Using Mapping Tech to Mine for Voters

Opinion: Election officials and activists are turning to geographic information systems and other technology to tailor their approach to finding voters.

Blame it on the Howard Dean campaign–everyone else is–but technology isnt leaving politics. In fact, its finding steady acceptance on the other side of the fence, in public service and in civic administration of government services.

Tech folks will roll their eyes at the small steps that are being taken, but the use of computer technology and software by frugal government agencies has always lagged behind corporations. Political campaigns, which rely on volunteers and donated equipment, arent always tech-savvy. Its often been too difficult for them to train people to use what little software and support is available.

Thats changing. Take a tour–a virtual tour–of whats going on in Redwood City, Calif., the county seat of San Mateo County. Four years ago, at the height of the tech boom, Redwood City was a sleepy, working-class suburb on the fringes of Silicon Valleys growth and expansion. No more. The joint is wired to encourage political participation.

This year, San Mateo County Chief Elections Officer Warren Slocum asked Farallon Geographics, a San Francisco-based mapping and data company, for help with a voter registration effort.

"Its a situation where one size doesnt fit all," Slocum says. "What works in the Latino community doesnt work in the Chinese community." San Mateo County, which has blocks of Filipino voters as well as Chinese- and Spanish-speakers, wanted a way to reach all of its residents as effectively as possible. But the agency wasnt sure what would work–or what was needed–in various parts of the county.

Farallon Geographics, which makes sophisticated mapping and tracking software, matched up census data about households with voter registration information. It produced maps and guides for the county that show where voter registration is lagging as well as information about the ethnic mixes in those areas.

"You really couldnt do this any other way, except with GIS," says Farallon CEO Dennis Wuthrich. Well, you could, but it takes lots and lots of time. And effort. Anyone whos ever seen the war room of a political campaign is familiar with the color-coded, hand-painted maps and graphs that are used and reused as they try to identify voters. Theyre the creative artwork hanging in the halls and offices.

/zimages/2/28571.gifClick here for a column on the advantages of e-voting.

Wuthrich says the San Mateo voter project took Farallon about a week. The company was already under contract for other work for the county and San Mateo had kept its records up-to-date, making the project fairly straightforward and not too expensive. "It was almost anti-climatic," he says. "It didnt take that much time."

Next Page: Speaking voters language.