Information is power – here’s some

    For years, if you were curious about past election results in Philadelphia, there were places online to get them, like the watchdog group, Committee of Seventy.

    But one place that offered no help was the site of the Philadelphia City Commissioners, which actually runs elections in the city. Things are mighty different now that the Stephanie Singer, a math Ph.D who’s been making data public for years, won election to the Commission.

    The Commissioner’s site now links to something called Analyze The Vote, which provides some great basic stuff, like municipal election results going back to 2007. But it also has a tool called “Scatter Plot,” which graphically displays the vote of candidates in an election by ward or by division within a ward.

    If you’re not used to seeing data this way (I’m not), you’ll have to stare at it a bit. But it’s pretty cool. If you select Singer’s vote as compared to her chief rival Marge Tartaglione last year in the 65th ward in the Northeast, the scatter plot graph shows one division in which Singer’s results were superlative.

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    Turns out she had a secret weapon: her daughter Luna, who worked the 20th division that day.

    “She’s tall, she’s calm and collected, and she stood there all day and said `vote for my mom'”, Singer told me. “If someone asked why, she gave a coherent explanation.” Singer beat Tartaglione in the division 207 to 40.

    You can also use the scatter plot function to compare how the same candidate does from one election to the next.

    An example: plot the ward-by-ward returns for City Councilman-at-large Bill Green and you’ll see his vote in the first ward more than doubled from the 2007 to the 2011 Democratic primaries. Can you guess why? If you know, leave it in the comment field. If nobody comes up with it, I’ll provide an answer in an update.

    Singer was able to get this up at no cost to taxpayers, by the way. That’s partly because she knows and loves data, and because she had extraordinary help from Tim Wisniewski, one of a corps of open data geeks who believe in public-spirited dissemination of information. He did the work on the commissioner’s site for free, but has since been hired by the city (not working in Singer’s office).

    And a while back I commended the efforts of Casey Thomas, another young open data jedi who, with a couple of friends set up a website displaying information on Philadelphia lobbyists who’ve registered under a new city law.

    Thomas has since been planning some great additions to his site, using expense reports filed by the clients of lobbyists.

    He did a ton of work on his own for nothing, and so impressed the Philadelphia Public Interest Information Network that they hired him to enhance the site. I’ll have more on this when the new stuff is up.

    Meanwhile, hats off to those who use their technical skills to inform citizens and shine a bright light on the public’s business.

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