January 3, 2008
Tracking the US Election

The varied uses of YouTube by candidates, citizens and the news media has lent a participatory air to the 2008 US Presidential election. While there is an emphasis in much of this discussion on the possibilities for candidates and citizens to connect more directly with each other (however unevenly this might be realized in practice), effective participation in democratic systems equally relies on access to information. In this regard, both Yahoo's Election '08 Political Dashboard and the ECOresearch Network's US Election 2008 Web Monitor projects , both of which offer reasonably sophisticated tools for tracking campaign coverage and candidate performance, are especially interesting because of the access to information and analysis they provide.

Rolled out just in time for the holidays on Friday the 14th of December, Yahoo's Political Dashboard provides an overview of candidate performance. Aggregating data from AP, Intrade, political news aggregation site RealClearPolitics.com, as well as Yahoo's search services, the Dashboard provides side-by-side data on candidates standing in polls, their score on Yahoo's 'Buzz' meter, their value on Intrade's "prediction market", and the amount of money in their campaign coffer. The 'buzz' measure draws across Yahoo's search metrics, providing a number that represents the percentage of the users searching Yahoo! for details about that candidate on that particular day. Candidate standing on the prediction market is based on data from Intrade, an Irish company that operates a sort of futures market for politics and other current and news events. In addition to allowing you to search for candidate performance by State, the service provides links to polling data and a break down of the US voting population by race.

Yahoo's Dashboard service is slick and easy to read, and with links to larger data sources such as RealClearPolitics, it provides quick access to much more detailed information you can use to contextualize the data on the front page. Of course, as TechCrunch's review of the Dashboard points out, the election is worth $1 billion or more in campaigning, and that sort of spending will drive determined public interest in election coverage generally. The deeper and more compelling the election coverage experience provided, then, the better positioned any group is to reap the benefits of the public interest.

Equally slick, the "US Election 2008 Web Monitor" provides a 'snapshot' of the coverage of candidates by drawing material from "1000 popular blogs, 50 environmental organizations, the Fortune 1000, and international media from the US, Canada, United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand". The front page provides a menu of candidates you can add to a graph plotting either frequency of mentions across the press or a measure of the sentiment of the coverage (determined by an algorithm that processes positive and negative mentions). While the front page of the site allows you to track the performance of either democrat or republican candidates, or compare them against each other, clicking deeper into Web Monitor reveals the real value of this service.

Web Monitor provides a rich and detailed survey of the coverage and discussion of respective candidates as well as a number of visualization options to sift through this data. The site offers a range of useful analysis tools, including semantic mapping, an ontology feature that maps connections between topics and key words, article copy and media transcripts, short quotes from candidates extracted automatically from the data, and geographic maps of coverage. More than just a list of articles on related topics or a tag cloud of key words (though the site has them as well), these are the sort of tools that were once the exclusive domain of campaign analysts and political scientists. Not only is the variety and specificity of the analysis they provide significant, but the breadth of materials the site brings together allows armchair analysts to dig into, rather than just reading across, campaign coverage. The breadth of the sample and the tools the site provides provides are not so surprising considering it is a project from the MODUL University of Vienna's Department of New Media Technology.

While much has rightfully been made of the political potential of YouTube in the current campaign, democratic participation requires informed participants as much as vocal ones. Neither of these sites invites nor encourages participation; Unlike open data analysis and visualization communities such as the (much wonderful) Many Eyes project, both of these services provide data for analysis without necessarily encouraging participation in the production of that analytic discourse. Certainly, Web Monitor features a message board, but this is accessed from the front page, where only the most perfunctory of the tools lie. Neither of these services invite 'participation' on the site itself. Nor do they provide options to an audience member looking to get directly involved in the politicking of the campaign. Considering these tools components of a participatory culture and as elements of the increasingly participatory nature of the current election campaign affords two things - it reminds us the participatory audience exists outside of the discourses of authorship frequently employed, while simultaneously reminding us this audienceship exists beyond discourses of consumption.