With advancements in data collection and management technologies and increased efforts by governments across the globe to open data, information about electoral processes has never been more available or accessible. This includes information like voter registration statistics, candidate nomination information, polling station locations, campaign expenditures and other data typically housed within government institutions. Such transparency can help keep citizens and stakeholders informed on election procedures and developments. Open data can also be used to promote accountability and improve government performance.
The Open Election Data Initiative (OEDI) from NDI offers civil society, election administrators and technologists with the concepts and tools to effectively advocate for, implement and use election data that is truly open. Over the years NDI has created numerous tools and guidance documents to help stakeholders in this effort. The Unleashing the Potential of Election Data guide lays out the four guiding elements of electoral integrity, which include transparency, accountability, inclusiveness and competitiveness, and the nine key principles for making election data open. Fully “open” election data is timely, granular, available for free on the internet, complete and in bulk, analyzable, non-proprietary, non-discriminatory, license-free and permanently available. The Election Data Guide also details the key categories of election data that are being collected and produced during the pre-election, election day and the post-election period. The Data Inventory applies open data principles to elections in countries in Latin America and the Caribbean where EMBs and governments took steps to “open up” their data, and illustrates how open data principles translate into practice. The OEDI Election Data Academy provides users with hands-on modules and exercises on how to analyze real election datasets, such as polling station lists, ballot qualification data, and voter registration data, once they have been obtained in an “open” format.
This guide seeks to support citizen monitors to integrate an open election data strategy into their broader observation effort. It outlines specific strategies that observer groups can employ for open election data collection, analysis, and advocacy and highlights various challenges that monitors may face along the way. The tool is made up of six steps that provide strategies for implementing an open election data plan according to the specific country and electoral context and monitors’ capacities. The first step defines the overall observation strategy by helping users define their priorities and objectives for election monitoring, which will structure the strategy for open election data plans. Next, users will think through what data is available, where to find it, and how it may look. In the third step, users will develop and finalize a data analysis strategy tailored to their priorities, capacities, and timelines. In the last three steps, users will work through key considerations for obtaining election data, including methods for requesting data from electoral management bodies, and consider the ways users can monitor success of their open data strategy.
Why Should Citizen Election Monitors Use Open Data?
As trusted and independent actors, nonpartisan citizen election monitoring groups are particularly well-suited to collect and scrutinize open election data, especially when data may otherwise be difficult for the public to digest, aggregate or interpret. Open election data can support broad citizen monitoring objectives by supplementing and expanding upon traditional observation findings, and ensuring open election data is understood in a credible and impartial way.
Open election data is comprehensive, external information that can be gathered without physical observation, thereby providing monitors with additional context that can sharpen their analysis and bolster their observation efforts at minimal costs. Open data can benefit multiple facets of citizen election monitoring because:
- Open data is official data. By using electoral data that originates from official government sources, civil society can operate with the same assumptions and facts as stakeholders and institutions in the process. In addition, using data provided by government bodies creates an accountability link to those institutions and protects monitoring groups from accusations of anecdotal or inaccurate information.
- Using open data is generally not resource intensive. Open election data offers monitoring organizations data sets that they do not have to physically collect through direct observation. While collecting and analyzing open data may take some staff time, and in some cases, data analysis software, it typically does not require the large-scale training and deployment of observers, thus minimizing the amount of resources needed for the effort. Groups with resource or funding limitations can use open election data to participate in aspects of the electoral process they otherwise may not address. Open election data is also a cost-efficient way to bolster more traditional observation efforts by adding additional layers of analysis and sophistication.
- Open data can promote greater engagement throughout the electoral cycle. Open election data is generated throughout the electoral cycle which means that groups can be active early in the electoral process. Even if formal observer recruitment, training, and deployment for an election day observation effort is unlikely to occur until closer to election day, core staff can be collecting and monitoring open election data months and even years in advance as part of comprehensive election monitoring in the pre-election and inter-election periods. Providing such analysis can help establish or boost an observer group’s reputation as a credible voice citizens can turn to for information.
- Open election data can support other election observation exercises. Election observation activities, particularly those that involve the training and deployment of observers, require information and planning. Some open election data, such as polling station lists or voter registration information, can be critical to these exercises. By obtaining this information– and conducting thorough analysis of any trends or deficiencies within the data – as early as possible, citizen election monitors will be better positioned to develop deployment plans and observation forms in a timely fashion. In addition, information like polling station and precinct data can be built into election day reporting databases early, improving analysis and easing staff workload closer to election day.
By using open data, citizen election monitors can distill large datasets for easier public consumption, identify additional trends in electoral participation and administration and provide more informed recommendations for election management bodies (EMBs) and other government institutions and stakeholders. However, acquiring and analyzing open election data can be challenging, and it’s important that monitoring organizations have a strategy in place to obtain and use open data that best fits their monitoring objectives.
How can you make an open election data monitoring strategy?
The amount of open data available for analysis in an election cycle can be overwhelming, and some may not ultimately be relevant to electoral integrity or to a group’s specific observation effort. In some contexts, there may be a very limited amount of open data available for use. It’s important for monitoring groups to determine how the use of open data can best complement existing observation plans, and develop clear targets for acquiring and using data.
Open Election Data Monitoring and Advocacy Tool
Keeping in mind the Open Election Data principles, this tool should provide a framework for citizen monitors to integrate an open election data strategy into their broader observation plan and help them confront challenges to open election data collection, analysis, and advocacy.
The tool will highlight the planning stages of developing a logical open election data monitoring strategy that can amplify for an observation effort. In particular, it will walk groups through a six step process of developing and implementing an open election data plan that compliments their observation objectives, including:
1. Define the Overall Observation Strategy
This section should help observers determine their overall election monitoring objectives if they have not done so already. Once observers are clear what parts of the process are most crucial to their monitoring effort, only then can they start to consider how to incorporate open data into such an effort. Observer organizations should have a well-defined overall strategy first before pursuing open election data collection and analysis.
2. Assessing the Availability of Open Election Data
Understanding when and where to collect open election data will help inform observation plans. Groups should conduct a preliminary assessment of the open election data environment, including what data is likely to be feasible or viable, where it resides, and when it may be available.
3. Develop an Analysis Strategy and Finalize Your Observation Plan
The analysis of open data should not supplant or replace other observation activities. Rather, open data analysis can help enhance monitoring strategies and provide greater context and support to monitoring conclusions. Just because an organization has decided to use open data to analyze a part of the electoral process does not mean that it should not also want to deploy observers to collect real time information on the process.
4. Advocating for Open Election Data
After developing an open election data plan, groups should have a strong idea of what data they can retrieve easily without any specific changes and what data they may need to request or seek modifications for. Both will involve some work from civic organizations, although the latter more so.
5. Being a Good Consumer of Open Data
Institutions may be more responsive to open election data requests if they trust the information will be used responsibly and analyzed credibly. To be a good open data consumer, observation groups should take the utmost care to ensure the data is collected, analyzed and presented credibly.
6. Measuring Success and Impact
It is often easy to get caught up in carrying out your observation activities and not take the time to step back and look at the bigger picture.
Supplementary Materials: Illustrative Datasets and Assessment Forms
Supplementary materials designed to accompany the main text of the Assessment Guide.