A Contrarian map of politics and money in Nova Scotia

In a series of posts last September, Contrarian revealed that Nova Scotia’s Chief Electoral Officer had degraded the format used to report political donations over $50. For the first time, she released the file as a scanned PDF that cannot be searched or readily copied to other formats.

Helpful Contrarian readers promptly hacked* McCulloch’s degraded files, enabling us to republish the data in the searchable, text-grab-friendly format used in previous years’ reports. Today’s long overdue follow-up provides the data in two new, even more useful and interesting formats:

  • An Excel spreadsheet readers can view, parse, and re-use in ways limited only by their imaginations and programming chops.**
  • An interactive Google Map showing every donation to a registered Nova Scotia political party in 2010.

[Direct link to map] Dots on the map are color-coded by party: orange for NDP, red for Liberal, blue for Tories. The larger dots stand for donations over $1,000. Clicking on an individual dot brings up the donor’s name and address, and the amount of the donation. Use the + and – slider on the left side of the map to zoom in and out; click and drag the map to focus on a particular town or neighborhood.

Over the next day or two, I’ll post some other useful ways of visualizing this data, produced by a particularly creative Contrarian reader.

Google is not perfect. It has trouble geo-coding rural route addresses and post office boxes, so these sometimes appear in odd places or even as overlapping donations sharing a single location.***  The optical character recognition (OCR) process required to decode Elections Nova Scotia’s deliberately degraded file may have introduced a few errors into the data. If you notice any, please use the comment link at the top of this page to let me know, and I’ll try to correct them.

I expect political junkies will find playing with the map mildly diverting. Is it also important (as I maintain) or dangerous (as Election Nova Scotia professes to believe)?

Chief Electoral Office Christine McCulloch, since retired, contended that crippling her legally required disclosure report was necessary “to protect contributors from ‘data-mining.’” In fact, Nova Scotia law contains no such requirement, and the one judicial precedent runs counter to her policy. In a moment of hyperbole this week, an Elections Nova Scotia official offered the preposterous suggestion that  the spreadsheet I am releasing today could even be abet identity theft.

About the worst that could happen is that someone could — could, but probably won’t — use the spreadsheet to develop a direct mail solicitation list. A company wanting to do that probably has access to more sophisticated OCR tools than Contrarian. As a practical matter, the Elections Nova Scotia’s lockdown only impedes ordinary Nova Scotians seeking to use the data in creative, citizenly ways.

Earlier this month, the President of the United States issued an executive order directing all federal departments to implement application programming interfaces, commonly known as APIs, to give software developers direct access to their public data. This will lead to creative, entrepreneurial uses of public data that enhances its value to the people who paid for it.

In Nova Scotia, we’re moving in the opposite direction, responding to overblown privacy concerns by locking up data that used to be freely available. This is a recipe for turning our province, which overflows with digital programming talent, into a information age backwater.

I hope Nova Scotia’s new Chief Electoral Officer will reconsider this policy with an open mind. More importantly, I hope cabinet ministers and senior officials will consider the economic and cultural benefits that will accrue if their departments ease their grip on the many kinds of data they gather.

[UPDATE II:] Elections Nova Scotia plans to release the 2011 political donations data Friday.

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* Many readers contributed time and skill to this effort. Hearty thanks to JS, PGH, WF, NMK, and most especially, mapping guru WCR.

** The spreadsheet only lists donations to registered provincial political parties. It does not include donations to individual riding associations or to candidates in the 2010 Glace Bay byelection. The manner in which Elections Nova Scotia tabulates these simply makes it too much work.

*** An interesting example is the large orange dot just south of TransCanada 104 east of Antigonish. Clicking it sometimes brings up John “Nova” Chisholm’s $2,500 donation to the NDP (!); and sometimes Carl Hartigan’s $1,000 donation to that party. The two men have post office boxes and very similar postal codes. You may have to zoom in and out to different resolutions to see both donations. [UPDATE I:] Hartigan, I’m told, is a close associated of John Nova’s.