How Microsoft is empowering voters this election season

The design wall at Bing Elections headquarters in Bellevue, Washington.

Here in the U.S., we’re 22 days away from the pivotal Nov. 4th mid-term elections, where the entire House of Representatives and more than a third of the U.S. Senate are up for election, and 36 states are electing governors, including California, Texas, Ohio and Pennsylvania.

Today, Microsoft is debuting a dedicated experience on Bing that aims to make it easier for voters to decide how to fill out their election ballots this fall. Bing Elections and the personalized Voter Guide include a dynamic map that will show people what candidates are ahead or behind based on predictions and polling. In addition to the recently launched Microsoft Prediction Lab, these tools can collectively help people get a better understanding of how autumn elections will unfold.

Bing Elections is the culmination of the work of many teams across the company. But it started by trying to solve simple problems.

“I don’t know about you, but when I got my state ballot, I thought, ‘This is really long. The election is not for a long time. I’ll put it over here and read it later.’ And by now, it’s probably lost,” recalls Kim Vlcek, who works on the Core User Experience team at Bing. As one of the managers of Bing’s upcoming My Ballot experience, she wanted to demystify the process of local voting and make it more accessible.

Vlcek elaborates, “Our goal here was to provide users an educational feature, so they don’t get to the polls and think, ‘Fire Marshal Bob or John? I’ll vote Bob, since that was my grandfather’s name.’”

To make this process easier for voters, Vlcek’s team decided to recreate user ballots with supplementary information from Bing. In the near future, if users provide Bing with information on their voting district, they can discover more detail about local candidates, such as their stances on specific issues. Users can then fill out the ballot online and either email themselves the ballot or print it out and take it to the polls.

For Bing, one of the main challenges was figuring out a way to present this information in a way that was engaging to users. Search engines are often considered tools that connect people to websites. But over the past few years, Bing has striven to showcase helpful information on the Search Engine Results Page (SERP) itself allowing people to get what they need without having to click through to another website.

“Things have evolved in the realm of search engines, to the point where we can present a tremendous amount of useful information,” Vlcek says. “We already know what the weather is like. We can get it from our providers and give it to you, instead of making you go somewhere else. That’s what we are trying to do: get everything that the user might want on one page.”

But presenting a weather forecast is a lot different from presenting detailed election information. To accomplish the latter, Bing broke barriers with SERP conventions. Now when users run searches for terms such as “2014 election” or “California state election,” they will get a dynamic experience that includes expandable polls, maps and head-to-head comparisons of candidates.

A sample SERP featuring Bing Elections information.
A sample SERP featuring Bing Elections information.

According to David Flink, principal program manager lead at Bing, the experience is one of the most ambitious executions to date. In addition to presenting the results on the SERP itself, Bing has significantly increased the number of its partnerships to include rich data including from several nonprofits. “We will provide you with access to campaign finance information from the Center for Responsive Politics. We will give you data for your incumbents, which comes from Project Vote Smart. We’re bringing all this knowledge together for the first time,” Flink explains.

For Kassy Coan, program manager at Bing, it is exciting to see the breadth and depth of election information made so accessible. “For me, the most impressive part about the experience is how it takes complex data and makes it consumable for the average user, but is still deep enough that it would appeal to a political junky,” says Coan.

This ethos to make complex data consumable and to help keep voters informed is also reflected in the recent launch of Microsoft Prediction Lab, the brainchild of Microsoft economist David Rothschild and computer scientist Miro Dudik. Rothschild, whose predictions technology provided the framework for Cortana to successfully predict the outcome of all 15 World Cup knockout games this year, created the site to serve as a more permanent infrastructure for the prediction studies that he has been running.

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According to Rothschild, when he built out prediction engines for events like the Oscars or the World Cup, “things were being built temporarily in a way that was very domain specific or product specific. We wanted to take a step back and really start building a very highly centralized center where data can flow in, be organized, analyzed and then sent back out to services such as Bing, Cortana, Xbox or any other organization that’s providing users and consuming the data.”

Today at Microsoft Prediction Lab, users can get a snapshot of what outcomes people are predicting for specific electoral races across the U.S. They can also make their own predictions and influence the prediction map. But for Rothschild, one of the keys draws of the Prediction Lab is that it has the potential to take us beyond the political horse race.

“One of the things that this site will allow us to do is make it a lot easier for us to answer questions about policy impact,” Rothschild explains. “Think about regularly updating predictions on how the stock market’s going to do if one candidate wins over another, or what the marginal income tax rate is going to be. Or whether or not we’re going to be at war. Understanding that and seeing how that moves as the election progresses is really meaningful to me.”

Rothschild’s predictions technology powers the elections predictions, so Bing can present candidate match-ups and real time projections in an interactive way. Together, these tools can help create an electorate that is better informed and able to get a better sense of the consequences of their votes.

“Many creative people come to Bing because we have a cool experience,” says Vlcek, “But it’s even better if Microsoft gets out there as a source to educate people.  We’re helping the democratic process. Don’t just come to Bing to see your results.  Come to Bing to figure out what’s going on so you can be an informed voter.”

Adds Rothschild, “I can’t imagine the world being the same place when it’s filled with this type of data.  It’s going to, by definition, really change information that people have.  We’re really excited to be at the forefront of it. “