Making People Vote and How!

How a women-led advocacy group used the power of maps to encourage people to vote by making the US Presidential elections personal, and by telling focused, data-driven stories about policies that affect a variety of communities historically excluded from positions of power.

A screenshot of the Who’s Running page on People for the People website, which gave users general information about candidates and the option to filter information at election level – House or Senate – and by party affiliation and race and gender
By Anusuya Datta
By Anusuya Datta

Freelance Writer

On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year-old man of African-American origin, was arrested by the cops in Minnesota after a store employee called 911 complaining that Floyd had bought cigarettes with a counter­feit $20 bill. In about 10 minutes, Floyd was dead, pinned to the ground by a police officer’s knee. The incident, caught on videos by bystanders and security cameras, was soon amplified on media and social media channels, and sparked intense outrage across the United States, and other parts of the world.

As the divisive politics around the incident added to the caul­dron of hate, a group of young women decided to not let things be. With US Presidential elec­tions around the corner, they embarked on a mission to educate the public regarding racial and social injustice. The women, all technologists, leveraged what they knew best — skills in mapmaking and GIS — to focus on making the elections personal by telling data-driven stories about policies that affect communities historically excluded from positions of power.

And thus was conceived People for the People — a women-led, volunteer advocacy group born out of the idea that when people felt that politics didn’t repre­sent them, they tend to become discouraged and tune out.

“A combination of events — COVID-19 and increasing health disparities, and racial tension — taken together had sparked the realization among us that we as a nation needed to get more personal about politics,” explains Whitney Kotlewski, the visionary co-founder of Black Girls M.A.P.P.; a community-focused group to empower women of color and marginalized groups in the field of GIS.

The Presidential elections due in November were fast turning into becoming one of the most polarized ones in recent times. And with the pandemic exac­erbating the situation on both economic and social fronts, there were enough indications that there could be more young people exercising their franchise this time. The rising anger and frus­tration had to be channelized to bring about desired results — both socially and politically.

“In the wake of George Floyd’s death, Raynah and myself [co-founders of Black Girls M.A.P.P.] felt that the lack of civic engagement we were seeing within our community was a result of the misuse of power and lack of oversight on policies and procedures that were impacting untapped populations,” she adds.

This was around June 2020. The team quickly realized that there was a shared conviction in the society about the unfair and fatal interactions that the margin­alized communities have with law enforcement. “When we first started discussing this idea about a project focused on the ethical element of voting, we never antic­ipated the overwhelming interest it would generate,” says Raynah Kamau, who works as a strategic adviser for partners at Esri.

A simple request for volunteers led to an overwhelming response, and within a couple of weeks, over 150 individuals — GIS profes­sionals, cartographers, devel­opers, communicators, designers and students — had rallied together with a shared desire to be more politically active.

The project

Since its inception leading onto the presidential elections in November, People for the People — or P4TP, as it is popularly referred to — used the power of maps and data to encourage, educate and empower more and more citizens to be part of the voting process. The goal was simple — centered around digitally engaging with communities in a way that had never been done before. Be it pledging to share information (independent of any party or preference); educating community members on why voting is important and how the electoral process works; taking action by collaborating and promoting projects that visualize social issues in communities; or high-lighting major issues impacting untapped communities.

The P4TP homepage is the window to access all the other apps and resources that were created. “The website takes visitors on a journey that starts with focusing on people who are impacted by their votes, then we list the key voting issues that are impacting people,” explains Ade Nurasih, who is one of the UX/UI design leads for P4TP.

The October to November period saw high peaks on the website, the time when there were campaigns for people to go and vote. “We had 3,200 individuals enter our homepage with 8,200 page views split between several different pages and apps,” reveals Nurasih. Other than the Who is Running app, Candidate Twitter app, Bill Tracker and Race Relations Sentiment apps turned out to be most popular. Though the elections are long over, but the website and the resources therein are still up for viewers to check and educate themselves.

Individuals can then select their states and see the list of candidates along with important election dates. The website provides easy access for those who want to learn about voting history, how to vote, and why their vote matters, as well as other voting resources.

There is a section called key voting issues in 2020 with topics such as criminal justice, health-care, or the environment, listing out stories on the issues, interactive timelines with key moments in history related to that topic, and the underlying data to learn more. The initiative strives to highlight the key roles that women, non-binary individuals, and people of color played in advancing these causes.

The Who Can Vote and Your Vote Matters pages explain the electoral process and what it entails. There are applications and maps to support the call to action for people to get involved and vote.

The Who is Running App, which soon became the most popular section, gave people access to visually explore which candidates were running in their state. It sought to streamline the experience of finding candidates for the House or Senate near one’s current location or address in the US. A user can also filter the map based on party affiliation or demographics like race and gender, and click any candidate to directly access their campaign website and social media.

“In addition to candidate information, we provided the ability to filter information by candidates who identified as female or BIPOC,” adds Nurasih, who was also the lead designer for the app. “We also wanted to highlight ‘what’ are you voting for. In our Key Voting Issues, we focused on important issues that are mainly impacting untapped communities. Our goal was to highlight factual data points instead of specific party arguments.”

Over 50 new mapping and data visualization applications were built to foster engagement. Some of that were publicly accessible Esri data and other information available through ArcGIS Online. Data was pulled in from Twitter and other open-source communities. The group also manually collected data, be it for a crowdsource application like the Sentiment Applications that ask community members to state how they feel on a given issue, or the Who is Running app, where data was manually researched from different websites, including Ballotpedia, to highlight candidates running both in the Senate and House.

There is an entire page dedicated to discussions around the election and how to get more involved. And lastly, of course, there is the entire toolkit, including all the data, maps and apps that have been made accessible for people to reuse if they have an ArcGIS Subscription.

The people

“The murder of George Floyd was broadcast all over the world and the outrage that followed ensured that people wanted to do something more than protest or pledge money. We saw many GIS professionals hop on board with the passion of using their location intelligence skills to empower the people to vote,” explains Kamau.

Of the 150-plus people who volunteered in some capacity, about 85 were primarily supporters (people who signed up to help, who attended the informationals, or pledged to spread the word about P4TP). “We had five individuals acting as our advisors, mainly in brand and GIS research, and another 10 people as our subject matter experts for key social issues. About 50 individuals were actual contributors of project-related work, including research, content creation, design and development,” explains Kotlewski. Most people were volunteers, which meant they did not receive any compensation for their participation.

“Pulling off this exceptional work in such a short period of time took a family of talented individuals. It has been a collaborative and collective effort,” says Liz Todd, Product Manager at P4TP. As one of the 4 Key Voting Issues project leads, and part of a larger group of around 15 project leads, Todd is responsible for helping make sure the content produced was high quality while supporting the needs of other teams and projects as needed.

“COVID-19 is exposing many systemic and structural injustices in the country, and we are in the midst of a national reckoning on how to move forward. I saw this as an opportunity to contribute to the deconstruction of these systems through cutting-edge GIS products,” she explains.

Lessons and future plans

The team realized that while the data was out there, the biggest limitation to accessing all of it was the fact that they were in several different locations, and not in one centralized plat­form where one could find the country’s election history or facts, education on the electoral college, policies and information about how to vote wisely on them. The website helped centralize this information under one roof, making a significant difference in how people engaged with election information.

“Various organizations are now asking for ways to recreate the apps created by P4TP. We are frequently being asked ‘how did you do that/can we recreate some­thing like this for our customers’,” reveals Nurasih.

So, now that the elections are over, what are the plans?

“Right now we are regrouping while continuing with the work,” says Kotlewski. A primary focus is just communicating how the team achieved all of this in only three months — July-September being the bulk of the work.

In addition to participating in some speaking engagements, there are plans of participation in a book project next year. “We have also gained some prospec­tive partnerships that will help us better maintain and update the data we collected,” Kotlewski says. The team has been in contact with Ballotpedia, for example, and is hoping to continue conver­sations in 2021 on how it can make better use of the data.

One specific effort the team has shifted focus on is a new Gerrymandering and Redis­tricting project. This is a collabo­ration with Esri’s StoryMaps team and Sophia Garcia, who is the GIS & Outreach Director at Redis­tricting Partners. The work will include key information about the impacts of gerrymandering and how important redistricting is to untapped communities.

Know Thy Neighbor

Over the summer of 2020, a grassroots organization of local neighbors in the town of Madison, New Jersey, was organically mobilized in response to #BlackLivesMatter to form the Madison Alliance for Racial and Ethnic Justice (MARE). The group is a coalition of smaller working groups that strive to promote housing and racial justice and help Madison become a people-oriented community. “MARE formed during the time frame when I was working on the People for the People initiative,” says Erika Bocain. Bocain had just started working with Esri, and as a person deeply troubled by the recent happenings around her, wanted to do her bit. As she involved herself in the P4TP project, she quickly realized that the same apps they were using on a national scale, could be used at a local scale here in her own town to help promote similar objectives. Bocain presented the Sentiment Map to her local group, who quickly agreed that an immediate way that they can begin learning more about one another is to share their feelings about race and race relations using it. The first version of the MARE app will be unveiled to the local community by the yearend, and in the following months, the group is planning to expand the app from sharing words to sharing stories. “We believe the app, the personal words and stories will quickly and efficiently allow neighbors to get to know one another and that will bring them closer. Once that happens, our hope is that it will be easier to have the necessary dialogues on how we can face these big challenges here in our town, together,” believes Bocain.

A more inclusive society

P4TP’s work found wide recog­nition from GIS communities, Universities, middle schools and local government communities. For instance, an elementary school teacher in Cathedral City, CA area was so inspired that he created a civic-minded lesson plan for students to interact with P4TP’s Who is Running app, enter their address, and see the people representing them.

“The P4TP initiative and everything we have done was inspired by empowering others. We let that drive our passion and our hope for a better future for next generations,” says Kotlewski.

And she knows. For, as the founder of Black Girls M.A.P.P and after heading it for many years, Kotlewski recognizes that while we, as individuals, can’t solve many problems, efforts like these can inspire a collective mass of people who can take the vision forward. “These people — the researchers, geographers, designers and developers — might not have been out there protesting, but they leveraged the skills and knowledge to make a difference,” she adds.

As Todd explains, at the heart of all of this are intelligent people, who are motivated and service oriented, and people from communities that have been tradi­tionally overlooked in politics.

The team feels it contributed to the change the members wanted to see by putting together resources that would educate untapped communities on the importance of their voice in the elections. “We were able to showcase the power of GIS in discussing election-related topics through P4TP. We contrib­uted to changing how we share resources using GIS and pushed the needle in how sentiments can be mapped,” says Kamau.

What started as a small group of people trying to push the boundaries of what was possible has now morphed into an organ­ization of talented, passionate people who want to tackle social and political issues using GIS. Now that the women have explored what’s possible, they are looking to expand partnerships and building on the foundation.

Cultural and racial change is not an overnight endeavor — it is a slow, uncomfortable and often an ungrateful process.

“Our only hope is that those who read this are inspired as well to realize that there is power in numbers and that the first step to making an impact in your community is to just show up, get involved and work together with others,” sums up Kotlewski.

“I am excited to see where People for the People goes from here,” says Todd. So are we!

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