Poll Everywhere brings expensive audience participation systems to the masses for cheap (sort of)

You still use your mobile phone just to talk?  With your voice?.  Even with an old-school brick phone, if you’ve got a text messaging plan, you have access to all kinds of google results, the twitter hive-mind and even frequent requests for money from the president.  No fancy web browsers or multi-touch required.

Poll Everywhere, as well as PlaceMatters, are taking advantage of the near-ubiquity of mobile phones to lower the cost and barriers to a tool that has value for planners: audience participation systems, otherwise known as  audience response systems or keypad voting. Think mobile phone = keypad and cheap web app = expensive voting software and you’ll get the gist.  I’ll gush a little bit about Poll Everywhere below the fold.

These are systems that are typically integrated with powerpoint that allow audiences to respond instantly and anonymously to questions posed during a meeting on-screen.  Results are then displayed immediately after voting is finished.  The advantages of this tool are that it allows all individuals to give their opinion while minimizing the potential for vocal individuals to monopolize the time you have for collecting public input.  In really large groups, where small group facilitation can become challenging, this is especially valuable. Data is also recorded digitally, so no need to worry about reading people’s handwriting or doing laborious data entry the day after the meeting.

Of course this is a survey tool, and all survey tools have their disadvantages.  The value of the input is only as good as the questions the meeting facilitators write.  Also, if you’re not careful, people can get the impression that they are “voting” on an outcome.  If you don’t want that to be the case, you have to write the questions carefullly to ensure the audience doesn’t get that impression.

While it appears PlaceMatters is still working on a beta version (I saw a demonstration at APA National that was good but buggy), Poll Everywhere has it nearly perfected.  You go to their website, choose a poll type (multiple choice, open-ended or fundraising), and then write your questions.  One of the best features of Poll Everywhere’s system is the ability to download a PowerPoint slide that has the poll question on it and dynamically updates with the results as long as you are connected to the internet.  Very slick.  Participants can vote via text message, twitter, or even via the web, which would allow people to vote even if they can’t attend the meeting.

My one beef with Poll Everywhere is that they call individual questions “polls”.  So if you want to ask multiple questions, which is usually the case in a public meeting, you have to create multiple “polls” and navigate between them.  When I think of a poll, I always think of a bank of many questions.  This minor flaw is not a big deal though, and if you use the PowerPoint slides, you can just combine questions together into one show.

Poll Everywhere is free up to 30 respondents, so if you have a big meeting, you’ll have to pay for one of their plans, which start at $15 a month.  The $65/month plan gives you all the bells and whistles, plus a limit of 250 respondents, which should cover all but the largest (and angriest?) community meetings.  Compare $65 to what it would cost you to rent a dedicated APS for a moderately-sized meeting (my recent exprience was around $1,000) and you can see the advantages.

Of course, as with any tool, there are disadvantages.  The big one: not everyone has a mobile phone.  I know, it’s true.  Public participation nit-pickers will tell you that this is a problem.  However, you could mitigate this by having a few pre-paid phones with cheap texting plans available, or setting up a few computer terminals to allow people to vote online.  You would probably still come in way under the cost of renting a dedicated system.  Reliability may also be an issue, however I don’t have enough experience with either of these systems to comment.

If anyone out there has any experience using these types of web-based voting systems at a public meeting, I’d love to hear about it.  Did it work?  Was it too complicated for people to figure out?  Did people yell at you for assuming they knew how to text?

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