Venture Seeks New Technology to Lower Cost of Political Campaigns

Monday, October 19, 2015

Researchers seek new ways to enhance ability to run grassroots campaigns

Researchers at the International Computer Science Institute (ICSI) in Berkeley, Calif., are working on designing technological tools to make grassroots campaigns less expensive and more effective.

The team, led by longtime neural network and speech processing specialist Nelson Morgan, aims to use computational methods such as machine learning—the science of  learning from examples and using the systems that result to complete functions without explicit instructions—to help reduce the influence money has on politics.

“Money from wealthy individuals and corporations distort the democratic process, but there is little relief in store from legislation or court action,” Morgan said. “Relief from legislative action is going to be difficult, but what if technology enabled a more efficient and lower cost approach? Technology could make Washington’s inability to handle this problem less important.”

The goal is to build tools that support an effective, grassroots approach to communicating a candidate’s values to the electorate. In a video introducing the project, Morgan compares it to Airbnb, which connects travelers with homeowners who rent their homes for short terms. The question is, can a political campaign follow the sharing economy model, in which unused resources are efficiently reallocated to fill needs? And generally, how can campaigners use computational technology to make their work more efficient?

Morgan has assembled a team that works on rethinking the structure of campaigns with support from technology, including online portals, apps, and other tools, to make politicians less dependent on donors by making campaigns less expensive. The team includes computer scientists, linguists, political consultants, and entrepreneurs.

Its advisers include the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose book Moral Politics was used as a guide by Howard Dean’s presidential campaign in 2004, and Scott Shenker, the most cited researcher in computer science according to Microsoft Academic Search.

To help fund this timely project, Morgan is one of several ICSI researchers seeking funding through Benefunder, a community foundation for innovation.  Benefunder was founded in 2014 to fill the nation’s “innovation deficit,” a stagnation in public funding for research. Using Benefunder’s platform, philanthropists build portfolios of research they want to support, which are administered by Benefunder’s wealth management experts.

Blanca Gordo, a researcher in the Artificial Intelligence Group, works to increase Internet access among populations that are disconnected, including the elderly and those living in poverty. Steven Wegmann , the director of the Speech Group, is using statistical models to make speech recognition more accessible to the general public. And Serge Egelman of Networking and Security, who is creating better computer security by studying user behavior.

“Members of Congress spend more than half their time fundraising, at least five hours a day according to some experts. What’s worse is that there’s no fix in sight and voters are worried that the system is beyond repair,” Morgan said.

“Now is the time for technological innovation to create a system where more people from more walks of life can get into politics.”

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