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Present  It!  Reporting  Community  Data

Polls  and  E-­mail  Surveys
Some  years  ago,  the  Myrtle  Beach  Sun  News  was  looking  for  a  way  to  tap  what  was  on  the  minds  of  residents  in that  fast-­growing  resort  community  but  couldn't  afford  a  formal  community  survey. The  Internet,  with  its  survey  tools  and  polling  software,  was  only  just  beginning  to  make  inroads  into newsrooms.  So,  the  newspaper  went  with  another  simple,  low  cost  tool:  It  distributed  neon  yellow  postcards  with six  questions  and  asked  people  to  write  in  and  mail  the  cards  back  to  the  paper. One  of  the  questions:  "What  really  makes  you  mad  right  now?" The  responses  were  not  scientific,  but  they  were  passionate  and  generated  a  useful  roadmap  for  reporting  on  the community.  A  large  number  of  the  respondents  agreed  on  an  answer  that  surprised  some  editors:  "Tacky beachwear  stores,"  they  proclaimed. The  Sun  News'  query,  while  successful  in  its  way,  had  the  same  shortcomings  as  most  web  polls,  It  was  not  sent to  a  scientifically  representative  pool  of  possible  respondents;;  the  respondents  were  self-­selected;;  and  they  could have  sent  in  more  than  one  post  card,  if  anyone  felt  like  it. And  like  most  web  polls,  it  worked  best  as  a  starting  point  for  a  story  about  mounting  tensions  in  the  community —  not  the  end  story  in  itself. For  community  websites,  some  of  the  best  uses  for  online  polls  and  e-­mail  surveys  are  to  get  an  early  sense  of issues  that  are  surfacing  on  your  residents'  radar  screens.  That  sensibility  can  then  be  used  as  a  fulcrum  for reporting  a  full-­fledged  story,  to  take  the  community's  pulse  on  a  particular  issue,  or  to  leaven  discussions  in  your forums. Various  local  news  sites  have  used  polling  techniques  to  ask  users  to: Participate  in  a  contest;;  say,  to  name  an  initiative. Brainstorm  solutions  to  a  community  problem. Others  take  their  "polling"  offline  and  build  a  database  of  user  contacts  and  information  so  they  can  survey people  informally  via  e-­mail. "We  use  our  reader  e-­mail  database  all  the  time  to  survey  readers  informally  for  anecdotal  information  to  help flesh  out  a  story,"  says  Ken  Sands,  online  publisher  of  the  SpokesmanReview.com.  "In  fact,  I've  now  run  a number  of  nationwide  surveys  using  a  network  I've  built  up  of  newsrooms  around  the  country  that  can  send  out the  same  e-­mail  to  readers,  directing  them  to  a  central  website  for  results  to  be  collected." "We've  purposely  asked  for  essay  responses  so  that  we  get  quotes  for  stories.  But  we've  also  found  that  we  need to  have  some  quantitative  'yes-­no'  types  of  questions  to  get  some  sense  of  proportion  without  having  to  read every  single  essay  question  and  figure  out  how  it  should  be  tallied." "No,  these  surveys  are  not  scientific,  so  they  are  not  statistically  valid,"  he  said.  "But  for  purposes  of  getting  a pulse  of  the  community,  they're  very  valid." One  tip:  If  you  are  a  small  community  site  and  want  to  do  a  formal  poll  in  your  community,  think  about  building some  useful  partnerships.  You  can  reach  out  to  such  partners  as  a  local  journalism  school,  the  survey  research department  of  a  local  university  or  the  marketing  department  of  a  nearby  business  school.  They  may  well collaborate  on  a  community/class  project.

Of  Quizzes  and  Polls
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From  a  programming  point  of  view,  a  quiz  is  a  just  poll  with  special  "correct"  answers,  though  there  can  also  be differences  in  the  way  you  compare  answers,  keep  track  of  responses,  etc. One  other  way  that  quizzes  and  polls  might  vary  is  that  you  might  want  to  structure  a  quiz  question  by  question, so  that  a  user  answers  one  question  and  sees  the  result  before  they  proceed  to  the  next  question. And  of  course,  you  should  note  that  people  LOVE  to  "cheat"  on  quizzes,  taking  them  multiple  times  or  trying  to figure  out  how  to  get  a  perfect  score,  so  treat  the  results  with  at  least  twice  the  skepticism  you  do  your  poll results.  

Why  Poll?
A  2003  poll  by  the  Pew  Internet  &  American  Live  Project  found  that  44  percent  of  adult  Internet  users  had contributed  content  online  in  some  way  —  to  respond  to  something,  to  publish  their  thoughts,  to  post  pictures  or share  files.  Another  Pew  poll  in  2004  found  that  26  percent  of  adult  Internet  users  had  rated  a  product,  a  service or  a  person  using  an  online  rating  system.  So  a  poll  may  be  one  way  to  capture  some  of  this  willingness  to contribute. Polls  are  a  good  trigger  for  interactivity.  Asking  a  question  and  presenting  a  simple  button  to  click  "yea"  or "nay"  prompts  a  response  far  more  effectively  than  a  simple  link  that  says  "Participate  in  our  site  forums." Providing  a  link  from  poll  results  to  a  discussion  forum  might  also  convince  a  few  extra  participants  to  join  in. Polls  are  graphically  interesting.  On  a  site  that's  text  heavy,  polls  can  provide  a  compelling  visual  element and  an  entry  point  to  a  story  or  a  page  for  people  who  are  just  scanning  your  site.  See  the  simple  poll  The  Forum, of  Deerfield,  N.H.,  used  for  the  opening  of  its  new  Farmer's  Market.  http://www.forumhome.org/ Polls  can  be  good  for  page  views.  Depending  on  how  you  construct  your  poll  software,  every  poll  vote  can trigger  a  new  page  view.  Ditto  for  when  a  reader  wants  to  view  the  results  –  they'll  usually  have  to  load  a  new page  to  do  so.  And  of  course,  if  someone  likes  your  polls  and  wants  to  see  the  results  of  some  other  polls,  they'll have  to  load  more  pages. Do  note  that  with  modern  CSS  and  AJAX  techniques,  it's  possible  to  create  polls  that  display  within  a  single  page and  require  no  extra  page  loads.  How  you  decide  to  implement  polls  is  up  to  you,  and  readers  might  appreciate not  having  to  reload  everything  each  time  they  vote.

What  is  AJAX?
AJAX,  a  relative  newcomer  to  the  world  of  web  page  construction,  is  short  for  Asynchronous  JavaScript  and  XML. It  involves  using  JavaScript  to  fetch  and  return  data  in  the  background,  without  causing  a  page  to  reload.  The technology  has  existed  in  browsers  for  several  years,  but  its  use  didn't  attract  significant  attention  until  Google started  using  it  for  Google  Maps,  Gmail  and  other  applications.  Now,  many  new  websites,  such  as  Flickr  and Moveable  Type,  use  AJAX  techniques  to  allow  users  to  quickly  edit  and  access  data  from  parts  of  a  page.   Polls  can  be  a  stand-­alone  feature.  Not  all  polls  have  to  be  associated  with  a  story.  Sometimes  just  the questions,  and  the  responses,  can  be  interesting. Polls  can  be  fun.  The  truth  is,  polls  can  be  a  place  to  inject  a  bit  of  levity  or  serendipity  into  your  site.  You  don't want  to  go  overboard  with  this  but  there's  still  a  chance  to  amuse  your  readers  and  yourselves  with  a  poll.  Maybe you  can  get  a  local  historian  to  contribute  a  fun-­facts  quiz  about  your  community  and  solicit  a  local  business  to donate  small  prizes  for  the  winning  answers.

Poll  Risks
Among  the  biggest  risks  of  Internet  polls  are  that  users  will  flood  the  poll  with  multiple  responses  and  that  users will  think  that  web  polls  are  statistically  valid. Self-­selected  polls,  even  if  they  are  completely  tamper-­proof,  are  simply  not  valid  indicators  of  the  community  at large.  Professional  pollsters  spend  much  time  and  money  trying  to  get  a  representative  sample  –  old,  young,  rich, poor,  ethnically  diverse  —  to  answer  their  questions. A  web  poll  is  limited  to  a  rather  narrow  sample  of  people  who  can  afford  a  computer  and  Internet  service,  who
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are  interested  in  your  site,  and  who  are  motivated  to  respond  to  your  poll. Online,  you  need  to  state  clearly  that  poll  results  are  not  scientifically  valid  and  make  sure  that  your  poll  viewers and  participants  realize  that  the  results  should  not  be  taken  as  anything  more  than  the  views  of  a  few  like-­ minded  individuals. As  for  poll  tampering,  it  can,  and  probably  will,  happen.  Polls  that  hit  on  particularly  polarizing  issues  or  that measure  the  popularity  of  anything  with  a  strong  fan  base  will  invite  attempts  to  skew  the  results.  For  example, "What's  your  favorite  TV  show,  operating  system  or  political  party?"  would  probably  see  some  attempts  to  "stuff" the  ballot  box.  You  can,  however,  take  some  steps  to  limit  poll  tampering.

How  to  Minimize  Tampering
If  you  allow  only  registered  users  to  vote  in  your  poll  and  you  tie  those  votes  to  the  user  name,  you  can  cut down  on  most  tampering.  A  drawback,  however,  is  that  many  people  won't  register  only  to  vote  in  a  poll  so  it helps  to  have  other  offerings  or  reasons  for  someone  to  want  to  register. It  should  be  noted,  however,  that  registration  itself  is  difficult  to  make  tamper  proof.  Requiring  a  valid,  unique  e-­ mail  address  is  one  step. You  can  also  decide  to  filter  excess  poll  voting  by  setting  a  cookie  each  time  a  person  votes.  If  the  voters  block  or erase  their  cookies,  they  would  be  able  to  vote  again  –  so  this  is  not  a  perfect  solution.  It  is  quick  and  transparent to  the  user,  though. If  you  store  each  vote  along  with  the  voter's  IP  address,  you  can  block  repeat  votes  from  one  IP.  This  overcomes the  problem  of  those  who  erase  their  cookie  so  they  can  vote  multiple  times.  However,  this  also  blocks  groups  of people  connecting  from  behind  a  single  firewall,  such  as  people  working  in  the  same  office  or  from  a  university server.  They  share  an  IP  and  so  might  not  be  able  to  have  each  person's  vote  count. In  truth,  while  you  certainly  want  to  put  in  place  the  best  tamper  resistance  you  can,  it's  just  as  important  to monitor  your  polls  and  simply  take  down  ones  that  seem  to  be  showing  evidence  of  foul  play.

Poll  Displays
When  it  comes  to  showing  the  results  of  a  poll,  there  are  a  few  formats  to  consider. Raw  numbers  in  a  chart  is  nice  for  those  who  want  to  analyze  data,  but  the  numbers  themselves  can  be overwhelming  for  others. Will  you  be  buying  the  new  Harry  Potter  book? Yes No Maybe I'll  Borrow  It Total 217 454 66 117 854 25% 53% 8% 14% 100%

Line  charts  often  make  the  most  sense  and  can  be  used  for  almost  any  format  of  poll  question.

Area  (pie)  charts  are  trickier  to  generate  but  tend  to  break  out  answers  most  clearly  for  basic  questions  where the  respondents  can  only  choose  one  of  a  set  of  answers.

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Poll  Software
Really,  what  you  need  is  a  poll  solution  that  works  with  your  existing  hosting,  and  that  has  some  sort  of protection  against  people  unfairly  biasing  the  poll.  Beyond  that,  most  polling  solutions  are  fairly  similar. Most  modern  discussion-­forum  tools  have  built-­in  polling  features,  including  the  forums  on  this  site.  This  is because  of  the  natural  affinity  of  forums  with  polls  as  well  as  the  relative  simplicity  of  adding  polls  to  a  system based  on  user  registration. Survey  software  can  be  purchased  and  loaded  on  your  web  site's  server.  A  web  search  for  "online  survey software"  will  yield  some  candidates. For  stand-­alone  poll  solutions,  there  are  many  open-­source  solutions  although  most  will  need  a  little  coding  work to  be  integrated  into  your  site.  A  search  for  "PHP"  or  "ASP"  (or  whatever  your  site's  programming  language  is) and  "poll"  will  bring  back  some  likely  candidates. There  are  also  several  websites  that  will  host  a  survey  for  you.  For  instance,  Blogpoll.com  and  Bravenet.com offer  fairly  robust  tools,  which  you  can  use  if  you  don't  mind  giving  them  a  little  link  on  your  site.  Other  sites  will charge  you  for  this  service.  Two  of  the  more  popular  survey  vendors  are  Zoomerang  and  SurveyMonkey.  You can  read  more  about  surveys  here. Finally,  your  web  hosting  service  may  also  offer  polling  services  as  a  feature  of  its  hosting  plan.
J-­Learning  is  an initiative  of  J-­Lab: The  Institute  for Interactive Journalism.  J-­LabTM  is  an  incubator  for  innovative,  participatory  news experiments  and  is  a  center  of  American  University's  School  of Communication  in  Washington,  D.C.  J-­Learning  is  funded  by  the  John  S.  and James  L.  Knight  Foundation. � �This  work  is  licensed  under  a  Creative  Commons �Attribution-­NonCommercial-­NoDerivs  2.5  License.   Site  design,  programming  and  content  by  Hop  Studios.

 

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