Something pretty cool happened last week here at Ranker, and it had nothing to do with the season premiere of the “Big Bang Theory”, which we’re also really excited about. Cincinnati’s number one digital paper used our widget to create a votable list of ideas mentioned in Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley’s first State of the City. As of right now, 1,958 voters cast 5,586 votes on the list of proposals from Mayor Cranley (not surprisingly, “fixing streets” ranks higher than the “German-style beer garden” that’s apparently also an option).

Now, our widget is used by thousands of websites to either take one of our votable lists or create their own and embed it on their site, but this was the very first time Ranker was used to directly poll people on public policy initiatives.

Here’s why we’re loving this idea: we feel confident that Ranker lists are the most fun and reliable way to poll people at scale about a list of items within a specific context. That’s what we’ve been obsessing about for the past 6 years. But we also think this could lead to a whole new way for people to weigh in in fairly  large numbers on complex public policy issues on an ongoing basis, from municipal budgets to foreign policy. That’s because Ranker is very good at getting a large number of people to cast their opinion about complex issues in ways that can’t be achieved at this scale through regular polling methods (nobody’s going to call you at dinner time to ask you to rank 10 or 20 municipal budget items … and what is “dinner time” these days, anyway?).  It may not be a representative sample, but it may be the only sample that matters, given that the average citizen of Cincinnati will have no idea about the details within the Mayor’s speech and likely will give any opinion simply to move a phone survey conversation along about a topic they know little about.

Of course, the democratic process is the best way to get the best sample (there’s little bias when it’s the whole friggin voting population!) to weigh in on public policy as a whole. But elections are very expensive, infrequent, and the focus of their policy debates is the broadest possible relative to their geographical units, meaning that micro-issues like these will often get lost in same the tired partisan debates.

Meanwhile, society, technology, and the economy no longer operate on cycles consistent with elections cycles: the rate and breadth of societal change is such that the public policy environment specific to an election quickly becomes obsolete, and new issues quickly need sorting out as they emerge, something our increasingly polarized legislative processes have a hard time doing.

Online polls are an imperfect, but necessary, way to evaluate public policy choices on an ongoing basis. Yes, they are susceptible to bias, but good statistical models can overcome a lot of such bias and in a world where the response rates for telephone polls continue to drop, there simply isn’t an alternative.  All polling is becoming a function of statistical modeling applied to imperfect datasets.  Offline polls are also expensive, and that cost is climbing as rapidly as response rates are dropping. A poll with a sample size of 800 can cost anywhere between $25,000 and $50,000 depending on the type of sample and the response rate.  Social media is, well, very approximate. As we’ve covered elsewhere in this blog, social media sentiment is noisy, biased, and overall very difficult to measure accurately.

In comes Ranker. The cost of that Cincinnati.com Ranker widget? $0. Its sample size? Nearly 2,000 people, or anywhere between 2 to 4x the average sample size of current political polls. Ranker is also the best way to get people to quickly and efficiently express a meaningful opinion about a complex set of issues, and we have collected thousands of precise opinions about conceptually complex topics like the scariest diseases and the most important life goals by making providing opinions entertaining within a context that makes simple actions meaningful.

Politics is the art of the possible, and we shouldn’t let the impossibility of perfect survey precision preclude the possibility of using technology to improve civic engagement at scale.  If you are an organization seeking to poll public opinion about a particular set of issues that may work well in a list format, we’d invite you to contact us.

– Ravi Iyer