By: Kim DeCoste Issue: Transformation Section: Government If you live in the United States, you have probably noticed that despite the fact we vote in November, on presidential election years—particularly in swing states—the races start months before you cast a ballot. If you live in a swing state, you may also have been among the millions of people who loudly complained in 2008, as we saw the coming-of-age of “robo-calls” and telephone polling. Clearly, candidates were trying to get their messages out, and many were trying to gauge how those messages were received. There are people who are so polite, they just cannot hang up when a telephone pollster catches them, so they dutifully answer the questions—age, income, gender, race—and then rank responses on the scales they are given from carefully crafted scripts. The fact is, politicians and others are paying staggering sums of money to get those replies from people who still answer a landline when it rings with an unknown caller on the other end.
Have you noticed, however, there is a growing number of people who no longer have landlines or who screen all their calls at home? Do you ever stop to consider who they are?
Many are millennials—those newly minted adults just entering the world on their own. Culturally it is interesting to note that many are minorities. In fact, 56 percent of minorities only connect to the Internet wirelessly. But, there are other important political and economic demographic blocks of people whose voices are absent when politicians are defining their messages and crafting their platforms, and they are doing so largely based on generalizations and assumptions.
To be honest, it seems those invisible folks are fine with it—if they wanted to be polled or to reach out, there is nothing stopping them. You know when people are not excited by their choices, you can often hear their frustration at the two-party system or frustration that “big government doesn’t listen.” Many believe political leaders don’t even care what we think. That is debatable. But what is clear is that it is difficult, if not impossible in these polarized times, to find a way to have civilized discussion across demographic or political divides based on ideas and positions, rather than polarizing rhetoric. There are, some say, 12 percent on the far right and 12 percent on the far left who are making the majority of the noise and who are influencing traditional mainstream media. The rest sit quietly in the middle and go unheard, and sadly, unrepresented.
In 2008, Lou Aronson had an epiphany while standing at the school bus stop sending his son off to school. He heard the crowd talking about robo-calls, and he suddenly realized a need. How could mobile devices be engaged to reach that invisible block of people?
Based in Washington, D.C., Aronson managed to define the idea with his partner Vijay Perincherry, a scientist who thought about the challenge and believed he could develop a cluster-based algorithm to help him bridge some of the gaps. Using his Ph.D. in applied mathematics and working across industry sectors such as housing, retail, transportation, advertising, bond trading and data management, Perincherry worked and reworked it until he came up with the solution—Votifi.
“Votifi is transforming polling while disrupting politics. We deliver polls and survey questions while using the results to help simplify your access to political content, quantify where you fit on the political map, and amplify your voice through discussion with people who share your views and debates with people who are on the other side of an issue,” explains Aronson.
In fact, Aronson says, Votifi is really a hub for political engagement and exploration, whose primary focus is the $3.6 billion political information services industry, which is primarily tied to the landline phone. As he describes it, “Our platform is geared toward the mobile device and engagement. Content is delivered both online—desktop and laptop—and via mobile—smartphones and apps. By delivering poll questions via SMS, email and our app, Votifi gains unique access to Americans irrespective of the availability of a landline, personal computer or in-home Internet. And, we discern the fundamental connection between emotion, engagement and activation while clustering and connecting people regardless of the mode of input. The Votifi platform provides issue-focused and weighted analysis of opinions of the largest segment of the American voting population in real time.”
It is hard at first to understand what an incredibly disruptive idea this is. But, if you are politically inclined, or a political junkie, as Aronson describes himself, this makes your heart beat a little bit faster. Both of the other co-founders, Aasil Ahmad and Sid Smith, were also politically connected and involved. Ahmad worked in politics both in the United States and in Asia for about 10 years. He worked with grassroots campaigns to develop effective technology strategies, and he sees the incredible reformative potential this platform may have on our democracy. Smith worked as an attorney for emerging growth companies and investors and describes himself as a “disaffected Democrat who worked in New Jersey politics for several years.” He, too, recognizes the powerful transformative potential Votifi brought to others like him.
Votifi allows users to log in, create a profile or remain anonymous, and then engage with others in discussions about topics of interest. It is poll-driven, eliciting opinions from users and simultaneously factoring out data that are not pertinent. And it could allow someone interested in influencing the vote, for example, to see the opinions of entire sectors of the population currently being missed by the traditional call center pollster.
When we talk about connection and collaboration at ICOSA, we are interested in seeing how bright new ideas are changing old-school paradigms. The transformative power of the Votifi platform is stunning and certainly reflects our interest! It has been argued that our nation is at an inflection point, where it is easy to lose perspective. Aronson and his team firmly believe that Votifi addresses this by allowing users to engage in a new, objective fashion. After all, “you cannot solve anything until you start talking,” he says.
“What We Have Here Is a Failure to Communicate,” a recent NPR story, addresses the challenge Votifi is tackling—the imperative of how we can use data to understand what people are saying, not just for their sake, but for our own as well. Basically, the company attempts to give users an understanding of where the issues really lie. Aronson riffs on Gil Scott-Heron’s 1974 poem when he says, “The revolution will not be televised… but you can bet your bottom dollar it’ll be broadcast to your smartphone.”
What Votifi does allow is for us to look beyond “the theocracy into which we were born” says Aronson; “It helps to normalize an online dialogue and take it beyond 140 characters, which sadly, is the amount of information upon which some people base their views and opinions.” He goes on, “When we engage on Votifi, we see that through all the rhetoric and bombastic language that is thrown at us, ‘there really is a there there.’ In other words, we are able to get to the true heart of the matter and have productive conversations.”
Talking about transformation vis-à-vis the American political scene, we at ICOSA are not unlike most people in the United States. We want to see change, and we believe that connection and collaboration are necessary for us all to get together and drive change. But we have to start somewhere. We can’t even know what hard choices we are going to have to make unless we start having these conversations. Votifi levels the playing field for the political debate and provides substantive information back to policymakers and others about what we really think and helps each of us play a role in transforming politics-as-usual into the politics of now.
To learn more about Votifi, visit www.votifi.com.