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Tuesday, 2nd November 2010

A Lesson in Checking More Than One Source: Incorrect Polling Places from Google Election Center (and Some Lessons Learned)

UPDATE (November 2, 2010; 6:30 EDT): A Google spokesperson has gotten back to us with a statement. Here's the full text.

"We are constantly updating the tool to make sure it reflects the most current information provided to us by the Board of Elections. Anyone who finds a discrepancy can report an error using the link provided at the bottom of the page."

We do appreciate Google sharing the statement with us tonight (we first contacted them on Sunday, October 31st) but unfortunately the statement does not address many of our questions.

Also, as we said in the report below and Google notes in the statement, users can send in error reports.

Two points.

1) Mobile users who find an error are not provided with a link to submit a report. It's likely that Election Center Mobile and services like it in the future will be accessed on mobile devices.

2) If user submission are useful to the data team for this and other products, why is the link to submit a report placed in small type at the bottom the page or in this case column? Will users who want to share info even be able to find the link before giving up?

Barry Schwartz at Search Engine Land points to a Fast Company blog post by David Zax about an editor from the publication/web site using Google Election Center to find his polling place this morning in New York City. After checking a second source (smart guy), he learned that the polling place listed in Google was incorrect.

Another excellent example about why using more than one resource is always a good idea.

Now, allow us to tell you the story of what we found over the weekend with why using two and perhaps resources to verify important info might sometimes be a good idea.

We didn’t post our story for a number of reasons when it was completed. Was it a mistake not to post? Yes, it probably was given that it was very likely that what we found would not be an isolated incident. A real live and learn couple of days.

The Fast Company post also points out (via a chat with Google) that they're always getting new and updated material for the database.

However, why can others (a non-government organization, at least as DC is concerned) provide accurate info? As you'll read in a moment at one point Google Election Center Mobile had the correct for one address info while the web version did not have the correct info for the same address.

Background

On Saturday morning, Josh Levs from CNN reported about several web-based election resources including Google Election Center, where users can enter an address and learn where their polling place is located. The link to the database is also seen on a list of election resources links on Josh Levs Facebook page.

Levs used a well-known D.C. address when he demonstrated the database on the air: 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500 (aka The White House).

You’ll see the demo link directly below the search box here and in the search box here.

When the report ended, we wanted to see what the Google database provided in terms of info for the White House address compared to what the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics offers in their database. That’s when we discovered Google is NOT providing the same polling place info as the official government entity in charge of elections in the District of Columbia. Btw, the D.C. Board of Elections database is linked on Election Center web pages. Mobile users do not have this option.

You can quickly learn that there was an issue by simply looking at the Google Blog Post for their demo search, which is listed and linked as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue 20050.

As you’ll see, the location listed in the blog post screenshot is:

600 22nd Street NW
Washington DC

However, this is incorrect.

Because, today the polling place is listed as:

The School Without Walls
2130 G St. NW
Washington, DC 20006

Screenshot also available.

We also came across (via a Google search) the “District of Columbia Voter Guide” (56 pages; PDF) from the D.C. Board of Elections and Ethics that is specifically written for the November 2, 2010 general election. On page ten we found our answer. The polling place is one of several that have been relocated since the November 2008 election.

We also noticed that the Google Election Center was providing one address (incorrect) and Election Center Mobile was sharing another location (correct).

On Sunday afternoon we contacted Google to:

1. Report the problem

2. Ask what happened including how could one version of a product have the incorrect address but another version of the same product have the correct address?

On Monday, we noticed that Google had been made the correction. Kudos to them.

However, we never heard back from the company about the questions we have (and continue to have).

The story doesn’t end there.

We wanted to give Google some extra time (yes, perhaps benefit of the doubt since):

A. The data is being compiled with the help of a 3rd party. However, it’s the Google Election Center and they have the resources to get the information on their own and to make sure it was as current as possible.

We’re talking about a relatively small amount of info of use (to the majority of voters) for only a limited time. It's great to ask help from users (how many users will actually participate and will users even notice the link to send correct data?) but again Google should strive to get the most current and accurate data on their own.

We often wonder if the company realizes the power they have? In many cases, if they say it, it gets notice. How many other polling place locator databases were mentioned (and demoed) on CNN and other global, national, and local media outlets during the past few days?

Many of work to let users know about and use when necessary a variety of electronic and print resources. However, we also know that this is not always (or often) the case. It's also worth mentioning that not only was Google providing access to the data but was also making it available for others to share on their site(s) using a widget or an API.

In this case, using the “it’s only a Google Labs” project is difficult to handle since the database for the most part goes away voting ends today. If a company with the resources (both human and that financial) that Google has is going to offer a service like this make it as good as possible.

B. Late yesterday we discovered that the DC data warehouse file CONTINUED to provide the incorrect info for the address. However, the official database and official voter guide have the correct address. For those of you familiar with D.C. government it makes sense. (-:

Just a small amount of extra research by Google would have allowed them to find out early on that there was a problem. No time for research? O.K. Again, simply comparing the web version with the mobile version? If someone would have done this they would have seen the inconsistency.

This might not have be possible for every polling place but in this specific case we’re talking about the address being used as the demo. Of course, since one address was incorrect perhaps others in DC were also incorrect.

The site DC.evoter.com has been able to provide the correct info since we first checked on Saturday.

Since data is always being updated, we will share the following with Google:

At this hour other two other polling places in D.C. are listed incorrectly both on Election Center and Election Center Mobile:

+ Ward 4, Precinct 57

Google Lists:

Rudolph Elementary School
5200 2nd Street, NW

However, the relocated polling place is now found at:

Hattie Holmes Wellness Center
324 Kennedy St, NW

Screenshot Here

D.C.evoter.com Screenshot

D.C. Board of Elections Screenshot

+ Ward Number: 7
Precinct Number: 97

Google Lists:

Peace Lutheran Church
15 49th Place, NE

Relocated to :

Kelly Miller Middle School
301 49th St NE

Screenshot

Screenshot of D.C. Board of Elections Database

Screenshot of DC.evoter.com

Thoughts and Questions

We’ve learned a few lessons during the past few days.

+ It appears (at least to us) that posting your story first and asking questions later might be a better way to get a response from the Google media team vs. to wait for a phone call or reply before posting.

+ One official source (the .XLS file of DC polling places) provides incorrect data but two other official sources say something else. In situations like this does anyone double or even triple-check with a second or even a third source or make a phone call? By “situations like this” we’re talking about specialty databases NOT the entire Google database, checking that resource in the same way checking and double checking a resource like Election Center is impossible.

+ Why did the Election Center Mobile provide the correct info but the web version did not? It was not until sometime on Sunday or early Monday after we (and perhaps others) submitted a report the the inconsistency was corrected.

+ With the vast resources that Google has to get this type of work done, how can a smaller service like evoter.com and specifically DC.evoter.com provide the correct data from when first started to check their database?

Finally, if nothing else we hope that what we posted combined with the post on FastCompany.com will serve as a practical illustration that in some cases checking more than one source is always a good idea.

We are resubmitting our questions to Google and if we here back, we will let you know asap.

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