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Simple Examples of Cool Ideas - Last Post from MIT Conference
Ethan Zuckerman, 13 Jun 08

Part of the fun of having an academic life based in Cambridge, MA, is that you've gotten to see a great deal of the most exciting research taking place in this insanely academic city. The last session of the MIT conference features some the superstars of the MIT Media Lab world, researchers whose work has been featured around the world as well as on the banks of the Charles. But it's less interesting to hear Deb Roy talk about his amazing project surveilling his son's language development for five minutes than for the two hours we hosted him for at the Berkman Center.

That said, it's often useful to see these quick talks because they give you the single, paradigmatic example of a tool that helps you introduce it to someone else. Fernanda Viegas's talk about ManyEyes, an incredibly powerful platform for creating data visualizations, can be summarized pretty well by a single visualization - a word tree visualization of former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales's senate testimony, centered on the phrase "I don't":

Mako Hill's presentation of Selectricity, a fascinating tool for online voting, gave an elegant single demonstration as well. Mako invited the crowd to vote on a location for dinner after the conference, choosing between several type of cuisine. Instead of having a single choice, voters listed their preferences in order - “Indian, Mexican, Chinese, Italian, Burgers”. While Mexican food had the largest number of first-place votes, Chinese food won as the most widely acceptable preference.

Selectricity allows communities to create online voting system using a wide range of voting methods through an incredibly simple tool. Mako's a voting nerd, and believes that there's a huge number of voting methods that might be greatly superior to voting methods commonly used in the US. Voting activists usually focus on trying to get governmental elections to use these new methods… and Mako points out that governments are the hardest things to change. By making online polling using different methods extremely easy to do, Mako is giving a wide range of groups the opportunity to experiment with different voting methods.

One group that’s used Selectricity is Students for Free Culture, who modified their election bylaws to allow for preferential voting. With 13 candidates and 16 voters for the board of the organization, traditional voting methods would have failed badly for the organization’s needs - preferential voting through Selectricity found an organization leader who was the top choice on only two ballots, but was ranked 3rd or 4th on most ballots, and was therefore an excellent compromise choice for the organization.

This post originally ran on Ethan's excellent personal blog, My Heart's in Accra.

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