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Data-Painted Pictures of Afghan Democracy

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, September 17 2010

Afghans go to the polls tomorrow to vote in a new Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of their national assembly. Afghanistan's elections can be, well, troubled. A group of people from the National Democratic Institute, an organization associated with the U.S. government, and the DC-based data-driven firm Devolopment Seed are using maps and data to figure out how they can help the world, and Afghanistan, make sense of what's about to take place.

Enter NDI's Afghanistan Election Data and, importantly, its Open extension, a compilation of open-source map tiles and data, all designed to contribute to a more accurate reckoning of the Afghanistan vote. Map tiles include district boundaries and street names in both English and Dari; mapped data sets include both current and historical information on Afghanistan's ethic groups, on-the-ground incidents of corruption, female candidates, female voters, turnout, party affiliation, and numbers on how many votes when to Hamid Karzai in 2004. New data on tomorrow's election when it is released, if all goes as planned, in late October. All the maps can be loaded onto a USB stick and run from a local computer in low-bandwidth or no-bandwidth places, which, according to Development Seed president Eric Gundersen, in Afghanistan includes "anywhere outside Kabul."

(An aside for geeks: AfghanistanElectionData.org runs on Drupal, and the maps are powered by, in Gundersen's words, the "amazing" open-source mapping kit MapNik, powered through Development Seed's own MapBox software. The USB offline map tool is called Maps on a Stick. Each map tile and data set is annotated with details on its sourcing. NDI ran a similar project in last year's election in Afghanistan; what's different this year includes that they're making available all of the source files.)

Gundersen runs Development Seed out of DC's 14th Street corridor, and he makes the case that building maps and data sets like this takes considerable investment of time and money. "Google's incentive to do map tiles in Afghanistan just isn't there," he says. He himself has been to Afghanistan three times this year, he reports, alongside NDI collecting data and maps from Afghan government officials and local groups. "Making maps like this is incredibly expensive," he says, arguing that the Afghanistan Election Data project's Open wing is a way for NDI funding -- much of it in U.S. taxpayer dollars -- can be manifested in useful assets that can be used by everyone from partner organizations like Democracy International and Free and Fair Election Foundation of Afghanistan to interested researchers and bloggers.

Gundersen sees this sort of project as central to the promise of open-data-driven world change. "This isn't going to be one of those sites that anybody's going to build a silly app from," he says. "This is real, on-the-ground usage of open data. Once this open data honeymoon is over, sites like this -- really wonky, heavy on documentation -- are going to be incredibly valuable." Check out the Afghanistan Election Data project here.

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