During the primary season, I went to Austin's City Hall on my lunch hour to vote. I got in line and waited. And waited some more. The line wasn't just long or moving slowly -- it wasn't moving at all. Rumors spread that a voting machine had malfunctioned.
After about 30 minutes in which I made about 2 feet of progress, I gave up and left. I had to get back to work. (I voted later that same day at a different location.) But I also fired off a frustrated tweet:
App idea: the Waze of polling locations. Which ones have short and long election lines. Make it happen, techies.— Lilly Rockwell (@LillyRockwell) February 26, 2016
Much to my surprise, my plea was actually taken seriously.
Startup consultant Ed Ireson saw the tweet and realized he had technology that could be used to tell people how long the lines are during early voting and on Election Day.
We spoke with Ireson today about his website, FOMO.vote, which was launched last spring during primary voting. (By the way, FOMO stands for Fear of Missing out.) The Austin Tech Alliance is also using their data as part of their elections-based app.
Where did this whole idea come from?
"You tweeted it, and then the mayor re-tweeted it and that's how I saw it. It was before the primary, or a few weekends before primary. We had built out the bones of this for (music festival season in March) for avoiding lines. (It's called FOMO ATX.) So I thought 'Oh, this is actually really easy for us to put together.' I saw your tweet on Friday. I had a first version ready literally on Saturday and then kind of polished it leading up to the primaries."
How does FOMO.vote work?
"When you visit the website it looks up your location. If you're on your phone it knows exactly where you are. If you're on a computer, it's pretty good. It shows you four or five of the nearest polling locations to you.
We take in user-generated feedback of long lines, so we have two questions, is the long line or short? Which is binary, red or green. And the second question is how many people are in the line total?
You do have to go back to the website (to answer). We found a good number of people, because they are stuck in line, will go back. But that means there are lots of long-line reports and not as many short-line reports.
And we take in the county's estimates. (Which are based off poll workers eyeing the line and estimating from that.)"
So how do I know which voting sites are seeing long lines and which ones aren't?
"It's like traffic lights, so look for the green ones and avoid the red and yellow ones. The colors are predictive, too, so right now as we're going into the lunch hour (on Election Day), we're predicting things are going to get worse at certain locations.
For instance, the Randall's in Westlake, at 3:15 p.m. is going to be packed because people are getting out of school and driving over and voting at this semi-active voting location. We're taking that into account when we do the color. At 3 p.m, it will turn red, even though there may not be a long line yet. It's based off early voting behavior."
What are the patterns you've noticed during early voting? Which locations are prone to long lines?
"Grocery stores and anything near campus, the University of Texas campus, are consistently busy throughout the day. My friends-and-family tip during early voting was go to a mobile voting station any time before noon. What we're able to see is because people didn't recognize it as a regular polling location they weren't going to stop to vote and go to this place because it wasn't in their pattern.
That tells you a lot about proximity and the familiarity of locations. The same thing can be said for the shortest one as of right now. The shortest category right now is fire stations. People just forget that fire stations are places to go vote. The average right now is four minutes at fire stations across the city and the citywide average is 27 minutes. And it's going to skyrocket as we get closer to noon."
What times of day do you see longer lines?
"Four to to six is by far the busiest time across all locations and all types of locations. And then during early voting it dropped off after six. I know we won’t see that today.That's what I saw during the primaries."
Are there geographic patterns, such as suburban areas being busier than downtown?
"If you're looking at it through an entire day, not specifically. The only ones that do stand out are the practically rural locations. Anything past Texas 130, there are three or so locations out there. Those tend to be a little busier because I think there are fewer options there so people end up crowding those.
There's not really a strong correlation, though anything off Interstate 35 or MoPac (Loop 1) in evenings or afternoons was more busy, both north and south. Anywhere near the Interstate."
What do you plan to do with FOMO.vote going forward?
"There is no plan to monetize it. There are conversations I’m having about taking it nationwide. It’s probably, frankly, Texas-wide to start with. There is the realization that the county doesn’t have great data on where people are voting or when they are voting. There might be an opportunity to go in and help counties improve their wait times at polling stations."
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