Data is a Geek’s Best Friend: New ES&S Product Could Provide “Insights” Into Polling Place Operations



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I spoke to business reporter Cole Epley of the Omaha World-Herald yesterday, who told me about a new product being developed at ES&S – with the help of a local tech “accelerator” – which would take data from the polling place and make it available to election officials more quickly and easily than it already is:

ES&S Director of Emerging Technologies Rob Wiebusch [pictured above] and Director of Innovations Shari Little last week finished a three-month stint at the Straight Shot Accelerator, where they refined their early concept at improving voting. They want to use data to help election administrators make smarter decisions at polling places…

So ES&S sent Wiebusch and Little to the 90-day startup accelerator program in June to come up with the nuts and bolts of a new product offering that will aim to make voters’ experiences at the polls go more smoothly.

With their machines at so many polling places, ES&S collects a lot of data. This project doesn’t use personal information, such as whom a voter chooses for City Council. Instead, it looks at data generated from a polling place as a whole — like how many people voted between 8 and 9 a.m. Or how many times ballots were fed incorrectly into machines.

Armed with that data, election administrators could, say, bulk up staffing during typically busy times or increase training for employees having problems with certain tasks. (The company says the data is non-identifying — in other words, it’s not tied to information that would expose individual identities or votes.)

If such a product did become available, it would be incredibly valuable for election offices:

Election expert Doug Chapin said being able to identify differences between the behavior of voters who come early in the day compared with those who come later in the day could be a key piece of data.

“Given there are other aspects of the day we can’t predict, like the weather, I think being able to predict how many voters will come in based on historic data and having the resources to prepare for how they will vote … will help election officials do more advance planning and then free them up to deal with truly unforeseen circumstances,” said Chapin, who is director of the Election Academy at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

“It’s less about how someone will vote and more about what they do when they vote,” he said.

The product, which ES&S is apparently planning to call Election Insights, could be one way for jurisdictions to answer the call from smart people like Bipartisan Policy’s Tammy Patrick and MIT’s Charles Stewart, who are working with offices across the country to set up data collection programs that would help identify where lines form or other problems potentially could affect the voting process.

It looks like they’ll need to keep working for now, though; ES&S’s Wiebusch is saying Election Insights”will be rolled out over the next two to five years.”

Still, it’s exciting to see the future promise of real-time, routinized data collection – and even more heartening to see election technology get an accelerator’s attention alongside more traditional clients like business-to-business or retail companies. [Unlike most Straight Shot participants, ES&S didn’t get seed funding from the program and thus didn’t have to give an equity stake.]

It’ll be interesting to see if these kinds of products become part of election companies’ offerings generally in the near future. I certainly hope so, given that the ability to see what’s happening inside the polling place in real-time or shortly thereafter could go a long way toward helping election offices keep small problems from becoming big problems – or avoiding them entirely.

Stay tuned.

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