In March 2017, two months after Donald Trump’s inauguration, about 25 prominent pollsters, journalists, political scientists and other academics gathered at Harvard for a conference on the growing role of data and analytics in determining election outcomes.
The backdrop was the 2016 presidential election, in which non-urban white voters without advanced educations, many apparently feeling ignored and aggrieved, drove the outcome. Experts have been intensively mining that subject for about two years now, but Kathy Cramer was onto it a decade earlier.
A political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Cramer was among the conference speakers, having gained regional and then national acclaim for her work listening to people in cafes and gas stations in rural Wisconsin, starting in 2007. She chronicled their resentment of public workers, liberal elites and people of color in Madison and Milwaukee.
After Cramer’s panel at Harvard, Deb Roy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who spent four years as chief media scientist at Twitter, approached her. “I don’t remember his exact words,” Cramer smiled, “but it was basically, ‘Who are you?’”
They talked and talked and met at length with others over the 20 months since. The outgrowth is the Local Voices Network, which will debut in Madison on Jan. 2 for three months, timed with the city’s mayoral and other local elections.
In a nutshell, the concept is to host scores of listening sessions with small groups of people who know one another using a new-age recording device they call a “hearth.”
Technology behind the hearth will extract recurring themes and phrases and aggregate results to help journalists, candidates, and members of the public determine what is on the minds of many, not just an anecdotal interview subject or a handful of the loudest and most politically connected people.
Within the sessions, the facilitator will bring voices from other conversations into these insular discussions to, in a sense, cross-pollinate them. Many talks will be in libraries and will last up to 90 minutes. Cramer said the Madison Public Library is an enthusiastic sponsor.
Broad goals are four: first, to create new spaces or opportunities to have constructive conversations that matter.
Second, use the power of technology — by identifying common wordings and themes — to help quantify the issues that are most prominent in the public mind.
Third, to encourage journalists to report on whether the perceptions are accurate. So, for example, if lots of people think gangs are the city’s paramount problem, how justified is that based on follow-up journalism?
Fourth, to use the technology to bring other viewpoints into the room to shake up the tendency toward tribal thinking within like-minded groups.
The hope is that this form of experimental listening could scale statewide or even nationwide, creating a powerful way to foster interaction and to measure attitudes.
The Local Voices Network approach was announced recently at a community meeting, and the Cap Times is partnering with Cramer, Roy and others in the effort. In fact, Cramer promoted Madison as a trial site in part because of media here.
Within what she described as a “very rich local media environment,” she told her partners that the Cap Times in particular was community-focused and would likely embrace the project. “I didn’t know for sure, but I was hoping,” she told me recently.
Cramer’s prediction was spot on, and Cap Times staffers have met multiple times with her and her associates on the project. Our approach to leveraging the research is still being developed, but we will be fully involved.
For her part, Cramer has been thinking for some time about how to move beyond simply unearthing resentments. She sounds excited about getting to this cutting-edge form of listening.
She talked about how it might work outside Madison in a second phase.
“I imagine I will go to a town where I’ve been meeting with a group of folks for years and I bring a hearth, and we start having a conversation.
“And I say, ‘OK you guys, I was in Madison yesterday and just listen to (that conversation) for a little while and then I want to hear what you think.’ Let’s say it’s about a public employee struggling to make ends meet and how hard they’ve been working for decades. Will the nature of their conversation about those ‘lazy’ public employees change? That’s our hope.”
Cramer said trial runs suggest that listening to recorded voices through the device can make it feel “almost as if the person is there with you.” She added, “There’s no physical presence of that person and you can’t look them in the eye, but you can sort of feel their humanity through the sound.”
Too often, she said, social media technology separates people by enabling anonymous vitriol. “So many of our communications channels are toxic,” she said. “I think that the reason Deb approached me is he heard me talking about a segment of the population that a lot of people after the 2016 election were really denigrating, and I was talking about them in a way that was respectful.”
What does Cramer think success from the Madison experiment would look like?
“That a lot of people in town know about it, will have heard of the Local Voices Network, and that hundreds if not a thousand people have participated, that local journalists have found that it’s a really useful tool and that candidates also find it a really invaluable resource for knowing what’s going on with the public. And probably most importantly, that in all of those respects, it’s a wide array of people whose voices are a part of it, who are hosts, who are being paid attention to by journalists and candidates.”
And she added: “There are people who know how to make their voices heard in this town and they will participate and that’s great, but it will really be a success when it truly makes visible the concerns of people who aren’t normally heard.”