FEC launches new campaign finance website with 18F help

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The betaFEC website on launch day. (Screengrab)

The Federal Election Commission launched a new public website Thursday built with the help of expert digital services team 18F, and aimed at improving Americans’ access to political fundraising and campaign spending data.

Called betaFEC, the new website is the first step in a total redesign of the FEC’s online presence, hoping to make the agency’s vast volumes of data — and the many complicated statutes that govern them — more comprehensible to the public, the media and everyone in between.

The FEC enlisted 18F, the digital services team within the General Services Administration, to help develop the new portal with “state-of-the-art organizational and navigation tools,” according to an FEC fact sheet. The 18F contribution is part of that team’s dedication to improving the transparency and user-friendliness of agencies’ IT.

18F’s Leah Bannon told FedScoop the new site focuses purely around the user, built on top of the OpenFEC API that 18F helped FEC officials build earlier this summer.

“The biggest thing really is this is all based on a lot of extensive user-centered design research and over 50 one-on-one usability testing sessions with users to make it so that it’s a lot easier for them to understand,” said Bannon, 18F product manager for betaFEC. “Some of the main things we found were that … people wanted to be able to do a simple quick search for candidates and committees, so we brought that up to the front.”

The FEC data on the original website are organized by forms that the layman probably doesn’t understand, Lindsay Young, a developer on the project, said in an 18F blog post. “For people who don’t know which thing is disclosed on which form and don’t care what bucket [the data] flows into, it can be frustrating.”

The new site, however, takes a more plain-language approach, letting users “browse comprehensive lists of candidates, committees, filings, receipts, and disbursements,” and learn more about the terms they don’t understand with a glossary tool, the blog post says.

Additionally, it allows users to sift through the massive troves of information by location with a ZIP code search tool and corresponding maps, and they can compare candidates’ spending within a single race through a new election comparison tool. Within seconds — and several fewer clicks — users can see that Hillary Clinton so far has spent the most of any candidate in her run for the Democratic nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

FEC Commission Ann Ravel told FedScoop this evolution is “incredibly important to the FEC because we are a disclosure agency. We have an enormous amount of important information that the public needs in order to make good decisions when they vote. And if it’s not easily accessible and understandable and complete, they will not be able to do that.”

Even the technical aspects of betaFEC lend themselves to a better user experience. Ravel said the site is mobile friendly, and because it’s hosted in the cloud, “it’s incredibly fast” and can host the FEC’s entire history data, rather than the six or eight years of data it offered prior, she said.

“We have an obligation to provide unvarnished information to people that they can search to look for whatever they want,” Ravel said.

As the name suggests, betaFEC is in the beta stage of its delivery, meaning there will be more iterations coming later with more features. And the site is completely open about this, designating in its design where future tools — like information on registration and reporting, a calendar of FEC deadlines, and new legal decisions on campaign finance law — will be located.

This beta process is integral to building a user-focused tool, Bannon said, giving FEC and 18F quantitative data — in addition to the qualitative data from user feedback — “on how users are interacting with the site, what’s working for them, where they’re getting confused an dropping off” and so on to help guide where betaFEC will go next.

Eventually, Bannon said, the plan is FEC will transition away from and archive the old site. But until then, her team and the FEC are looking for feedback on the new site.

Even on day one, Ravel is quite happy with the progress.

“It is night and day,” she said.

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18F, 2016 election, Agencies, App Development / APIs, Applications & Software, Citizen Services, Cloud Computing & Networking, FEC, Federal Elections Commission, General Services Administration, Government IT News, Innovation, open source, Tech