.

On April 17, Vicky Frederick posted a Wildrose-edition of the “Downfall / Hitler Reacts” video meme. The video, titled Inside the Wildrose War Room, has been seen nearly 12,000 times.

It was a busy day on April 17. That was also the day that Wildrose candidate Ron Leech made controversial statements about having an advantage as a Caucasian. The Journal captured a copy of the radio interview here. The tweet from CTV Edmonton breaking the news was retweeted more than 250 times:

That same day, the Wildrose posted its “Momentum” ad on YouTube. With more than 112,000 views, it’s the most popular election-related video.

On April 20, Paula Simons wrote a blog post titled The Price of Free Speech. She discussed Danielle Smith’s stubborn refusal to reprimand candidates like Hunsperger and Leech. The post was shared on Facebook more than 1500 times and on Twitter more than 180 times.

In the final weekend of the campaign, photos of this graffiti wall here in Edmonton started circulating on Facebook, Twitter, and elsewhere online:

I don’t know how many times it was shared, but I saw it all over the place.

After all of the negativity of the election, I was quite happy to see Ryan Jackson’s next election video on April 23. A “whimsical parody video”, it featured the “strange new species” popping up on lawns across Alberta known was the election sign.

He posted a behind-the-scenes on the video just yesterday.

As the polls opened on April 23, many people tweeted that they had voted while others encouraged Albertans to get out and vote. With more than 200 retweets, Kathleen Smith’s call-to-action was probably the most visible of the day:

On election night itself there were many memorable tweets, but Todd Babiak’s post about how the public opinion polls were so wrong was one of the most retweeted with 195 retweets:

As far as I can tell, the most retweeted tweet of the entire election came at 9:27pm on election night, after it became clear that the Wildrose would form the official opposition. Calgary’s Nick Heer posted this tweet:

It has been retweeted more than 650 times!

Final Thoughts

It’s hard to imagine what the election would have looked like without social media! Through tweets, photos, videos, blog posts, and more, Albertans had no shortage of ways to share their thoughts on the candidates and the campaigns. And because of the nature of social media, those thoughts often spread extremely quickly and were frequently picked up by the mainstream media. Whether you’re a Twitter or Facebook user yourself or not, there’s no question that social media helped make the 2012 provincial election one of the most exciting in Alberta’s history.

Did you have a social media highlight that I missed? Let me know in the comments! For more on the role that Twitter played during the election, be sure to check out AlbertaTweets. Looking for election results and statistics? Check out my #abvote Results Dashboard!

Building a Results Dashboard for the 2012 Alberta Election

Like many Albertans, I have spent a significant amount of time over the last month paying attention to the election! Reading about the candidates, following all the drama, and spending lots of time with the #abvote hashtag on Twitter. As the candidates were making one final push over the weekend before the election, I decided to build a results dashboard. I like a good challenge and enjoyed building it, but it was especially rewarding to see that it proved to be quite popular too! In this post I’ll tell you a little about how and why I built the website, and what I learned from it.

abvote results

If you haven’t checked out the dashboard, you can see it here. I’ve added a bunch of stuff since election night, which I’ll explain below.

The Idea

By late Friday afternoon, my thoughts had drifted to election day itself. I started to think about how exciting it would be to see the results come in – I love election nights! I knew there would be television coverage and that the media would have some web coverage as well, but I also felt that I could build something unique and valuable. If only I had the data! So I looked around, and found the Elections Alberta results site. At that time, the results page was full of test data. I immediately saved a copy to my computer, and saved a few of the electoral division pages too. That proved to be a wise decision, because a few hours later the site went offline!

elections alberta

Before I took a crack at scraping the website, I wanted to know if there was a data feed of some kind available. I blindly emailed the general Elections Alberta address, and to my surprise, received a response shortly thereafter! Unfortunately there was no data feed available, so I set about writing a scraper. Within a couple of hours, I was correctly scraping the main results page as well as all of the electoral division pages. Now that I had the data, I felt pretty confident that I could build a dashboard over the weekend. I didn’t get back to the project until Sunday morning, so that meant I had to prioritize what I was going to build. It took about six hours, but my I finished my initial version late that evening.

The Design

This was not my first election results dashboard. If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you’ll recall that I built a dashboard for the municipal election here in Edmonton back in 2010. I learned a lot from that experience, and I remember it being a lot more rushed and difficult than this dashboard! Among other lessons, it was clear that design and colors matter, and that mobile devices are important (even then lots of people were asking for mobile support). I also knew that forcing users to refresh the page is less than ideal – it’s not a very delightful experience, and it puts unnecessary strain on the server. I also disliked the limited real estate that I had to work with (the current ShareEdmonton page width is fixed…but I’m working on a new version that is fluid).

So, I wanted a mobile-friendly, fluid-width, Ajax-enabled, attractive looking design. I immediately decided to use Twitter Bootstrap. I have used it a few times now, and I absolutely love it. I can’t thank the folks at Twitter enough for making such an excellent framework available for free! It gave me everything I needed to get going from a UI perspective. In particular it features responsive design, which makes it possible for the pages to scale from the desktop down to mobile devices without much work. For the backend, I used ASP.NET MVC 3. I use it for everything, so I know it well.

For performance reasons, it definitely made sense to cache the data. I decided on a fairly straightforward approach: I’d scrape the data from Elections Alberta and would store it using Memcached for two minutes. That meant that every two minutes, a request would take slightly longer because it had to download the data again, but this seemed reasonable (and as it turned out, the Elections Alberta site was incredibly quick). I also designed the pages to poll for new data every 30 seconds, which prevented users from having to reload the page manually.

The Cloud

When I built the ShareEdmonton dashboard a couple years ago, it was hosted on one of my servers. That worked fine, but it did slow down under load and I didn’t have much ability to scale up or out without a lot of additional cost, time, and effort. I really wanted to avoid that situation this time, so I decided to host the dashboard using Windows Azure. I’m in the process of migrating ShareEdmonton to Azure, so I already had an account and was pretty familiar with how it worked. Deploying to Azure is so easy – I simply had to add a deployment project in Visual Studio, and then I could deploy new versions in just a couple of clicks.

Windows Azure supports a range of instance types – basically you get to choose how big and powerful you want your server to be. I started with “Extra Small”, the least powerful and therefore least expensive type. As the polls were about to close at 8pm, I scaled up to “Small”, which meant redeploying the app (which took about 8 minutes, but happened completely behind-the-scenes). About half an hour later, I had to add capacity because the site was starting to get quite sluggish. This time I scaled out, by adding a second instance. All I had to do was change a configuration setting in the Azure management console, and the service took care of everything. Within a few minutes, I had two load-balanced “Small” instances. The performance boost was immediately noticeable. About an hour later, I added a third instance, and kept the system running that way until about 1am. I scaled it back down in stages, and now have it running as a single “Extra Small” instance again.

Two Key Decisions

I think the two most important decisions I made were:

  1. Using Twitter Bootstrap
  2. Using Windows Azure

The decision first meant that the website looked good and worked across browsers, screen resolutions, and devices. I got all of that engineering effort and testing for free, which meant I could focus on building an election results dashboard rather than building a website. I didn’t have to figure out how to lay things out on the screen, or how to style tables. The second decision was perhaps even more important. By using Windows Azure, I could deploy new versions of the dashboard in minutes, plus I could scale up and out simply by changing a few settings. That meant I could quickly respond when the site came under load. The other big advantage of using Azure was the cost – running the site on election night cost me just $1.54. Incredible!

Some Statistics

The dashboard served around 60,000 page views on election night alone, which is pretty good for a website launched just hours before the main event. Keep in mind that because the data on the site automatically updated, users didn’t have to refresh the page which kept that statistic lower than it would otherwise have been. The visit duration metric is another way to see that – 20% of all visitors spent at least 10 minutes on the site. I actually would have guessed a higher percentage than that, but perhaps the high mobile usage was the reason.

The top screen resolution for visitors was 320×480, not a desktop resolution! Roughly 36% of all visits that night were made on mobile devices (which includes tablets). The iPhone was the most popular device, followed by the iPad. Clearly using a framework like Twitter Bootstrap with responsive design was a good decision.

The other statistic worth sharing is that the vast majority of visitors (about 73%) found the site by way of social networks, and two in particular. Facebook accounted for 78% of all those visits, while Twitter accounted for 20%.

Recent Improvements

Since Monday I have made numerous improvements to the dashboard. Here’s a brief overview of the new features:

  • All the data is now stored locally, which means I’m no longer reliant on Elections Alberta. They have made numerous updates over the last two days, and I have updated the site’s local data store accordingly.
  • I updated the voter turnout chart and added regional voter turnout to the front page. I also added a table of the five closest races.
  • District pages now show voter turnout and the list of polls is now sortable.
  • There’s a new Districts Grid, which lets you see lots of information about all the districts in a single, sortable view. For example, you can quickly see which district had the best voter turnout, which were the closest races, and which had the most candidates.
  • There’s also a Candidates page, which lets you see information about all of the candidates in a single, sortable view.
  • Last night I also added a Maps page, which has interactive maps for the province, as well as zoomed-in maps for Calgary and Edmonton. Click on any region for details and a link to the district page.

What’s Next?

I plan to keep the dashboard up as it is now, though at some point I’ll probably transition it from being a dynamic website to a static one (far cheaper to host over the long-run). If you have any suggestions on things to add or improve, let me know! I hope the site will serve as a valuable reference tool going forward.

Thanks for reading, and thanks to everyone who sent positive comments about the dashboard my way. It’s great to hear that so many people found it useful on election night!