Public opinion is often difficult to pin down: traditional surveys only reach a tiny fraction of a community, social media is often misleading and the vast majority of people are too busy to attend their City Council meetings.
That set of circumstances prompted Redwood City resident Brian Jaffe, 35, to found Voca, which every week polls residents in that city and in San Carlos on a timely issue via text message.
“Voca is trying to make one common space where everyone’s opinion is treated equally and also has enough structure to it so it’s not everyone yelling into a crowd,” Jaffe said. “If we ask everyone the same week the same question and then treat everyone’s responses with the same respect and dignity and give it equal air time then we can actually measure which way the wind is blowing on a lot of issues.”
The service is free and easy to use — a user simply has to verify his or her address to sign up — and it’s expanding.
Since it launched in 2017, Voca has amassed 2,000 users between the two cities and in that time, responses to a given question have grown from 55 to between 700 and 800. Residents and decision-makers alike increasingly cite Voca poll results when making their case on a given issue and the platform has captured the attention of legislators as well, including state Sen. Jerry Hill, D-San Mateo, and Assemblyman Kevin Mullin, D-South San Francisco, who’ve offered to help it grow.
Within months, Jaffe plans to bring Voca to San Mateo as well as cities on the southern border of San Mateo County, and he has no intention of stopping there.
“We have 100 municipalities in the greater Bay Area and I think all 100 should have Voca,” Jaffe said. “I don’t think that’s too ambitious.”
Usually sometime in the middle of the week, Voca will send a text message to its users with a question or statement about an issue in the city in which they live. Users are asked to rate their approval of the statement by texting a number between 1 and 5 and they also have the option to submit a comment. As of this week, the platform now supports different types of questions, including multiple choice and yes/no questions. All feedback is anonymous.
After their response is sent, the user will receive a link that brings them to a breakdown of feedback from the community, including written comments. In Redwood City, that feedback is often presented during council meetings by Jaffe himself.
Voca questions have covered just about every topic one can think of, including commercial cannabis regulations, development and policing, to name just a few topics.
Jaffe said the benefits of Voca are by no means limited to gathering opinions.
“It’s also a way of people being able to stay informed on what’s going on in their community because 52 times a year they’re being presented and educated about a topic and then they get to see the opinions of everyone else. That experience is an amazing civics lesson spread throughout the year,” he said. “Anecdotally, people come up to me and say I’ve never been so informed on what’s going on in my hometown than I have been since joining Voca.”
Jaffe himself writes the questions and they’re often inspired by council agendas or based on suggestions from the community. Jaffe said he’s committed to being neutral and to that end keeps his personal views private.
“I see it as my job to make sure the questions asked on Voca are as neutral as possible and I will admit I don’t get it right 100% of the time and people are not shy about telling me when they think I’ve gotten it wrong. And I really value that feedback,” he said. “I really do try. One week I might be getting beaten up by a particular interest group, and then the next week the other side will be beating me up. If you’re getting equal grief from all sides of an issue than you’re probably doing a decent job of being in the middle.”
Voca is managed and funded by Jaffe, who also relies on a team of about a half dozen volunteer advisors, including Redwood City Planning Commissioner Michael Smith.
Smith, who noted he’s never involved in the Voca question-writing process, said the platform helps him make decisions on the commission.
“It definitely impacts or is one of the factors I’ll use in making a decision,” he said. “One can call out the statistical significance of this polling, one might question the process or methodology about Voca and that’s not necessarily a wrong thing to do, but it’s still a point of evidence. … Folks with more time can spend a few hours at a meeting and let their opinions be heard and in the same way we take those comments seriously we should take the comments done in a virtual way seriously.”
Smith described Voca as an “enabler” in part because of how convenient it is to use.
“It’s all done via SMS and you can do that in the grocery store or on the way to the gym,” he said. “A typical city survey gets 100 to 200 respondents at most and it’s a multi-month process whereas with Voca we’re talking about a panel of several thousand people and instantaneous results. You can’t deny that type of efficacy.”
Jaffe hails from Portland, Oregon and moved to Redwood City in 2015. With a lifelong interest in both civics and engineering, he studied the latter at Princeton University and during that time also interned at Capitol Hill and worked for several political campaigns. After college, he surprised everyone in his family and joined the Navy as a nuclear propulsion officer.
“To me that made sense because it was engineering and civics,” he said.
Jaffe served in the Navy for five years, lived in Japan for two years and was deployed to the Middle East as well, operating nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier. After the Navy, he worked for Apple as a software program manager.
Then the 2016 election happened, an experience that set the stage for Voca, Jaffe said.
“We saw technology used in a lot of ugly ways in the 2016 campaign, to basically turn citizen against citizen and spread rumors and discontent. The 2016 election was ugly and technology played a central role in making us all mad at each other,” he said. “We can use technology to make democracy better not worse. … We can make it a lot more democratic, we can bring more people into the process and we can make it easy.”
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