Election Audits, Voting Systems and more: Open Source and the Public Sector at OSCON 2009

Thursday, July 23, 2009 | 1:57 PM


This is the second post from OSCON 2009 highlighting how open source is being used to improve the public sector. Check back this week for more from San Jose, CA.

Wednesday at OSCON was packed with talks on open government, open data, and other uses of open source technologies and principles to better government and the public sector. The day started with a keynote by Tim O'Reilly, where he focused on the growing Government 2.0 movement and how open source can fit in. Tim announced the launch of Open Source for America, a new coalition dedicated to promoting use and support of open source projects by the federal government. Google is a part of the coalition, and we're excited to be a part of its efforts to transform government.

Later in the morning, Neal McBurnett gave a fascinating talk on open source election auditing. He argued that election administrators don't pay nearly enough attention to auditing, which is the process of comparing the reported results of a computerized voting system with hand counts of selected batches. Properly auditing results is hard: selecting batches of results to audit requires advanced statistical techniques and doing hand-counts of ballots is time- and labor-intensive. Because of these challenges and due to the rise of what Neal called an "era of trusting computers too much," audits rarely happen today. To help solve this problem, Neal wrote ElectionAudits, an open source application created using Python and Django to automate much of the audit process for election administrators. The software was used in Boulder, CO in 2008, and he's working with Denver and the Colorado state government to use it to conduct better audits in more places in the 2009 and 2010 elections. Neal needs help from the community to help improve the project and drive adoption, so if you're interested in getting involved, take a look at the project site.

A few hours later, Richard Benham and James Tillman from the Elections by the People Foundation spoke about another part of the election process - the machines we use for casting and counting ballots. They began by outlining why they believe current voting systems are broken. Systems that use optically-scanned paper ballots provide a paper trail but can be challenging for some to fill out, and touch-screen voting systems are easy to use but provide no way to audit their results. Further, there are just three major and a handful of minor companies creating these machines, and they view the internal workings of these systems that are central to our democracy as trade secrets rather than public information. Richard and James set out to create a better system. They created what they call a "hybrid" voting platform: voters select candidates on touch screen computers, which print out a completed paper ballot that is then scanned. This provides accessibility, a paper trail, and security. Their software is written in Java and runs on commercially available computers using Ubuntu Linux. Data in the system is stored using Election Markup Language, an open standard for representing election data. They plan to release their code soon, and are working to get the system certified and in use.

One of the last sessions of the day was a panel on Hacking the Open Government, which featured five innovators in technology and government who are pushing the boundaries of open government. California Secretary of State Debra Bowen spoke about her work in the 90's to put data from the California legislature online, and how the tech community came together to help reduce the cost of a system that opened government data to the entire state. Today, she's continuing that work as Secretary of State to open up state government. Silona Bonewald from the League of Technical Voters spoke about Citability, her new project with a goal of making parts of bills in Congress easy accessible online down to the paragraph level, which would bring a new level of transparency to how bills change in the legislative process. The panel also touched on open government across the globe, with Kevin Marks talking about efforts in the UK, including They Work for You.com, a site which tracks the actions of British Members of Parliament.

These are just a few of the exciting public sector developments happening at OSCON. Check back the rest of this week for more, and if you're working on or know about other open source projects in the public sector, let us know in the comments.


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