Real-time data has always been crucial to the people running or monitoring an election. But how is it working for the people who cover them?

In the past few election cycles we’ve seen a constant raising of the bar in data journalism. The scene was set in 2008 with Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog, an easy-to-consume fusion of statistics and politics. Silver was widely credited with accurately predicting the presidential election winner in 49 out of 50 US states.

But beyond his success in forecasting, Silver succeeding in popularizing a genre: the digitally native and data-driven news publication. His website evolved from independent start-up status, to a co-publishing partnership with the New York Times, to acquisition by ESPN (in addition to politics, Silver started out predicting results in baseball).

So what does that mean for the rest of the digital publishing world? For starters, it points to a world of elections to cover, in wildly different ways.

Take The 545, for example, an intentionally similarly titled news site covering India’s recent poll (the name represents the number of seats in India’s Lok Sabha, or lower house of parliament). The website was founded by six Indian students at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, who designed it on a shoestring budget while they were stuck in New York over the winter holiday. It went on to be a regular source of election news for mainstream outlets such as the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Forbes India, NDTV and the Hindustan Times.

“We decided to put data into context, and that became the story,” said Anand Katakam, one of the founding publishers. “It was about cutting through the colour and noise.”

In one feature, called “The rally tracker”, his team tracked all of India’s election rallies over a three-to-four month period. The source: candidates’ own websites, checked against news reports, then geo-located on a map of India. Other articles were based on data from PRS Legislative Research, an independent initiative produced by a think tank in New Delhi.

The team used data to tell stories about a slice of the electoral population, specifically next-generation voters. According to The 545, which cited India’s election commission, roughly 23 million Indians between the ages of 18 and 19 were voting for the first time.

Which candidates were most effectively targeting that demographic niche? And which one, as a result, was most likely to benefit from their votes? The 545 used data to predict the answer.

“We looked at those states with a high concentration of young voters, then superimposed on it our rally tracker, to figure out who was reaching those voters,” said Katakam. They found that Narendra Modi was most actively reaching out.

That demographic push wasn’t the sole or even swing factor behind Modi’s landmark win, but it was a new angle that might not have emerged without The 545. Next up they plan to apply the model to advanced sentiment analysis, tying that into election coverage.

The 545 was a score for data-driven news analysis in the digital space. It was deliberately modeled on Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, with design elements borrowed from BuzzFeed, Quartz and Syria Deeply – a hybrid model of digital journalism, covering the world’s biggest democratic event. It serves as a reminder that digital models don’t live in a vacuum; instead they can migrate swiftly and at low cost, through nimble publishers willing to experiment with the craft.

It took six years for Nate Silver’s methodology to cross-pollinate into the Indian media space. If mainstream publishers are smart, next time they’ll take the initiative themselves, instead of waiting for the upstarts to move the needle. And if they need help, there are six fresh Columbia University graduates who can show them how it’s done.

Author: Lara Setrakian is the Founder and Executive Editor of News Deeply. She is a World Economic Forum Young Global Leader and a Member of the Global Agenda Council on the United States.

Image: Polling officers check Electronic Voting Machines at a distribution centre in the central India REUTERS/Raj Patidar