PSU Votes app encourages students to get out the vote

September 26, 2016

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — When Penn State students head to the polls for November’s presidential election, they will be more informed about their choices thanks to a new app created by researchers in the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST).

The PSU Votes app, which is free and available for download in the iOS App Store, organizes election-related local events and social media feeds to inform voters on current topics and encourage participation in the election process. Led by Jack Carroll, an IST professor, and Benjamin Hanrahan, a research associate in the college, the application is a continuation of the work from PSU Votes, a network of University and community volunteers who are preparing students to vote in the upcoming election.

“Part of what students should be doing at a university is learning to be citizens,” said Carroll. “We often elide that and focus on credits and majors, but really one of the best outcomes we can have from university experiences is making better citizens.”

Since 2004, PSU Votes has worked to provide the campus community with easy access to election information in one central location. Through aggregated Twitter accounts from past and current candidates, curated Twitter feeds from relevant voices, and a calendar of upcoming events, the app encourages action and gives the user a real-time look into the political conversation.

“Our goal was not to give the loudest voices a platform, but to give the relevant voices a platform,” said Hanrahan. “Too often on Twitter it’s only the loudest voices you hear.”

Hanrahan designed the app to support the group’s mission to “get out the vote.” Hanrahan, who also developed an app for the Central Pennsylvania Festival of the Arts, plans to use the PSU Votes app as a framework for future projects that can be useful to the community.

In selecting which Twitter feeds to feature, Carroll and Hanrahan were careful to remain impartial while giving weight to more local and community-focused accounts.

“We kind of qualified the accounts on a static view of authority,” said Hanrahan. “There are parties, there are campaigns, but it’s not a random collection of people.”

“In the future,” Carroll added, “we may look at key influencers to share an even broader conversation.”

In the two weeks leading up to Election Day, the group will update the app to conduct a survey on how students gather political information and run a straw poll on expected voting patterns. Results from the straw polls held during the last three election cycles have shown results consistent with the local voting outcomes.

“We’ve made it a double agenda because we’re also interested in how media and computing can be tools in energizing and informing people about the voting process,” said Carroll.

While it’s difficult to know what the 2020 election cycle will look like, Carroll and Hanrahan hope to publish the results of their survey findings and expand the app’s functionality to include more traditional and social media channels.

Last Updated September 28, 2016