What I love about America is its numbers. Americans count everything. And when the government does the counting, it makes the numbers available to everyone.
What is the use of all this counting? No one knows. Or at least, they do not always have to know when they start counting. But they just count. And after a while, the uses come up.
Two applications got me thinking about this. The first is fundrace.org which collates data about political donations. These area available from the Federal Election Comission, which is Federal, so its data is in the public domain.
You can use the site to find out about who your neighbours are donating to. Seriously. I found I was surrounded by a small Democrat majority, but the total donations of the Republicans dwarfed those of the Democrats. The top three donors (at $50,000, $30,000 and $20,000) were Republicans. I then checked my friends’ neighbourhoods. My boss lived in a very Democrat neighbourhood. In fact her neighbours were Howard Dean Democrats. And the 90210 neighbourhood, of TV fame, is very rich and very Republican.
You can also search by name of the donor. Because all of these donations show the full name and address of donor. For example Martin Sheen is a Dick Gephardt Democrat.
All of which brings up privacy questions of course. How long before neighbours get annoyed with each other. And is there a point to anonymous voting if such personal donations are not anonymous. As usual, The Economist has intelligent things to say on the matter.
It is through the slightly less intelligent Wired.com that I found out about the second application, which is mapping software. These Geographic Information Systems GIS were developed by local governments and real estate developers to cross-reference important data about an area with its geography in a graphical form, usually overlaying data on overhead photographs or maps of a region. It has been used to track commercial trends and social phenomena for specific regions, an invaluable tool for planning purposes.
The software got cheaper, the data more available, and now activists have gotten hold of it. They are hoping to use it to increase voter turnout, and to focus their campaigning efforts. As the article concludes -“Its potential isn’t even close to being realized”.