Oct 20, 2020 - Technology

Exclusive: AP to call elections for Alexa and other Big Tech channels

Illustration of a laptop with balloons on the screen and a long power cord going off the frame

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Many of the world's biggest tech and telecom companies, like Google, Amazon, Microsoft and AT&T, are licensing the Associated Press' election results to power their voice, video and search products, executives tell Axios.

How it works: Because tech firms need to answer millions of unique voice commands and search queries in real time, the results will be coded through an API — an interface that a computer program can read — designed to handle "not enough results in yet" and "too close to call" cases.

"The context is different when providing results for tech companies. You have to consider not only, 'What is too close to call?' but also 'How do you program to that?'"
— Brian Scanlon, AP director of election services

Why it matters: Many election outcomes are expected to be delayed for at least a week. Given the enormous growth of smart home devices and voice assistants during the pandemic, users are going to expect accurate, real-time updates via those platforms.

The big picture: The uncertain nature of this year's election and the pandemic-driven shift to mail-in voting has put more pressure on companies like AP — as well as their decision-desk counterparts at TV networks — to proceed with caution when calling races. Some media companies have opted not to predict election results at all.

Details: AP provides tech companies with election updates via a proprietary API that tech companies can plug into with a subscription.

  • The tech companies define their own use cases for the data and then code their algorithms, routing the results to different products in real-time, like voice assistants or search engines.
  • Some tech companies will use very granular data to address very narrow queries; others will use broader data sets to power general results pages.
  • Some of these companies have been partnering with AP for many months to provide data on primary election results. Those partnerships have helped AP refine its efforts for the general election.

To address new use cases, AP had to not only convert all of its election data into easily-accessible code, but also to consider different types of math and data sets when determining results.

  • "Tech companies helped us get to this idea that all of this has to be programmatic," says Scanlon, who's been working in elections for AP since 2006.
  • "They're thinking about it almost in an equation rather than thinking about it as a political scientist or a reporter writing a story."
  • An example Scanlon notes is that a user may ask a voice assistant on election night how many votes are expected to be counted on election night. That's the sort of data AP has always had but hasn't always published in a world where it was predicting races, not answering users' questions.
  • "It's changed our approach in thinking about things we provide to our own decision desk and anything we can signal for other companies."

Details: Each tech company will route the results to different products.

  • Google will use the results to power its Google Search queries and all of its voice-enabled devices, like the Google Home and Google Nest Home Hub. The firm, which has used AP results in previous elections, will feature results via a dedicated feature on its search results page, but results will not be featured in Google News. The results feature on Search will available in more than 70 languages.
  • Amazon will use the results to power voice search queries via Alexa.
  • Microsoft will use AP's data to power results for Microsoft News and Microsoft Bing. The data on both platforms will refresh every minute. The results will power a real-time map on Microsoft News and will be available in English across MSN, Microsoft Bing, the Microsoft News apps, and Microsoft Edge browser.
  • AT&T will use AP data feed to power a special channel on DirecTV with real-time election results alongside video coverage from different networks.

Between the lines: For years, AP provided election results mostly to media companies for them to publish to their audiences. But today, any company that delivers information is expected to provide answers.

  • AP licenses its elections data to dozens of media companies, telecom and tech companies, as well as display screens in public locations.

The bottom line: "This stuff was typically prepared by elections researchers for other elections researchers," says Scanlon. "It was never thought of this way when it was built. We have to think about a different end user now."

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