Congressional Primaries

An award-winning set of automated, data-driven tools to help voters better understand their choices in Illinois’ 2012 congressional primaries.

What it does

In early 2012 the Knight Lab deployed its Congressional Primaries suite of technologies, which helped help news organizations cover Illinois’ Congressional primaries. The technology won a 2012 Online Journalism Award in the Planned Event category.

The project was composed of five technologies that offered news sites either supplemental primary election coverage or a core of features that could serve as a backbone of coverage for any race in Illinois.

The project combined ideas that hadn’t necessarily been conceived as a means to cover politics, but together provided a unique view of the candidates and races, including:

  • An analysis of candidates’ tweets (built with Python scripts, the Twitter API and a Naïve Bayes Classifier) that showed voters how often candidates tweeted about particular topics (debt, jobs, energy, etc.).
  • An analysis of the tweets of candidates’ Twitter followers that showed voters how often the followers as a whole tweeted about particular topics (debt, crime, environment, etc.).
  • A snapshot of campaign contributions (using the Mapquest geocoding service, that Federal Elections Commission data and Python scripts) that showed users the geographical distribution of each candidate’s contributor base (in-district/out-of-district, in-state/out-of-state).
  • A Google Maps application that allowed users to enter an address and find their congressional district and the candidates running there.
  • An aggregation tool (built with Ruby on Rails and using the Bing News API and Bing Web Search API) that collected coverage of individual congressional primary races from multiple sources.

Each of these features was automated and regularly updated throughout a given day without human input.

All told, 16 news organizations used the Lab’s tools to augment traditional election coverage (via widgets the Lab built) or to present readers with ready-made profiles of primary candidates in Illinois (via “white label” pages the Lab hosted).

Sites that used the Congressional Primaries technology included:

  • Four daily newspapers: the Chicago Sun-Times, the Daily Herald, the Northwest Herald and the Quincy (IL) Herald-Whig
  • Six broadcasters: NBC5 Chicago, Fox Chicago, WTTW (Chicago PBS affiliate), WBEZ (Chicago NPR affiliate), WREX (NBC affiliate in Rockford, IL), KHQA (CBS affiliate in western Illinois)
  • Five niche/community sites: The Gate Newspaper (Chicago’s Back of the Yards neighborhood); The Times Weekly (Joliet, IL), Progress Illinois, Chicago Talks, Evanston Now and Austin Talks.

The project received on-air coverage from WBEZ, WGN, and WREX. In addition, many partner sites wrote a story about their partnership with the Knight Lab and the Congressional Primaries technology. A line-up of original coverage of Congressional Primaries:

  • WGN – “Election 2012: Apps, websites, for election time”
  • TimeOut Chicago – “Chicago Media columnist Robert Feder highlights WTTW deployment”
  • TribLocal Evanston – “Northwestern’s Knight Lab takes new angle on elections”
  • Daily Northwestern – “Northwestern’s Knight Lab launches social media based election site”
  • Evanston Now – “New info for US house race”
  • Progress Illinois – “Get the goods on congressional candidates with new tool”
  • Daily Herald – “Talk with the editor: Tell us what you think about these new tools”

To save money and effort we’ve mothballed the Congressional Primaries site. But if you’re interested in any of the tools listed here, please contact us.


  • Michael Silver, (former) executive director, Knight Lab
  • Ryan Graff, communications and business development, Knight Lab
  • Jordan Young, operations, Knight Lab
  • Katie Park, undergraduate alumna, Medill
  • Cary Lee, undergraduate alumnus, McCormick
  • Shawn O’Banion, doctoral student, McCormick
  • Patrick McNally, doctoral student, McCormick
  • Jenny Wilson, developer, Knight Lab
  • Scott Bradley, developer, Knight Lab