Smartphone location data is a dream for marketers who want to know where you go and how long you spend there—and a privacy nightmare. But this kind of geolocation data could also be used to protect people’s voting rights on Election Day.
The newly founded nonprofit Center for New Data is now tracking voters at the polls using smartphone location data to help researchers understand how easy—or difficult—it is for people to vote in different places. Called the Observing Democracy project, the nonpartisan effort is making data on how far people have to travel to vote and how long they have to wait in line available in a privacy-friendly way so it can be used to craft election policies that ensure voting is accessible for everyone.
Election data has already fueled changes in various municipalities and states. A 66-page lawsuit filed by Fair Fight Action against the state of Georgia in the wake of Stacey Abrams’s narrow loss to Brian Kemp in the 2018 gubernatorial race relies heavily on data to back its assertions of unconstitutionally delayed and deferred voter registration, unfair challenges to absentee and provisional ballots, and unjustified purges of voter rolls—all hallmarks of voter suppression.