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Joe Stuteville
IU School of Informatics
jstutevi@indiana.edu
812-856-3141

Last modified: Monday, December 12, 2005

Seeing red, feeling blue: the color of donors' political money

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Much has been said about campaign finance reform, particularly the disclosure of money that candidates take in from corporations and special-interest groups. Now there is a new tool that identifies individual donors and the candidates and political parties they back.

Matthew Kane, a doctoral student in the Indiana University School of Informatics, has devised a computer program that identifies donors, their addresses, and the amounts they gave to candidates and to the Republican and Democratic national committees during the 2004 presidential elections. That information can be accessed by the public on a Web site Kane has created.

Kane political giving

Photo by: Matthew Kane

IU informatics graduate student Matthew Kane created a Web site that allows users to identify, by ZIP code, contributors to the Republican and Democratic parties (map courtesy of Tele Atlas and Google)

Print-Quality Photo

The idea grew out of an assignment Kane received in an information security class he was taking with Markus Jakobsson, associate professor and associate director of the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research. The assignment was to extract information that people consider private, but which is actually part of the public record.

"Since I have a deep interest in politics, I knew that political campaign contributions were in the public domain and that some people would prefer not to have others know exactly what political contributions they had made," said Kane, who is pursuing doctorates in computer science and cognitive science. "What better way to make people aware of these contributions than by mapping them?"

The donor information was extracted from the non-profit Fundrace Project, an online resource that details and maps donors' information derived from records on file with the Federal Election Commission from the 2004 elections. Kane then used special programming language from open-source libraries, but his main tool was Google Maps, a free resource from the search engine giant.

"But since Google Maps only understands latitude and longitude coordinates as input for a map marker, rather than just a plain address, I had to build my own geocoder," Kane said. "This turned out to be a very elaborate process, but the source for most of the raw information came from the U.S. Census Bureau's online files."

Here's how it works: users simply go to Kane's site, where they are asked to enter a ZIP code. Within moments, a window pops up indicating the total number and percentages of Democrats and Republicans in that area who are on record as having donated to the 2004 elections.

Below that information is a street map of the ZIP code area depicting red (Republican Party) and blue (Democratic Party) balloons. Clicking on a balloon brings up a window that includes a donor's name and address, and the amount they gave to a particular candidate or to one of the two major parties.

In Kane's view, the tool he created has a more practical use. It could be used by campaign strategists to know which ZIP codes or areas of a ZIP code are swing-vote areas that should receive attention versus areas that are clearly Republican-dominated or Democrat-dominated.

Kane's Web site can be accessed at http://www.cs.indiana.edu/~markane/i590/contributors.html. For more information about the IU Center for Applied Cybersecurity Research, go to http://cacr.iu.edu.

To speak with Kane, please contact Joe Stuteville at 812-856-3141 (office), 317-946-9930 (cell), or jstutevi@indiana.edu.