Spurring Student Involvement Through Election Innovation
by Bill Gerken | published Dec. 3rd, 2014
When it comes to standards of innovation, RIT sets the bar. Election night on Tuesday, November 4 was no exception.
Computer Science students, in conjunction with the Political Science department and the Innovation Center, developed a computer program that uses an algorithm to extract election data and present it in a comprehensible manner—all in real time.
RIT is Monroe County’s primary source for incoming, real-time election result data, and when WXXI NPR came to the Innovation Center, we had a solution. Remy DeCausemaker, an adjunct professor for RIT’s Media, Arts, Games, Interaction and Creativity (MAGIC) Center, is one of the people who spearheaded the project that put the Institute on the map.
DeCausemaker said, “We actually had journalists from WXXI come to us, and they said 'We have this workflow problem…do you know of a better way to report on the elections? Because this is a lot of work, and it’s tedious. We’re open to suggestions.'” Presented with this challenge, DeCausemaker, along with former student Nathaniel Case, generated a program called the Election Dashboard to provide a means by which students, alumni and the local community could access reliable election data for counties in New York State.
However, providing access to election data is not unique—news organizations, government databases and social media provide this service as well. What distinguishes RIT in this aspect is the localized election coverage, which merges social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook with government reports. Through this combination of resources, RIT showcases real-time election results as readily as the information is available.
When the Election Dashboard was first developed roughly five years ago, according to DeCausemaker, only a few students were involved and one county was covered. DeCausemaker stated that the coverage for the elections has expanded to beyond Monroe County: “Since then, we’ve added other counties, [including] Cattaraugus, Suffolk, Monroe and Orange.”
Though this project encourages civic involvement from the community, its main goal is to create motivation and interest in political elections for students. Sean Sutton, chair of the Political Science department, explained. “We decided to use the Innovation Center to bring in live feeds of the election results, and this would be a good way for students to follow the elections.”
One of the most unique characteristics about this election event is the ambiance of collaborative innovation. “We’ll have Journalism students, and Politics students, and Computer Science students and Game Design and Development students, all in the same room, sort of co-existing around this atmosphere of 'civic hacking' and election coverage, politics and technology,” said DeCausemaker.
The involvement of multiple disciplines helps to exhibit the distinctiveness RIT provides. Without student involvement in creating a solution to an existing problem, the Election Dashboard would not have been such a tremendous achievement. “I wanted an event where the whole class got together and followed the races that each of them were assigned to follow, and see how it all played out,” Sutton said. The event and the program’s development are ultimately reliant upon student interest.
In the spirit of creativity and innovation, students from RIT have managed to provide a civil service to the public through developing a means to comprehensively understand elections as they are happening.