July 2015

Voter, app that swipes right for civic engagement

Left. Left. Right. Right. Left. Yes, it’s an app – but no, it’s not Tinder. Meet Voter, the app intended to make politics engaging, informative, and accessible for every American with a smartphone and a few minutes to spare.

“It’s matchmaking for politics,” explained founder Hunter Scarborough, who came up for the idea for Voter when he was working 12- to 14-hour days in advertising and found himself immensely frustrated by the enormous time and effort barriers to staying civically informed. His situation was far from unique – just 5% of Americans under 30 say they’re able to “very closely” follow political news and events. Voter falls squarely in the sweet spot of those seeking something more comprehensive than soundbites but less convoluted than lengthy news articles. “With Voter, you answer a handful of questions, and the app tells you what parties and candidates you match with and why,” he said. “We’re trying to take something very complex and distill it into something accurate and useful without compromising the integrity.”

After just a few minutes with the app, which soft-launched on Independence Day, it’s easy to see why it’s billed as the Tinder for voting. Inspired by the enormously popular dating app, a right swipe means “yes,” heralding support for or agreement with an issue. If you want to learn more before you commit (what exactly are GMOs, anyway?), tap to be provided with more information, including pro and con bullet points. Scarborough has a background in graphic design, and it shows; the app’s crisp aesthetics make for a seamless visual experience, and the engaging, intuitive interface helps enable Voter, in its founder’s words, to “strike a balance between entertaining people and informing them.”

Under the hood, Voter feeds its proprietary algorithm with millions of data points meticulously gleaned from multiple open-source initiatives, like the Sunlight Foundation’s Capitol Words API, many of which didn’t exist just a few years ago. “The puzzle pieces were only recently ready to be put together,” said Scarborough. “We scrape the web to find voting records, speeches, any information that’s out there to hold politicians accountable to what they say and do.”

And Scarborough believes that the importance of examining actions, not just assurances, can’t be understated: “Politicians, so often, their actions don’t line up with what they said just a few days earlier. It’s mind-boggling, and most of the time it gets no press at all.” Voter corrects for the fact that most of us lack the superhuman stamina required to tease the signal from noise – and even if we could find the time, it’s increasingly unlikely we’d have the patience.

The average person’s attention span lasts for only eight seconds – that’s a 40% decline since researchers first started measuring the effects of the “digital revolution” in 2000. Though this time span is, in Scarborough’s own words, “hysterically low,” it’s also indisputably the reality of an increasingly mobile world – and politics, notoriously dense and slow-moving, simply isn’t built for it. Scarborough says that Voter’s crucial differentiator is “deliberately designing for that eight second attention span, and giving people a way to get a a lot of value in very little time.”

When asked whether Voter has received pushback from purists convinced that an app can’t substitute for a comprehensive political education, Scarborough said no, given that the alternative isn’t pretty: “Most people are just really excited to get the information through Voter, because they know realistically they won’t get the information any other way.” And uninformed voters will sit out elections – or worse, they won’t. “It’s insane how often you have people, who aren’t clear on the issues for whatever reason, voting directly against their own best interests. Voter is designed to help mitigate that.”

Scarborough admits, though, that while some issues are fairly cut-and-dry, others are more complex, requiring delicate wordsmithing in order to eliminate potential bias. In order to create and maintain maximum objectivity, Voter relies heavily on crowdsourcing. “In terms of tackling complex issues, we depend on our users as much as possible,” he said. “There’s an easy way to flag a question if people think there’s a problem – when we see something spiking, we’re going to address it right away.”

While the app currently focuses on presidential candidates, Voter’s post-2016 goals involve ubiquity at the local level, where voting rates are abysmal and participation skews towards older, more affluent, whiter constituencies. Eventually, Scarborough envisions Voter enabling a win-win feedback loop between constituents and politicians: Constituents know who they’re supporting, and politicians know what’s asked of them. He hopes to see the app serve as a referendum platform through which people can instantaneously communicate with their legislators simply by swiping left or right, and “to get to the point where any local politician, someone without a track record, would be shooting themselves in the foot if they didn’t enter their own info.”

In the meantime, Scarborough is particularly excited about the chance to provide younger Americans, who trend towards the “digital native” end of the spectrum, with a way to engage in politics that resonates with them. Millennials clearly value social impact – they volunteer and donate at significantly higher rates than past generations, and are explicit about their intentions to make a positive difference through their work. Yet when it comes to civic engagement, there’s a clear disconnect between their values and actions. Even in DC, where nearly 40% of us are employed by the government, we only managed a 31% millennial turnout for the 2014 midterm elections – and in comparison with the 21% millennial turnout rate for the country, that’s (frighteningly) exemplary.

“Young people are disenfranchised – there’s no doubt about that,” Scarborough says. “They haven’t necessarily seen value in engaging through traditional methods, and Voter provides real opportunity to appeal to millennials on their turf. It’s not a perfect solution yet, but I believe that if we can create a way for more people to learn and engage, we’re taking a major step in the right direction.”

 

By Christina Pappas

730 New Readers?

Hi, readers. 

We took a survey last week to find out who our 2,662 readers are, and you can check out the results here. But I want to zero in one finding: 98.3% of our readers said they would consider forwarding the newsletter to their friends. I’m ready to cash that favor in.

With this feedback, I want to embark on a challenge that’s been in the back of my mind. Can we add 730 readers by 7/30 Day? It’s a huge goal, but the math says it’s doable: If even a third of you get a friend to sign up, we’ll make our goal. If 98% of you get a friend to sign up, we could double—and that would be a reason tocelebrate.

Send it to your roommates. Send it to that annoying coworker who always asks what you’re doing this weekend. Tell your Tinder date. Tell your mom, if she lives here.

In case sharing 730DC isn’t reward enough itself, we’ll grease the wheels with some sweet raffle prizes. Here’s how it works: Forward the newsletter (it can be any of our daily newsletters) to your friends and lovers, or share 730DC.comon Facebook, and you’ll receive a raffle ticket per new subscriber. We’ll track both and raffle off a prize at the end of each week. (Your odds increase the more people you get to sign up.)

This week’s prize: A $20 gift card to Big Bear Cafe. Start forwarding and sharing now for a chance to win. We’ll announce the winner, as well as the next weekly prize, each Monday.

As co-founder of 730DC, I’ve always taken pride in the positive feedback we’ve received. I hope people enjoy the newsletter enough to help us reach this goal, our most ambitious yet. Since our journey began in October 2013—when I’d hardly been here for three months—it’s been humbling as well as genuinely joyful to learn about this city and its communities through daily news alongside, as of today, 2,662 fellow Washingtonians. We hope that number can be 3,392 very, very soon.

Best,
Hayden Higgins
Co-Founder, 730DC

PS: Find us on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.
PPS: If we ever get to 7,300 we will have a party to end all parties.
PPPS: Send us events, news, feedback, ideas, criticism, please—seventhirtydc@gmail.com, anytime.

June Survey Results

At some points, in the past and in the future, we post surveys. Previously, we’ve reported the results of reader surveys about transit, housing, dating and romance. This survey, though, is the meta-survey, the guide to the other surveys: It’s our reader response profile. And if you’re ever interested in what the other surveys mean, you have to read this one. If I remember to, I’ll link to this with future survey results, but I can’t promise to remember—so just read up now!

When we report survey results, we’re really just recording our reader’s particular experiences. I studied anthropology in college: This is something I try to think about critically. The result is basically anecdotal—which means you need to know who is reporting these things. Who are they?

The questions answered below are not who our readers are, not literally. They are much more complicated than that. That is something that is hard to remember in our age of Facebook’s suggested friends (based on your likes), predictive policing, and even algorithmic advertising based on demographics. Lots to chew on there! And that’s without even mentioning our friends in the three-letter agencies around here.

The questions may, however, prove useful as a guide to who is reading 730DC–who you share this space with. The sample is extreme in one regard–four-fifths of respondents were women–which may or may not be representative, and is worth noting up front. But overall, these are the experiences of our survey takers:

  • They are young. The average age was around 25. (The average age in DC is about 34.)
  • They are highly educated. Almost all had a college degree or were working to attain one.
  • They are new to Washington, DC. 57% moved here less than five years ago. 20% moved here in the past year.
  • They are mostly women. 80% of our respondents self-reported their gender as “female.” (See note.)
  • They live in concentrated pockets of the city. Columbia Heights was, by far, the most common neighborhood to live, notching 14% of the total. Worth noting: Over 15% live in the District, but instead maintain residency in a home state outside the DMV.
  • Many do not vote in the District, or do not know their Ward. 40% of those who answered this question live in the District but maintain residency–and voting rights—elsewhere.

Obviously, we’re working within certain demographics more than others, and our readership isn’t indicative of the city as a whole. So we’re not necessarily learning a lot about the city, except secondarily. This reflects both strengths and shortcomings in our product and approach thus far. Transparency, I hope, here, will help–that’s part of the idea here. Among other things, transparency helps other people help you; by publishing some of this information, we hope you’ll feel invited to comment on our newsletter and help us make it better.

Selected Results

Average age: 25

Where do you live? 

  • Three most common: Columbia Heights/Parkview, VA, Bloomingdale/Eckington/NoMa
  • Three least common (nonzero): Trinidad, Waterfront (SW), Brookland

How long have you lived here?

  • Less than a year: 20%
  • 1-5 years: 37%
  • 6-10 years: 15%
  • 10+: 5%
  • Whole life: 4%

Where are you registered to vote?

  • Three most common: Live in DMV but registered elsewhere, Virginia,  Ward 1
  • Three least common: Ward 7, Ward 8, Ward 4

Education level: 

  • College graduate: 74%
  • Graduate or professional degree: 20%
  • Some college, no degree: 1%
  • Current college student: 5%

Favorite part of 730DC: 40% picked “Random local news.”

Approval? Yes. 7.7 was our average satisfaction score, and 83% indicated they would or had already forwarded our newsletter to friends. 16% said “maybe,” with a couple grouches thrown in (if you’re a “no,” email us–we’re interested to hear what you think).

Thanks, everyone, for participating, and you can look forward to many future surveys as we learn and explore the meanings of the shape of this city and the contours of this audience.

 

 

 

Note: I believe we made an error in using “female” here, and should have used “women,” and duly apologize. While the distinction is very important—worth drawing attention to and apologizing for—it seems safe for general (rather than individual) purposes to continue to assume the vast majority of these would have chosen “women” as an option.