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Computer science students create Election Tracker for WPR

RELEASED: Oct. 27, 2010

Students working on Election Tracker
Dr. Paul Wagner and students Wade Hanson, Mark Forseth and Adam Wasdovitch work on Election Tracker.

EAU CLAIRE — Political candidates are coached to be ready for anything, but an on-air primary election night interview with a winning candidate took one politician by surprise.

When Wisconsin Public Radio's Dean Kallenbach, anchor of the Sept. 14 primary results coverage on WHWC, 88.3 FM, asked candidate Warren Petryk about his chances for winning the November general election, a clearly surprised Petryk said he was not aware that he'd won the 93rd Assembly District Republican primary that night until he'd heard it from WPR.

How did WPR confirm the election results before a candidate who was closely monitoring the returns?

Kallenbach credits the Wisconsin Public Radio Election Tracker, a state-of-the-art software program created by a team of University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire computer science students under the direction of a computer science professor.

"In the primary election in September, there were four key legislative races we were covering," said Kallenbach, senior regional manager for WPR. "When we called the winning candidates for interviews, three of the four said they found out they won from us — our numbers were even faster than those the candidates were gathering themselves. That's great testimony to a great system, and the students are always brainstorming with us to put in even better features."

Each election night since WPR created a western Wisconsin news bureau in 1986, WPR has worked to gather original results for regional legislative races so its information was up-to-the-minute, Kallenbach said.

"For years, we did it by hand and calculators, an incredibly labor-intensive process prone to errors," Kallenbach said. "In the early '90s, a volunteer developed a computer program that helped us compute the data. It worked great but getting the information from the computer to the studios was a cumbersome process. As we moved into the 21st century, we realized we needed something different."

The WPR Election Tracker began as a class project in a software engineering course in 2007, said Dr. Paul Wagner, chair of UW-Eau Claire's computer science department. Four students worked to create a program to replace the pre-Windows program to help WPR aggregate election night vote totals, Wagner said.

"Their work allowed the on-air announcers to give up-to-the-minute reports on the voting results," Wagner said. "The project was not completed that semester, but one of the students on that original team continued work on the project and completed the first version of the program in spring 2008. WPR was able to use the program successfully in the 2008 elections."

Since then, WPR staff has had ideas for adding to the program, Wagner said. As a result, students from an upper-level software engineering course have continued work on the system each fall, fixing small problems and adding enhancements, he said.

"Election Tracker is custom made to our needs," Kallenbach said. "It works very smoothly, and is lightning fast. Each election, a new group of students works on the software to add features and increase ease of use."

Wagner said students gain a great deal by working on projects such as Election Tracker.

"Projects like this — where students investigate, design and develop technical solutions to real-world problems — are very valuable," Wagner said. "This truly is a capstone course, as it helps the students build on their academic knowledge and transition to larger problems that they'll see in industry or graduate school."

By working with WPR, students practice working as part of a team on a non-academic problem, Wagner said. They also experience challenges that occur in the real world, such as trying to communicate clearly and working in a different computing environment that the client has as compared to what is in university laboratories, he said, adding that students also learn to take a project all the way to completion.

"Working on a project like this is a really good experience for any computer science major because we will most likely be working with old code that we may not necessarily be familiar with," said Mark Forseth, a senior computer science major from Hudson. "In this case, there was a framework which none of us have used before. We changed it to fit the client's needs."

Talking with clients to identify their needs and how the students' work can make their lives easier has been interesting, Forseth said, noting that he's excited to continue the project.

It's especially meaningful for students work on a project for a nonprofit organization such as WPR, Wagner said.

"The students get a sense that the work they've done is not just for their benefit, but contributes to making a better world," Wagner said. "Hopefully this helps them establish a lifelong willingness to contribute part of their time to service to society."

Forseth said he's looking forward to seeing how the Election Tracker project helps the WPR team during the Nov. 2 election.

"We have been invited to stop by the WPR station on election night to see the program and all of the volunteers in action," Forseth said. "I think that will be really neat to see."

Students working with Forseth on the WPR project this semester are senior computer science majors Wade Hansen, Neillsville, and Adam Wasdovitch, Chilton.



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