Posts Tagged ‘Polls’

Freep this poll!

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

Have you ever been asked to “Freep this poll”?

The word “freep” comes from the “Free Republic,” an online forum for conservatives where its members are regularly informed of online polls and told to go vote en masse.  Although they don’t necessarily admit to “cheating” the polls, they have been accused of clearing cookies or otherwise circumventing the systems set up to prevent one person from voting multiple times.

Conservatives aren’t the only ones “freeping,” though.  The term has migrated across the political spectrum, and readers of decidedly more liberal sites, like DailyKos, are regularly asked to freep a poll.  And right after a presidential debate is prime freeping time for everyone, as nearly every newspaper and cable news channel will set up online polls asking, “Who won?”

I think freeping is great.

Freeping makes obvious how ridiculously inaccurate online polls can be.  Der Spiegel, a German magazine, was shocked when a 2004 online poll asking readers to rate President Bush’s performance in office was rated “excellent” by 59% of its readers–it turned out it had been freeped.  When freeping skews results to the point that no one can believe them, well, that’s a blow for truth, not ideology.

But being an ever-so-optimistic sort of person, I think freeping also shows the potential of online polls, and online measures of public opinion in general, to be more accurate than they are today.  Online polls are popular, despite being obviously inaccurate, because they’re cheap and fun (for those who just can’t get enough of sharing their opinions).  Most of all, at least in theory, they can reach a much larger group of people than professional pollsters.

The problem is that this larger group, even before freepers get involved, is shaped by the website and the audience it tends to draw.  (And of course, the world of people online is already smaller than the world as a whole.)  It wasn’t surprising, nor particularly revealing, that the people who went to the conservative Drudge Report and voted in its poll rating the Palin-Biden VP debate overwhelmingly found that Palin had won.  But if liberal online politicos had freeped the poll, they could have made the poll more representative of our country’s mix of conservatives and liberals.  And vice versa.

My point is that freeping, as creepy as it seems, is one of those strategies that’s open to everyone, left, right, liberal, conservative, polka-dotted or striped.  Some people will always just enjoy freeping for the sake of messing up the system, to enjoy their power to clear cookies and skew polls, though as I stated above, that can easily go so far that no one believes the results.  But if freeping pushes people to participate in polls in forums where they normally wouldn’t be heard, well, that sounds kind of democratic.  Sure, we still have that problem with ensuring one vote per person, but if we thought online polling could have more than entertainment value, maybe we would try harder to come up with better systems.  (I wonder if it would be possible to set up an online poll that actually let you vote as often as you wanted, but indicated you had done so.  Sometimes it’s entertaining to see who cares the most, or maybe more accurately, has the most time on his hands.)  As Mimi stated earlier, choosing to participate in polls, surveys, and studies that shape our world and our lives is increasingly becoming as democratic a duty as voting in the election booth.

Stand up and be counted!

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

Just to quote a different news source:

John McCain’s choice of Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate is sitting very well with a lot of American voters, according to the latest FOX News poll.

The new survey also shows that—among all four candidates running—Palin (at 33 percent) is seen as most likely to understand “the problems of everyday life”—barely outpacing Barack Obama (32 percent), and finishing significantly ahead of both McCain (17 percent) and Joe Biden (10 percent).

Among independent voters, Palin’s lead over Obama on this score widens to 13 points (35 percent to 22 percent).

Fox also provides a link to the “raw data”. (Don’t get too excited.)

Apparently, raw data means a list of the questions asked, broken down by party (Republican, Democrat and Independents, over time.)

Raw data doesn’t include: Who are these people being polled? How did they get so lucky as to be selected to represent the viewpoints of their fellow voting Americans?

I’m not going to get into the validity of political polling here – we have explored poll validity at some length before. (e.g. Polls are conducted entirely through land lines, excluding the 15% of Americans that only have a cellphone number.) Frankly I don’t know enough to say anything useful about them, other than to express the usual lay person skepticism about such things.

Instead, I think a far more interesting question the recent flurry of political polling highlights is how such surveys or any “data collection effort for that matter affects the people who choose not to participate or are never selected to participate in such polls. Most of us breath a sigh of relief when we dodge a telemarketer who wants to spend “a quick 10 minutes” with us on the phone to answer a “simple survey”. But what are we passing up by not participating when so much decision-making is data-driven?

A missed questionnaire about cleaning products is nothing to fret about? But about declining to hand over personal medical data to the doctors, nurses (not to mention hospitals, researchers and insurance companies) we depend on to treat our ailments and prevent future problems?

To cite yet another poll to back up my point about polls 😉

“According to a recent poll, one in six adults (17%) – representing 38 million persons – say they withhold information from their health providers due to worries about how the medical data might be disclosed.

Persons who report that they are in fair or poor health and racial and ethnic minorities report even higher levels of concern about the privacy of their personal medical records and are more likely than average to practice privacy-protective behaviors.”

Harris Interactive Poll #27, March 2007.

More info on the poll here.

Case in point: Back in April, I wrote about the site PatientsLikeMe.com, which provides a wonderful new service that allows individual users to share the most intimate details of their medical conditions and treatments, which in turn creates a pool of invaluable information that is publicly available. However, I also wonder about how their data may be skewed because their users are limited to the pool of people who are comfortable sharing their HIV status and publicly charting their daily bowel movements. The question we have for PatientsLikeMe is: Who isn’t being represented in your data set? And how does that affect the relevance of your data to the average person who comes to your site looking for information? Who won’t find your data helpful because it’s not relevant to their personal situation?

Increasingly, companies, agencies at all levels of government, researchers who advise policy-makers and even individuals are making “data-driven” decisions.

Yet, how often do we dismiss a study by scoffing at the limited range of its participants?

So what do we do? Tell everyone Privacy is soo 20th century. The new millenium is all about self-exposure.

How we resurrect the notion of privacy in a world that can no longer depend on a closed door to protect us against invasions, is a question we must find answers to. However the the solution is not to keep people away from sharing personal data. Doing so means giving up our place at the discussion table when it comes to influencing decisions as mundane as “How reliable does cellphone reception need to be?” to life or death decisions such as “How many ambulances does my local hospital need?”, “What combination of therapies will work best for my condition?”

To state my case more strongly: Participating as a data point in data-driven research is a passive form of voting, the most basic of rights in a functioning democracy.

To be sure, this is an idealistic take on data collection. There remains the much thornier issue of how to ensure that data is used for mutual benefit not monitoring or predatory manipulation. (Factory workers being watched by union bosses at the voting booth faced similar challenges.)

However, to repeat our favorite mantra: The enemy isn’t the data!


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