This new Chicago app is using social networking to get out the vote

by Andreas Rekdal
November 7, 2016

The final days leading up to Election Day are crunch time for political campaigns and their volunteers. But for the data and analytics teams that guide those volunteers’ efforts, the bulk of the important work has already been done.

“We spend the entire cycle putting together plans about exactly which doors to knock on, and exactly how much money to spend in each state,” said Civis Analytics Senior Data Scientist David Shor. “When it comes to two or three weeks before the election, all of the plans have been made, a lot of the money has been spent, and we’ve built most of the machinery that decides how the election will go.”

Looking for a way to maximize his impact during the final days of the election, Shor came up with the idea for a mobile app that could bring out the vote through highly targeted digital canvassing.

Partnering with citizen participation organization Civic Innovation Works, he and a handful of volunteers put the app together in less than two weeks.

The app itself is quite simple. After downloading VoteWithMe, users give the app access to their contact list. VoteWithMe then cross-checks a user’s contacts with publicly available voter record data to identify friends and acquaintances who are likely to support progressive candidates — but who may not end up turning out on election day.

Based on those metrics, the app returns a list of 10 contacts that the user should get in touch with, along with prompts to help start a conversation about voting. The rest is left up to the user.

Powered by the Civis data analytics platform, Shor said the project is intentionally set up as a randomized experiment. Ten percent of the population will never be contacted through the app, allowing the team to assess the app’s impact and fine-tune it for future elections.

Shor said the idea for the app came about while he was canvassing in New Hampshire as a volunteer. Having spent six or seven hours traveling and knocking on doors to have maybe 10 conversations with voters, Shor wondered whether his time could be spent more effectively on talking to people he already knew.

“Because you know them, rather than just have this short conversation at the door, you can have a sustained conversation and actually make sure that they vote,” he said. “I talked about it in one of our political chat rooms at the company, and one of our software engineers came to me and said we could build that if we got the right partner.”

Shor found that partner in Civic Innovation Works, and assembled a team to put the app together before Election Day. Given more time, Shor said, the team would have added more features to the app to encourage engagement.

“If we had rolled this out during early voting, you could imagine that as your friends vote you get a notification and that person gets crossed off the list," he said. "I also think that would have made people check into the app more and probably increase usage.”

Shor declined to share any specific usage metrics, but said he’s happy with the traction the app has received so far.

“We’ve had a lot of high-profile people share the app: David Axelrod, Eric Schmidt and Tim O’Reilly, as well as a lot of organizations who haven’t been affiliated in any way with this,” said Shor. “There’s also been more usage than we expected, which we’re pretty excited about.”

Shor said getting his colleagues to contribute to the project, which was built on volunteer hours, hack weeks and time the company allots its employees for personal projects, was easy because many of them were excited about finding ways to make a difference in a historic election.

“It says a lot about Civis’ culture that we were able to do that — it was pretty cool,” he said.

Image via Shutterstock.

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