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Crowdsourcing Presidential Debate Questions – and the Rest of the Campaign

Crowdsourcing Presidential Debate Questions – and the Rest of the Campaign

The first American presidential debate is taking place tonight, pitting President Barack Obama and Mitt Romney against each other to earn voters’ trust and approval. To honor the occasion, we are highlighting a few crowdsourcing initiatives tied to the campaign. We recently wrote about a project initiated by the journalistic non-profit ProPublica that asked the crowd to sort through files documenting campaign ad buys in swing states. Here are five more initiatives that recently caught our eyes.

Debate Conflict Detector

A new tool wants to make it easier for people to find the most contentious (and, arguably, the most interesting) bits of a political debate. The program works by identifying telltale signs of disagreement – interruptions, raised voices, and faster speech. Interestingly, the program was taught to identify these signs by the crowd. The project’s head, Alessandro Vinciarelli of the University of Glasgow, turned to Amazon’s cloud labor platform, Mechanical Turk, to listen through hours of debates and mark where discord was voiced. The system was then fed this data and “learned” how to identify disagreement. It remains to be seen how accurate this technology will become, but so far, the program was able to correctly identify arguments 80 percent of the time.

The Atlantic’s Crowdsourced Questions

The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf reached out to his readers over the summer, asking them to submit questions they’d like to see the candidates discuss. Friedersdorf chose the top 32 submissions and posted them here. While the candidates will not have to answer the questions, the exercise highlighted the issues that voters hold dear, from tax cuts to torture and cruel treatment in counterterrorism efforts. During the last campaign, a serious effort was made to include the crowd’s questions, as individuals were encouraged to submit talking points on YouTube. The experiment ended in controversy, as Hillary Clinton’s staff allegedly submitted questions that were meant to make the Republican candidates look bad.


The largest federation of unions in America, AFL-CIO, recently unveiled a crowdsourcing initiative through its super PAC Workers’ Voice, which is meant to bolster get-out-the-vote campaigns. The program, called rePurpose, works like this: supporters earn points for attending and contributing campaign events; when they earn enough points, they can set up their own initiatives, like phone and door-knocking campaigns for favored candidates. This democratization of the political process allows supporters to literally dictate the super PAC’s platform.


Huffington Post recently announced its “Firsthand” project, which it launched with help from crowdsourcing platform Ushahidi. Firsthand asks users to upload pictures and comments onto an interactive map. The initiative is meant to highlight local issues that voters may not necessarily see on the news. The project has yet to take off – only a handful of submissions have been made. With the election over a month away, however, Firsthand has plenty of time to catch up.


Last month, 7-Eleven once again rolled its crowdsourcing campaign to see which candidates the store’s shoppers prefer. When customers buy a cup of coffee, they can choose a blue cup for Obama and a red one for Romney. While nobody, including 7-Eleven, takes the results seriously, the campaign – known as 7-Election – did accurately predict the winners of the previous three elections. So far, Obama has a healthy 60 – 40 percent lead over Romney, though the wide gap shouldn’t come as a surprise given most of the Southern states are not participating.

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