At Sloan, Conn is working on a project called Electome in the MIT Media Lab. Developed by the lab’s Laboratory for Social Machines and funded primarily by Twitter and the Knight Foundation, Electome is intended to use data science and machine learning to analyze communication about the 2016 presidential election, on Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit, as well as in Google searches. The initiative seeks to assist journalists, the public, and candidates in identifying and understanding issues of concern to voters.
“I’m working directly with news organizations to help turn our findings into compelling, digestible data visualizations that inform reporting,” she says. “From here, we will see how responsive candidates and the media are to the issues that voters actually care about. This experience is my first exposure to machine learning, my first time working in a lab with primarily data scientists, and my first time collaborating so closely with journalists. I have a lot to learn from these new perspectives and approaches.”
To arm herself further with the innovation knowledge and expertise she wants to apply to politics, Conn is also planning to take Sloan classes including New Enterprises; Product Design & Development; The Analytics Edge; and, at the Harvard Kennedy School, Organizing: People, Power, Change.
The tech sector is ripe to play the role of savior to America’s disjointed political system, she believes. Technology is transforming the country from an industrial economy to a knowledge economy, and the tech industry has a strong stake in policies that ensure the new economy is equitable and America competitive, Conn says. The deep networking of the sector unites the tech community around a shared identification, but as yet, that’s a reference point outside politics, she says. “If we can use that network for political engagement I think that’s potentially very powerful,” she says. “It’s almost like flipping a switch. There is the potential to create a more centered political voice that is not necessarily left or right, progressive in some ways, but less binary. Technology is already changing behavior. It’s just a matter of using that technology to change civic behavior.”
The tech industry may lack a focused political identity, but it wields considerable clout among politicians. “Hearing from job creators and innovators and economic contributors in their districts is particularly powerful,” Conn says.
MINING BIG DATA TO FORGE A STRONGER DEMOCRACY
Along with 21st-Century technology have come big data and the tools to mine it, of exceptional value in assessing an electorate’s opinion and increasing voting rates, she says. Conn sees potential for technology and data analysis to improve democracy in three areas: government services, elections, and political responsiveness.
She cites Code for America, a tech non-profit dedicated to making government services more user friendly, and the White House’s U.S. Digital Service, which is intended to come at the same problem from the government side, as representing progress toward improved integration between elected officialdom and the public. Also seeking to improve democracy by digitizing politics is Countable, a website and mobile app that summarizes active and upcoming legislation, lets constituents tell representatives how to vote, and tracks officials’ voting, as well as increasing public engagement for politicians and giving them a new window into trends among constituents. In Spain, the mayor of a 3,500-resident town has pushed onto Twitter the bulk of communication between his government and constituents – he claims the move has eliminated queues in city hall because citizens, including elderly people, get all their answers via the social media platform. Building digital networks between government and citizens also provides hugely important data, Conn says.