DJ Showcase: LiveMint (11 AUGUST 2014)

Were the Afghan elections rigged?

From the headline, it looks like yet another political story from Afghanistan. But take a closer look and you will find it it one of the finest examples of data journalism. The fact that it is in an Indian newspaper and that too, one that primarily covers business and economy, just adds to its charm.

There are several reasons why we like this one so much.

First of all, it sets the expectation straight away. The blurb says what it is: one popular method used to determine whether a data set is doctored is to look at the last digits of the values. The simple sentence does two things: it raises the interest level of those looking forward to a data story; at the same time, it turns away those who are uncomfortable with data but are looking for a spicy story on some new evidence of malpractice being caught on camera. In short, it sets an accurate expectation. That is good journalism.

Second, and that is primarily the reason why it is here is that it actually tests the limits of data journalism. While most data journalism stories are about analyzed results, it is about nature of data sets.  While most are about data analysis, itis about statistics and yes, probability.  It looks at elections data in India, Iran and Afghanistan to suggest that elections in Iran and Afghanistan were probably rigged at the counting stage.

 

In an election, for example, there is no reason that the distribution of the last digits of the vote counts of various candidates should not be uniform—given the large number of votes that each candidate gets, the last digit is essentially random, and there is no reason that the probability of a 1 in the units place is more than that of a 2 in the units place. Thus, in a free and fair election, it is likely that the last digit is distributed uniformly.

Third, and this aspect often ignored by new age data journalism champions, many of who understand data very well but are not familiar with the basic promises of good journalism. And that is: you have to be fair and balanced, even if that takes a little interest away from the story. You cannot sacrifice these basic journalism values to make a story more interesting. This story adds the ‘note of caution’ in a very clear and prominent way.

Finally, a note of caution. There are several ways in which an election can be rigged. Speaking broadly, it can be rigged at either the voting or the counting stages. This method of looking at the last digits only gives us an indication of the probability of rigging in the counting stages. Methods such as “ballot stuffing” (reportedly not uncommon in India) cannot be caught with such methods.

Great work.

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