Congressional Debate in Harlem Engages Audience with Microsoft Pulse
A debate sponsored by Silicon Harlem used presidential-debate level tools to gauge audience reaction - and highlight the digital divide.
Last month, seven candidates took part in a primary debate organized by Silicon Harlem focused on technology innovation and access issues affecting New York’s 13th Congressional District. The subject matter alone would have made it novel, but the two-hour event stood out for other reasons.
For starters, the seat doesn’t open up very often. Outgoing Rep. Charles Rangel has been in office for more than 45 years, and before him, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., held the seat for more than a quarter-century (the district number and borders changed several times during their tenures). If history is any guide, this could be the only turnover many voters witness in their lifetime.
So it was perhaps no surprise that around 600 people crowded into the event space MIST Harlem to hear what the Democratic candidates had to say about how technology can support education and economic development.
Yet the attendees did more than listen: Using Pulse, Microsoft’s audience engagement platform, some of them (more on the limitations later) could indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with the speakers and respond to instant polls related to debate topics. Those watching the live stream could also take part.
In short, they used the same technology Microsoft has made available during presidential primary debates to gauge audience responses, making this the first local debate to offer that level of engagement. And, in an unusual move for a political debate, the feedback appeared in real-time on a screen behind the candidates, for everyone in the room to see.
“It was a historic evening,” said Clayton Banks, co-founder of Silicon Harlem, referring to the many firsts that night.
Rangel’s retirement presents the opportunity for the district to select a candidate who is not only tech-oriented, but who understands the impact on housing, business, and other aspects of community development. Civic tech advocates are attempting to make the most of it.
“At most times, even on the presidential level, they don’t talk about technology and innovation and how that relates to our 21st-century economy,” said Banks. “I can’t see anything more important, but for whatever reason, that’s getting left out of the dialogue.”
Not on this night.
The debate was designed around how to use innovation to encourage the growth of green, tech-forward communities. Most of the candidates came prepared with specific ideas and strong opinions about improving broadband access, increasing access to STEM programs, and regulating start-up companies such as Uber.
There wasn’t much back-and-forth between the moderators and the candidates—due to there being seven candidates at the table—and there was little disagreement on most issues, including the importance of innovation and the need for New York City’s internet providers to deliver the services they’re contracted to provide.
Still, some differences emerged. Former state Assemblyman Adam Clayton Powell IV, the son of the storied congressman who was defeated by Rangel in 1970, repeatedly stressed the need for every kid to own an iPad, arguing that access to more tools would bridge the digital divide.
“It won’t mean a thing if you ain’t got that thing,” said Powell.
Others put more emphasis on after-school programs and early education.
“By fifth grade, it’s not a divide. At that point it’s a chasm, and you can’t catch up,” said Suzan Johnson Cook, a former ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom.
New York’s 13th Congressional District—the country’s smallest and most dense, with more than 700,000 people—shifted before the last election cycle. The predominantly Hispanic district now encompasses upper Manhattan and a small slice of the Bronx, including the neighborhoods of Harlem, Inwood, Marble Hill, Spanish Harlem, Washington Heights, and portions of Morningside Heights and the Upper West Side.
The district’s bilingual workforce should be considered an asset in attracting more jobs to the area, said candidate Mike Gallagher, a former business executive with a computer background, when asked to name what’s good about the district for the development of technology.
Capturing Nuance and Depth
MSNBC anchor Richard Lui moderated the debate with Jamil Smith, MTV News senior correspondent, Israel Ortega, a senior writer at Opportunity Lives, and Carrie Sheffield, founder of the new media startup Bold. The ground rules were familiar: two minutes for opening remarks, one minute for responses, and 30-seconds for rebuttals.
The debate was also seen as an opportunity to encourage civic engagement. Rangel has encountered close primaries in recent years, but he’s won general elections with around 75 percent of the vote, and constituents have grown accustomed to the status quo. Banks said he’d like to see increased voter turnout this year—a likely scenario given the presidential election and the open congressional seat.
Silicon Harlem, which opened in 2013 with the mission of transforming Harlem into a technology and innovation hub, has previously worked with Microsoft’s technology and civic engagement team in New York and sought the company’s involvement in the debate. Pulse turned out to be a good fit and met the needs for audience engagement.
The interactive platform, which first launched in 2013, has been used for conferences and higher education, along with much bigger political events, including presidential primary debates hosted by CNN and Telemundo and a Labour Party leaders’ debate in the U.K. CNN also used it during President Obama’s ISIS speech and, along with MSNBC, during the 2015 State of the Union address.
The platform is still evolving: Microsoft released Video Pulse, a version for collecting feedback on top of recorded video, during the 2016 National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) Show in April.
The Silicon Harlem debate marked the first time Pulse was employed during a local, non-televised debate. It can be set up for any size event, making it a viable option for political and civic debates, including school boards.
At the start of the event, Lee Brenner, who heads business development and partnerships for Microsoft’s Technology and Civic Engagement team in Washington, D.C., spoke briefly about the company’s efforts to empower citizens and communities. He then encouraged the audience members to take out their phones and go to a dedicated URL, siliconharlem.net/pulse.
Once there, participants could select their gender, party affiliation, and whether they were viewing the debate in person or watching the livestream. Information could be filtered using those parameters at any time during the debate.
Microsoft Pulse runs continuously, offering real-time voting to gauge whether audience members agree, disagree, or are neutral about what the candidates are saying at that moment. Responses can be registered every five seconds. The results create a worm-like effect on the screen, as a line curves up and down depending on audience members’ reactions. This sentient analysis shows how people are feeling throughout the event while optional survey questions invite more reflection on issues.
“There are advantages to the two-sided approach,” Brenner later told Civicist. “One is a little bit more nuanced; the other gives you more depth.”
Brenner said he’s surprised more debates haven’t given voters opportunity to take part, given the technology available. But he sees that changing.
“I think the more pressure that we have, the more demand that there is,” he said. “And citizens are more engaged anyway in their everyday lives. Any debate, local or national, will have to integrate technology in some way.”
New Set-Up, Old Problem
Silicon Harlem inputted 10 survey questions ahead of the debate related to local issues the candidates would be discussing. The questions appeared periodically on Pulse, with polling staying open for several minutes each time.
One of the yes/no questions asked whether the cost of internet access is prohibitive; 30 percent said “yes.” On how to get more girls and women into STEM careers, almost two-thirds of respondents selected “provide more after-school, summer, and weekend STEM programs” out of five multiple choice options.
It was difficult to determine how well the responses represented the audience, however, because of connectivity problems in the room. As candidates were responding to Lui’s first question asking what could be done to bridge the digital divide, Lui reminded audience members to go to siliconharlem.net/pulse. Some people shouted in response that the wi-fi was down, preventing them from getting online.
“Digital divide in Harlem,” sighed Assemblyman Keith Wright, prompting groans and laughter. (Wright has since secured Rangel’s endorsement.)
The biggest issue with successful audience engagement is adequate bandwidth, and on that night, it wasn’t adequate.
“Even though we sort of had a laugh about it, the point is, this is how important this issue is,” said Banks, noting that if the broadband was working appropriately, hundreds of people could have participated simultaneously instead of 40 or 50 people at a time. “It shows how important it is that your infrastructure is strong, how important it is to have ubiquitous broadband, and how important it is to bridge the digital divide.”
Janet Charles, an attorney in New York who attended the debate, said she was able to get on after a delay. Though it was her first time engaging online during a political event, she had used a similar platform during a legal conference and was pleased to see it offered.
“It’s appropriate to use technology to participate,” she said, especially given the focus of the Silicon Harlem debate. She added that while it’s essential to increase educational opportunities around technology for students in the district, the capacity issues were a reminder of how crucial it is to have reliable, high-speed internet.
A Role in the Conversation
Twitter and Facebook conversations are pulled into Pulse, so everything can be viewed in one place. The debate topics that night sparked a lively Twitter conversation under #shdebate, drawing a number of tech-savvy participants. In response to a push for getting more devices into the hands of students, Katy Kasmai, an engineer and advocate for technology education, tweeted, “Let’s teach kids to solve problems and build rather than be tech consumers.”
The candidates had tablets on which they could view the audience feedback, which was shown on a large screen behind them, but they didn’t appear to be checking often, and there was no obvious pandering to audience reaction.
“It wasn’t a debate where people were arguing too much. They were on the same page,” said Banks. “They did have unique ways of looking at some of the challenges of the digital divide and charter schools. We weren’t doing an educational debate, but education is important in terms of STEM issues.”
Even if the debate itself was more highly charged, Brenner said most candidates aren’t going to change their answers based on audience favorability. But they will benefit from the instant data and demographic breakdown.
“The more that citizens have a role in the conversation, the more responsive locally that the candidates will be,” he added.
The big screen in the room definitely captured the audience’s attention, said Banks. “It was so interactive and engaging, not a person moved for an hour and a half. You couldn’t take your eyes off the screen.”
Aside from the wi-fi issues, Banks said he couldn’t be more pleased with how the event turned out. “It was as diverse of an audience as you can find in this country, and they were civically engaged,” he said, adding that it’s not every day that people in Harlem are asked to share their opinions on technology and community issues.
“Everyone loved seeing their vote counted, if you will,” he added, referring to the instant gratification of seeing the Pulse survey bar change upon the press of a button. And, most importantly, the debate galvanized the community around issues that could well determine its future.
“This isn’t a Harlem issue, this is a national issue,” said Banks. “We need the nation to see, hear, and talk about the future of our communities and how it’s directly tied to technology and innovation.”