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Living Voters Guide

A Resource for Discussion, Civic and Civil

Story by
Nancy Joseph

Same-sex marriage. Charter schools. Legalizing marijuana.  Washington voters will weigh in on numerous hot button issues this election season. Before making decisions on how to vote, many will wade through mounds of literature or scroll through often-vitriolic posts on the web in search of reliable information.

Now there’s an alternative: The Living Voters Guide, developed by UW students and faculty in conjunction with Seattle CityClub, a regional civic nonprofit organization.

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The Living Voters Guide (LVG) is an interactive online resource designed to encourage deliberation on Washington State ballot measures.  The site, at wash.livingvotersguide.org, uses a familiar pro and con format to encourage respectful dialog.  Users may indicate their support for existing pros and cons or add their own. Special features include a request for fact checking and an option for restating arguments.

“Publics tend not to trust either politicians or the media these days,” says Lance Bennett. “We are offering an interesting experiment to see if they trust each other.” Bennett, professor of political science and Ruddick C. Lawrence Professor of Communication, collaborated with computer science professor Alan Borning and postdoctoral fellow Travis Kriplean to design a program that would encourage “smart, civil, large-scale public discussions.” The project has been funded through a three-year grant from the National Science Foundation.

Kriplean has been technical lead on the project since its first iteration in 2010, when he was a PhD student in computer science. The goal has been to develop a more effective deliberation tool than the many online forums that skew toward the negative. “On many of those sites, people don’t feel they’re being heard on an individual level,” says Kriplean. “They’re crawling over each other to say what they want to say.”

Impressed by the collaborative information sharing methods used on Wikipedia, Kriplean wondered whether those methods could be adapted to other decision-making platforms. “On Wikipedia, all decisions are the result of consensus-based deliberation,” he explains. “People have a discussion that leads to an article that is the synthesis of that discussion. I wondered if we could do something similar for ballot measures, synthesizing what many people are saying instead of just having a sprawling discussion.”

Publics tend not to trust either politicians or the media these days. We are offering an interesting experiment to see if they trust each other.

Seeded initially with one pro and one con argument for each Washington State ballot measure, LVG welcomes users to add their own arguments, comment on other contributors’ pros and cons, or restate what they believe others are saying to encourage clarification. Users also have the option to be notified when new responses are added to a particular pro or con entry. To ensure brevity, entries are limited to 140 characters.

Unlike chronological message boards, LVG uses a specially designed ranking algorithm to keep the most compelling pro and con entries—for example, those that have a higher probability of being adopted by other users—toward the top of the page. The algorithm takes into account how long a pro or con argument has been on the site so that earlier arguments do not hold an unfair advantage.  “The pro-con consideration feature has worked better than expected,” says Bennett, “with people considering more opposing views than we thought likely to happen.”

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A recent page from the Living Voters Guide.

A new development for the 2012 Living Voters Guide is a fact-checking feature, with librarians from the Seattle Public Library volunteering their muscle as fact checkers.  Any user can request that a fact be checked; the librarians aim to follow up each request within 48 hours. “The Seattle Public Library is eager to be part of this,” says Kriplean. “They are interested in the role of libraries in the 21st century, and they believe that serving as mediators in public discussion is one role.”

The site also offers the option of flagging entries that are offensive or off topic—although only two entries, both written by the same individual, have been deemed offensive in the LVG’s first two years. “People have been civil and engaged with each other,” says Bennett. “This suggests a good deal of the division and partisan conflict in other communication media is the result of media formats that emphasize those things. We are learning that different formats produce different outcomes.”

Intrigued by the LVG’s potential, California will be using the technology this year, minus the fact-checking feature.  And the LVG got another vote of confidence in early October when it was awarded the grand prize and named “best statewide app” in the Evergreen State Apps Challenge, a new competition hosted by the State of Washington, King County, and the City of Seattle.

“We hope that LVG will become recognized as a high-quality source of information and that it will continue to grow in terms of numbers of states and voters using it,” says Bennett. “One day it may replace the standard printed official voter guide.”