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Gavin Newsom and a Berkeley Professor Are Trying to Disrupt Public Opinion Polls

Scott Lucas | January 29, 2014 | Story Politics

"It's hard to engage the public with the government. There's disconnect and apathy. So we asked, how can technology like mobile phones help?" That's the question that drove UC Berkeley professor Ken Goldberg to partner with Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom on the California Report Card, which launched yesterday and is a new attempt at measuring public opinion about California politics.

For Newsom, the survey is a natural outgrowth of the ideas in his book, Citizenville. "I spoke at Ken's class about it, and after he told me he thought he could help. I thought he was just being nice to me, but he came back with a prototype within days." Newsom has a history of using new forms of media to get feedback, but it hasn't always been a smooth transition for the self-described "digital immigrant." As mayor, he says, "I was sitting in my office at City Hall responding to every damn tweet. I finally asked myself, are people paying me to be late to meeting just to write back on Twitter? I had to learn to look for the broader macro trends."

The Report Card, which is currently live and accepting responses, asks California voters to rate the state's performance in a variety of areas, from same-sex marriage and medical marijuana to immigration and education. Though the topics are similar to those plumbed by public opinion stalwarts like the Field Poll, the design of the survey is different in two key respects.

"Everybody knows what a report card is," says Goldberg. "It's not you passively rating the government. You're assigning the grade. We think it's an intuitive metaphor." The questions, which ask California residents to grade the state from A+ to F, are drawn from similar work done by World Bank researchers in India. "Half of it comes from Bangalore," says Goldberg, "but the social media part comes from Berkeley." The survey is designed to work on mobile phones and tablets and asks respondents to suggest topics for new studies (and then asks other respondents to grade those suggestions).

Because the data is gathered from a self-selected sample, the authors of the study aren't claiming it's a scientifically valid survey. "It's more like a focus group," says Goldberg. But it is possible to check the results against other studies to gauge its accuracy.

So how did a professor with expertise in robotics and social media end up designing a public opinion survey? "It's about feedback," says Goldberg. "That's how both robots and social media work—by filtering a large amount of data into useable feedback. Robots take an action, get feedback, and then adjust. One of the things we can do in politics is to increase the frequency. So instead of a politician getting feedback [every election], we can get information in a much more dynamic fashion." Newsom and Goldberg both contrast their model to one-way broadcasts like the State of the Union. "Obama got elected on a model of self-organizing communities sharing their visions," says Newsom. "The challenge is moving from that to a one-way conversation in governance."

The results of the study will be discussed at UC Berkeley at a public forum on March 20th.

Take the California Report Card survey here.

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