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Oakland startup builds “social democracy” app

on January 24, 2013

Ever find yourself frustrated with the back and forth group messaging, conference calling and group emailing that often precede decision-making in small groups? An Oakland-based startup seeks to end that with a social decision making application they say is designed to deliver “social democracy” in group decision making, based on a concept they call dynamic voting.

From small-group decisions about whether to watch the Oakland Raiders or the San Francisco 49ers  to more complex political decisions about whether Barack Obama or Mitt Romney would win the November election, at least 3,000 people have signed up to use Deci, a social decision making app designed by Oakland educators Sam Passarow and Nick Resnick that launched in 2012.

Deci allows iPhone and Android users to decide on one of four options by clicking on their preference. The application then aggregates user preferences and makes a decision.  In the event of voter apathy, whichever option has the most votes by a specified time becomes the group’s preferred choice.

“Democracy is naturally engrained in group decision making,” said Pasarow, the executive director of Deci. “If you watch a herd of deer or a school of fish, you will notice that they collectively make decisions. We designed this app to bring people together in real life settings rather than just virtually through dynamic voting.”

Dynamic voting, Passarow said, means that a user can vote, read the reactions of their peers in a message board on the app and explain their choice to the group or alter their vote altogether.

“We work in an organization that is very much collective,” Passarow said, “with lots of shared decision making, and often you find yourself bogged down in meetings. The people who are dynamic and compelling often get their way, and we want those who are quiet to step up.”

Resnick said they decided to incorporate a chat feature in the app to allow people to express their opinions and explain their choices. “We built the chat feature so that there is dialogue on why someone is changing their options or voting for a specific option,” Resnick said. “It’s a remaking of group decision making because it is dynamic rather than static voting, and yet it is transparent in the sense that there is no anonymous voting and no one votes twice.”

Deci uses the Facebook Application Programming Interface (API), which allows users to invite their Facebook friends to pick their preferences for each event they create. Once a user has created a Deci, the app pulls their Facebook friends and allows them to pick who they want to invite. Invitations can either be sent by messaging or posted on the user’s wall.

Passarow said using the Facebook API, which allows them to access data with the user’s permission, meant they had to spend extra time on designing the privacy aspect of the program.

“Privacy is a very big deal and when an app has a lot of data we are very particular about the protection of user information,” Passarow said. “We are now working on adding a location feed, a feature to add images and email login.”

Since its launch, Passarow said the application has been downloaded by smartphone users in Russia, India and other countries. Students at New York University were among the first adopters of the app, and adoption was higher among people who routinely get together for events like book clubs, happy hour and movies.

On the day of the November 2012 presidential election, Resnick and Passarow created a Deci asking at least 260 users who they thought would win. The app is designed to present four options, so users were asked to pick between “Obama by a small margin,” “Romney by a small margin,” and “Obama by a large margin,” “Romney by a large margin.”

At least 26 of the 250 users invited to the Deci predicted that Obama would win by a small margin, while six predicted that Romney would win by a small margin. In total, 32 users predicted that Obama would win, with only 6 predicting a Romney win. The rest of the users invited either did not download the app or just decided not to vote.

Resnick said in order for a Deci to close, one of two things must happen, “Participation must be 50 percent, meaning at least 50 percent of those invited voted and a majority of those participants must have voted on one choice. At that point, the Deci closes and a winner is determined, no mattter the amount of time that has passed.” If participation is less than 50 percent, time becomes the determining factor, and the app picks the option with the most votes.

Hours before the official results were announced, the Deci called an Obama win, prompting a lively chatter in the message board. Users of the app encouraged each other to go and cast their votes at polling places. “It begins on Deci, but it ends at the ballot,” a user by the name Aly said. The official results would only come hours later, but for the users of this Oakland duo’s app, Obama was well on his way back to the White House.

Months before the election, Passarow and Resnick lobbied the campaign teams of candidates in the Oakland election to use their app as a platform for measuring voter preferences in order to fine tune their message.

Resnick said one of the app’s best use cases was by recently elected councilmember Lynette Gibson’s campaign, which used Deci to get insight into what issues potential voters cared most about. The campaign asked Oakland voters to choose what they thought was the priority among the options: “repair Oakland’s economy,” “improve community health,” “make Oakland safe” and “strengthen our schools.”

The majority of users picked “strengthen our schools,” followed by “repair Oakland’s economy,” then crime and community health. This was just a month after the closure of five schools by the Oakland Unified School District, which sparked protests and a brief occupation of Lakeview Elementary School.

“The issue is really about targeted outreach,” said Casey Farmer, a member of Gibson’s campaign staff. However, Farmer said the campaign spent more time on direct outreach to voters.

Outside of politics, Passarow there was potential for Deci to find its place in business, especially in the restaurant market. “A lot of apps are trying to steer people dollars restaurants,” Passarow said. “By using Deci to aggregate user options, businesses could see when they come second and why, and then build incentives into the group’s decision making process.” In other words, a restaurant would know when a group of users has added it as one of their four dinner options, and would then have the ability to create incentives for the group to choose their business.


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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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