Where is the OkCupid for elections?

Developers are using big data to match people with candidates.

OK Candidate and ElectnextTo date, we’ve generally been more adept at collecting and storing data than making sense of it. The companies, individuals and governments that become the most adept at data analysis are doing more than finding the signal in the noise: They are creating a strategic capability. Sometimes, the data comes from unexpected directions. For instance, OkCupid’s approach to dating with data has earned it millions of users. In the process, OkCupid has gained great insight into the dynamics of dating in the 21st century, which it then shared on its blog.

Based upon their success, I wondered aloud at this year’s Newsfoo whether a similar data-driven web app could be built to help citizens match themselves up with candidates:

After Tim tweeted the observation, I quickly learned two things:

  1. Albert Sun, Daniel Bachhuber, Ashwin Shandilya and Jay Zalowitz had built exactly that app at the 2011 Times Open Hack Day on the day I posed the question. OkCandidate is a web app that matches up a citizen with a Republican presidential candidate. (There’s no comparable matching engine for Barack Obama, perhaps given that Democrats expect that the current incumbent of the White House will be the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2012.) OkCandidate presents a straightforward series of questions about a wide range of core foreign and domestic issues with ratings to allow the user to rank the importance of agreeing with a given candidate. The app is open source, so if you want to try to improve the code, click on over to OkCandidate on GitHub.
  2. ElectNext, a Philadelphia-based startup, has focused on solving this problem. The “eHarmony for voters,” as TechCrunch describes it, aims to match you to your candidate. I also learned that ElectNext won the Judges’ Choice Award at the 2011 Web 2.0 Expo/NY Startup Showcase. In the video below, Joanne Wilson and Mo Koyfman discuss the startup from a venture capitalist’s perspective.

The politics of big data

Creating a better issue-matching engine for voters and candidates is a genuinely useful civic function. The not-so-hidden opportunity here, however, may be to gather a rich dataset from those choices in precisely the same way that OkCupid has done for dating. That’s clearly part of the mindset here: “The data on individual users we don’t share with anyone,” ElectNext founder Keya Danenbaum told Fast Company. “But the way we foresee using all this information we’re collecting is … eventually to aggregate that and say something really interesting in a poll type of report.”

How news organizations and campaigns alike collect, store and analyze data is going to matter much more. Close watchers of the intersection of politics and technology already think the Obama campaign’s data crunching may help the president win re-election. As Personal Democracy Media co-founder Micah Sifry put it back in April, “it’s the data, stupid.

Big data is “powering the race for the White House,” wrote Patrick Ruffini, president of Engage, an interactive agency in D.C.:

The hottest job in today’s Presidential campaigns is the Data Mining Scientist — whose job it is to sort through terabytes of data and billions of behaviors tracked in voter files, consumer databases, and site logs. They’ll use the numbers to uncover hidden patterns that predict how you’ll vote, if you’ll pony up with a donation, and if you’ll influence your friends to support a candidate.

Alistair Croll, the co-chair of the Strata Conference, thinks it’s a strategic capability. “After Eisenhower, you couldn’t win an election without radio,” he told me at Strata, Calif., in February. “After JFK, you couldn’t win an election without television. After Obama, you couldn’t win an election without social networking. I predict that in 2012, you won’t be able to win an election without big data.”

Strata 2012 — The 2012 Strata Conference, being held Feb. 28-March 1 in Santa Clara, Calif., will offer three full days of hands-on data training and information-rich sessions. Strata brings together the people, tools, and technologies you need to make data work.

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  • Thanks for the coverage!

    OkCandidate is a web app that matches up a citizen with a Republican presidential candidate. (There’s no comparable matching engine for Barack Obama, perhaps given that Democrats expect that the current incumbent of the White House will be the Democratic Party’s nominee in 2012.)

    Just to clarify: it was because of the time constraint associated with a hackathon more than anything else. Researching the candidate’s backgrounds well-enough to accurately provide their answers was a lot of work. Props to Ashwin and Jay for sticking it through.

    Interestingly, this was the first journo-tech hackathon I’ve been to (and I’ve attended a few) where we could make real use of journalists. I thought the project turned out quite well because of that.

    Next year, News Foo needs a hackathon too :)

  • Steve

    In Switzerland we have this great app:
    http://smartvote.ch/?lang=en_GB, you can probably get great inspiration from it.

  • oscar

    In Germany, a website called “Wahl-o-mat” (the title could be translated as Elect-o-machine) has provided this service for many years. Unfortunately, it only compares the user’s views to the candidate (or party) program, not their actions.

  • Another similar service is Vote Easy:

  • dbt

    Not to be a wet blanket, but I don’t think this is actually a useful exercise. Voting is about much more than 1:1 personal compatibility (arguable as to whether or not dating is either, but hey). You have to make a probabilistic trade-off between: agrees with my views, could get them passed if elected, and can get elected in the current political climate or the one that is likely to exist in the next year. (Or, if you’re willing to live with putting the marginal electoral value of your vote into a known losing column, what the future value of that vote is to your own conscience.)

    To use a personal example, I imagine that my own personal politics is more likely to line up with the espoused political beliefs of Dennis Kucinich, not Barack Obama, but I still preferred Barack Obama on the merits. (Whether or not I was correct to do so is a separate discussion!)