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Uncovering the Political Bang for a Buck

Over the course of a weekend hackathon in late May, a group of programmers and journalists gathered at Stanford University to discuss new ways to display campaign finance data.  It was a quintessential Silicon Valley experiment: lock bright programmers together in a room for the weekend and see what tools they come up with.

Called “Datafest,” the event was organized by Knight Fellow and Agencia EFE senior correspondent Teresa Bouza, who is spearheading a movement to create better tools for data mining and navigating large text documents.

Uncovering the Political Bang for a Buck

Despite the amount of data available, not many people know how to analyze the information.  Many analytical tools are difficult to use, and the sheer amount of material is too great to analyze by hand.  With better tools, the goal is to see “trends and stories you didn’t expect or might not see otherwise,” IDG News Service senior correspondent and Knight Fellow Martyn Williams explained.

While some journalists have long been able to ferret out where money comes from and how politicians are financed, “the data is not packaged in the right way.  Most people don’t want to troll through reams of information,” said iOS developer Alonzo Wilkins.

Rather, if the information is presented in a way that emphasizes user experience and playfulness, people will choose to explore the data in their free time.  ”It’s about building products the user wants to investigate,” Wilkins said.

Wilkins and his team developed one of the most interesting apps during the course of the event: a satirical iPad game called Politi-Coins, which displayed the return on a user’s investment if he donated to a candidate in hopes of gaining influence.

Although money doesn’t necessarily buy elections or policy decisions, politicians tend to listen to those who finance their campaigns.

The system “introduces a level of stratification into political influence and political access that there really shouldn’t be in a democracy,” Director of the Center for Urban Research at the City University of New York John Mollenkopf said at the event.

Even if apps such as Politi-Coins won’t immediately reduce the effect that campaign financing has on politics, they can help users discover how individual politicians are financed.  Or, for those looking to buy a vote, which politician offers the best return on an investment.

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