A cascade of interest greets Taproot’s election matching engine

We are buoyed and blown away by the response to the Taproot Survey, our matching engine to help Edmonton voters discover how well they align with the candidates running for mayor and city council.

As I write this, we’ve received more than 6,800 responses, with more coming in every minute. That’s an order of magnitude greater than the goal we set when we conceived of the idea. A tremendous amount of work has gone into this project over the past year, and it’s gratifying to see it pay off to such a high degree.

Responses have been pouring in since we launched the Taproot Survey, a matching engine for Edmonton voters and candidates running for mayor and city council in the 2021 election. (Mack Male/Flickr)

How did we get here?

The survey is the culmination of the People’s Agenda project that we started more than a year ago. We asked Edmontonians what key issue they wanted the candidates to talk about as they competed for their votes in the 2021 municipal election. Those responses roughly coalesced into eight questions, which then formed the basis of a series of listening sessions to help us further understand people’s concerns.

The next step was to figure out how to determine where the candidates stood on these issues. Taproot co-founder Mack Male came across the Meet Your Mayor app from The City in New York. Because he is a developer himself, Mack said with his customary confidence that we could build something like that for our election. So we set about making it so.

How did we make it so?

Based on the input from our initial question and the subsequent listening sessions, as well as our own knowledge of civic affairs, we came up with a list of questions aimed at sussing out where the candidates stood and how they might be different from each other.

For the matching engine to work, we needed the questions to be multiple-choice. (Maybe machine learning will allow us to analyze unique sentences and match them with voters’ responses by 2025, but that wasn’t an option this year, much to some candidates’ chagrin.) We wanted those choices to stay away from motherhood statements — everyone wants a better city, no? — and we tried to make sure the answers were mutually exclusive and grounded in reality. We wanted the survey to be substantial and wide-ranging but not prohibitively long, so we landed on 10 topics with three questions each. Finally, we wanted to provide a short paragraph of context with links to further information to ensure that both candidates and voters understood the question we were asking.

This took a lot of time. Probably more than our small team could afford. But the prospect of having an easy but meaningful way for voters to find out who agreed with them on the issues spurred us on (along with a little bit of sunk-cost fallacy, if we’re being honest). We also benefited from excellent data-crunching from Madeleine Stout, and sage advice from Prof. Jack Lucas at the University of Calgary; our People’s Agenda steering committee members, Rob Houle and Elise Stolte; and Speaking Municipally co-host Troy Pavlek.

It’s been a long journey, but the train is finally coming into the station on our People’s Agenda project. (Mack Male/Flickr)

Then what happened?

Once the survey was finalized, we had to get the candidates to answer it. To me, this was perhaps the scariest part of this endeavour. Without a significant response rate from them, all of that work would have been for naught.

Step 1 was to make a well-considered, professional product. Step 2 was to make the case for the candidates to make time for our survey amid the plethora they had already received from others, not to mention the many other duties associated with campaigning. Some took more convincing than others, but by the time we were ready to open the survey to voters, we had half of the candidates, and we’re up to three-quarters now, including all but one incumbent.

Meanwhile, Mack and our technical intern, Meenakshi Chaudhary, were building the rest of the engine and website. That was a lot of work, too, but it will pay dividends, not only now but for future elections. We try to build replicable systems at Taproot, and this was no exception.

We soft-launched on Sept. 23, and opened it up to the wider public on Sept. 24, hoping but not knowing it would be well-received. It was. Deepest thanks to everyone who has shared the survey on social media, in newsletters, or by email. The magnitude of the response so far is because of you.

What’s next?

We’re going to keep collecting responses, from both voters and candidates, until election day on Oct. 18. Along the way, we’ll be writing stories arising from the data. Be sure to subscribe to The Pulse so you don’t miss a thing. (P.S. You can have more fun with the data yourself if you want — here’s how.)

Speaking Municipally, our municipal affairs podcast, will also be diving into the survey every Friday until the election.

Mack is planning to feed some of the data into our election night dashboard, which means Taproot will have not only the city’s best visualization of the data from Edmonton Elections (if past years are any indication), but also unique insights that you won’t find anywhere else.

Once the mayor and council are elected, you’ll be able to see at a glance where most or all of the winning candidates stand on these issues, which are likely to come up again over the next four years.

Finally, we’ve learned so much during this election campaign that we can apply to future ones. So watch for us to continue to build on this foundation in the years to come.

The People’s Agenda project enters its next phase

We’ve been doing a lot of work on the People’s Agenda project, but we haven’t been doing much of it out loud lately, so it’s time for an update.

We’re grateful to the hundreds of people who answered our question about the issues that matter to them and participated in the eight listening sessions we organized around those responses. They conveyed so much passion, intelligence, and curiosity to us, all of which is fuelling the next phase of this project.

As we noted in our previous progress report, the next steps are to generate a voter’s guide indicating where the candidates stand on the issues people told us they cared about, and to publish stories further examining some of the issues we heard about.

Processing all of the information we’ve received from Edmontonians through the People’s Agenda project has involved a lot of spreadsheets and sticky notes. This is from a recent feature story brainstorming session.

Foundation laid for voter’s guide

We have developed a questionnaire that we will be asking candidates to fill out indicating where they stand on various issues, derived from what we heard from participants in the People’s Agenda and bolstered by the close attention we pay to city council. The questionnaire consists of 30 multiple-choice questions organized in groups of three under 10 headings: economy; environment; finances; housing and homelessness; planning; police; politics and governance; quality of life; roads; and transit.

The questionnaire doesn’t cover every issue that was raised in our gathering phase, but we’ve done our best to create a representative sample with a range of answers that will allow candidates to demonstrate their values and the approaches they would take to matters that the next city council will face. We will also invite them to share a pitch to voters, which we will publish along with their answers to the survey.

Our desire is to create an interactive guide similar to what a site called The City created for New York’s recent mayoral election. The City compiled candidates’ answers, and then made the same questionnaire available to New Yorkers so they could learn which candidates were most aligned with them. We are working to generate a similar experience so Edmontonians can find out which candidates for their ward and the mayoralty are the best fit for them.

The questionnaire will be sent to candidates soon. If you are running, please fill it out — we will be sharing the results far and wide, and this will help you find your voters. If you are working for a campaign, please make sure your candidate fills it out. And if you are a voter, kindly nudge them to fill it out.

Stories are in the works

We’ve published the first feature story inspired by People’s Agenda participants: This social-services experiment is working — could there be more?. The idea to take a closer look at the C5 North East Hub came out of a discussion during our listening session on housing and homelessness. As reporter Jackson Spring discovered, the hub seems to be working for people in a part of the city that needs support and doesn’t have easy access to it, but its future depends on whether the next city council decides to fund it.

We’ve got some other features in the works on such issues as 15-minute districts, public toilets, and carbon accounting. The answers to our questionnaire will also yield stories about each ward and act as a jumping-off point for deeper examinations of the questions at play.

More election-related matters

We’ve started a regular feature in The Pulse called the municipal election rundown, gathering up what the candidates are up to. Right now, that runs on Thursdays. Subscribe to The Pulse to get it for free every weekday.

You’ll also hear an increasing amount of campaign coverage on Speaking Municipally, our award-winning weekly look at municipal issues in Edmonton, hosted by Troy Pavlek and Mack Male. That comes out every Friday at noon.

Another progress report on the People’s Agenda

We’re halfway through our series of listening sessions on the issues raised by the initial respondents to our People’s Agenda project, so this is a good time to look back at what we’ve learned and look ahead to what’s next.

How we got here

The series of events we’ve been holding throughout March and April are the latest stop in a journey that started last summer with the Election SOS training that I had an opportunity to attend with Elise Stolte. We used that opportunity to imagine what it would look like if Taproot’s municipal election coverage were centred on the issues that are important to Edmontonians, instead of being focused on who’s running or who’s winning or who’s sniping at whom.

In September, we put our question out into the world: What key question do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why?

Here is Taproot’s roadmap for the People’s Agenda, as depicted by steering committee member Elise Stolte in an April 7 talk for an Election SOS event called Better Journalism: A Roadmap for Engaged Democracy.

We turned the first 150-ish responses into a first draft of the People’s Agenda, which was based on a whole lot of data-crunching from Madeleine Stout and then a fair amount of synthesis by me into eight questions that generally captured what respondents were concerned about.

We then turned those questions into the basis for a series of listening sessions to enable us to hear more about what was on people’s minds and to convey that to a wider audience. We hired Chris Chang-Yen Phillips to plan, program, and run the events, taking advantage of his experience with creating meaningful engagement.

A look at the listening sessions

Chris has brought in a wide variety of guests — such as Christy Morin of Arts on the Ave, Barry Morishita of the Alberta Urban Municipalities Assocation, and Emily Grisé of the University of Alberta’s school of urban planning — to set the scene for each topic and connect the issues to what city council has done and can do.

He has also tapped into his network of civicly minded folks to facilitate the breakout sessions that follow those talks, which has been a great way to nurture a welcoming and productive conversation, while freeing up Taproot staff to capture what has been said.

Our intern, Jackson Spring, has been listening to each session and recapping them on our site.

Here’s where we’re at — Jackson’s recaps are linked to the topics that have already happened, and the registration pages are linked to those that are still to come:

What happens next

These listening sessions will continue through April. We also have a lot of material aside from the recaps to sift through in search of feature ideas, which we’ll assign and publish in the coming months.

We are continuing to collect answers to our initial question. Many thanks to community partners such as Rat Creek Press and SPANN for publishing and sharing our invitation for responses. We have been working with Michelle Bartleman‘s online journalism class at MacEwan University to engage with other communities on this topic, which we hope will lead to some stories. We have more work to do to reach out to people who aren’t already familiar with Taproot, and that will be the focus of our efforts into the summer.

We need to synthesize the answers we’ve received since the first draft, as well as what we’ve heard at the listening sessions and will hear from future engagements. That will allow us to put out a revised People’s Agenda, which will form the basis of the voters’ guide we will publish in the fall, some time between the end of the nomination period and the opening of advanced polls. The voters’ guide will tell you where the candidates stand on the issues that matter to you, so you can make an informed decision.

Many thanks to everyone who has participated so far. This has been an instructive process, and we’re eager to see where it takes us next.

Taproot launches People’s Agenda listening sessions

It’s time to dive deeper into the issues raised so far in our People’s Agenda project.

We invite you to join us for some or all of our weekly listening sessions to further uncover what is important to you as we head towards the municipal election on Oct. 18.

The first one is set for noon March 11, and it will tackle this question that we’ve synthesized from a number of responses: Will our taxes be well-spent? Sign up to attend.

Chris Chang-Yen Phillips will guide the discussion at noon on March 11 with Mack Male’s help. Register to attend.

This isn’t just about property taxes. We’ve heard from people who want the city to spend less, but we also heard from people who want it to spend its resources differently, and others who are concerned about reduced funding from other orders of government. So let’s talk.

The wonderful Chris Chang-Yen Phillips will host this series. Taproot was pleased to support a season of his Let’s Find Out podcast focusing on answering questions about how humans and nature interact with each other in and around our city, and we know him to be a creative and genial facilitator who draws the best out of participants.

We’ve tapped Taproot co-founder Mack Male to be a resource for the March 11 event. He’ll apply his knowledge from years of observing City Hall to explain how the budget works, what kinds of spending decisions city council makes, and what challenges we can anticipate in the 2021-25 term.

Then it will be your turn. Tell us more about what you want city council to care about, and help us make sure Taproot Edmonton’s election coverage is focused on what matters to you.

Save these dates for future sessions. They’ll be at noon:

  • March 18: Will Edmonton be a good place to live?
  • March 25: Will city council have integrity?
  • April 1: Will we be able to move around the city easily?
  • April 8: Will we spend less on police?
  • April 15: Will we house everyone?
  • April 22: Will we act on climate change?
  • April 29: Will we build our city intelligently?

Why and how we’re pursuing the People’s Agenda

As we all wait for the votes to be counted in the United States, and brace ourselves for whatever comes next, you might not want to hear another single thing about any kind of election anywhere. I hear you.

Tension
We’re feeling the election-related tension these days — how about you? (Photo by Jie Qi)

But we will have a civic election here next October, and the candidates we choose will have more effect on our day-to-day lives than anything that happens south of the border, however overwhelming it may be right now. We really want to make sure Taproot equips voters to make informed decisions and alerts candidates to what is important for them to address.

The point of the People’s Agenda method — which aims to find out what issues Edmontonians want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election — is to act as an antidote to coverage that focuses on who’s ahead and who’s behind, i.e. the infamous “horse race” that relies so heavily on polling. It’s also a way to keep the focus on real things that city council has to make decisions about, rather than sniping or gaffes or “us vs them” appeals.

Here’s an update on the progress we’ve made so far:

Rob Houle has joined Taproot’s People’s Agenda steering committee.
  1. We have welcomed Rob Houle to our steering committee. You may have heard him before on Speaking Municipally — on Episode 92 he spoke about council’s decision not to reduce the police budget, and on Episode 100 he talked about the city’s new Indigenous ward names. He joins Elise Stolte to help us stay accountable on our goals to hear from as wide and diverse a swath of Edmontonians as possible.
  2. We’ve figured out how we’re going to follow up with the respondents who gave us permission to do so. This may seem like a very small step, and it is, but we hadn’t come up with a procedure for that when we launched this thing, and now we have. We expect that these follow-up conversations and calls will lead to story ideas, which we will start assigning and publishing soon. This is how we will make sure we go deeper than superficial surveys and get closer to the kind of deep listening that Elise is doing with her Groundwork project.
  3. It’s clear from the first hundred or so responses that some common themes are coalescing. We still have a lot more people to reach out to and hear from, but there’s enough early consensus on several topics to indicate a preliminary agenda. So we’ll be putting that together and publishing it soon, in hopes that it prompts further responses.
  4. We’re working out a less aggressive timeline. The election is less than a year away, but that’s still pretty far down the road. For various reasons, we were planning to do a lot of response-gathering and listening in the fall, with a view to launching our coverage in January. We’ve since taken a step back to give the outreach process a little more air while altering the rest of the plan so you can see actual stories and not just progress reports sooner.

That may be more information than you require, but transparency is a good policy.

For examples of some of the responses we’ve seen so far, keep an eye on the Council Roundup, where we update the numbers every week.

Here’s how you can help

People’s Agenda progress report: Responses!

A week after launching our People’s Agenda project, we’re pleased and relieved to report that we have received responses. As I write this, 45 people have told us what they want the candidates to be talking about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election. That’s a good start!

We send a virtual bouquet to everyone who has answered the People’s Agenda question so far!

Here is a very small sample of the answers we’ve received, in no particular order and edited slightly for clarity:

  • “Affordable, subsidized, and permanent supportive housing. Since we have a 10,000-unit deficit in all 3 kinds of housing, it needs to stay the main topic until things are followed up on. Part of this is funding but part of this is reducing barriers to development.”
  • “Climate action and economic diversification, because without a plan on those fronts, Edmonton post-oil might be as broken as Newfoundland post-fish or Detroit post-car.”
  • “The arts. Artists have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. With the closure of most venues, performing artists, filmmakers, visual artists have lost almost all opportunities to display their work. The Edmonton Fringe Festival brings in millions of dollars to our city. That organization needs ongoing support. Our independent theatre venues and concert halls need support.”
  • “Defunding the police/abolishing the police and how maintaining the status quo infringes on the human rights of marginalized people and in fact all Edmontonians.”
  • “How can we sustainably and responsibly grow and operate the city without spending so much money? It seems the city budget grows faster than is needed.”

Some people truly have one key issue — e.g. “Climate change. Nothing else is important.” Others shared an omnibus of related issues — e.g. “How will you ensure that the goals of the City Plan are implemented through Council decisions over the next four years? This includes a commitment to climate action, curbing sprawl, smart district-based planning, innovative economic diversification, and increasing multimodal transportation options.” Still others have given us more eclectic responses, expressing, for example, a desire for more social enterprise, protection for the river valley, more people-oriented development and “more common sense and less ‘innovation’ ” in the same breath.

It’s going to be an interesting challenge to synthesize all of this into an agenda that will form the basis for our coverage, but it’s encouraging to see the quantity and quality of the raw materials we have to work with already.

And we’ve only just begun. If you haven’t already responded, here’s your chance to answer the question:

What key issue do you want the candidates to talk about as they compete for votes in the 2021 municipal election, and why? (Click the link to answer.)

Many thanks to everyone who has answered so far, and to those who have sent encouraging words. We’re excited to see where this goes!