Students, graduates and working professionals from the Washington, D.C. area and beyond gathered for a daylong innovation competition focused on creating technological accessories for presidential debates to increase voter engagement among millennials.
The “Hack the Debate” event, which was hosted by Georgetown University’s Institute of Politics and Public Service and the Independent Journal, took place in the Healey Family Student Center on Nov. 8.
IJ will also co-sponsor the New Hampshire Republican Primary debate with ABC News on Feb. 6.
Five teams of up to six hackers had eight hours to conceptualize, design and implement a plan to broaden the scope of millennial conversations on the debate process. The product was then pitched to technology and political industry professionals with one winner chosen at the end of the day.
Judges based their decisions on the directness, feasibility, receptiveness and originality of the team’s ideas. Judges included IJ’s Chief Technology Officer Carl Seusca, Facebook Public Policy Director Katie Harbath and Politico Executive Vice President of Business Development Peter Cherukuri.
Teams faced moderators, fact-checking and social media with pitches that ranged from a spin-off of a popular mobile game, “Cookie Clicker,” to a Tinder-inspired application, “Bull,” designed to allow debate audiences to question or support candidates’ statements in real time.
A team of product developers from Mic.com, an online news outlet, won the competition. They pitched “DebateMate,” a mobile-friendly website that centers around providing real-time rankings of emojis as they become associated with candidates on social media.
“Our idea is simple and actually works,” Mic News Vice President of Product Andrew Sessa (SFS ’09) said. “The idea of an emoji spans across all languages so it’s also useful for things outside of a debate.”
IJ will work with the DebateMate founders to develop the idea into a functional tool for audience participation in the Feb. 6 debate.
The hackathon also incorporated two panel discussions, called “Tech Talks,” and brought in professional journalists, IJ employees and other industry experts to advise the teams as they crafted their final products.
The first Tech Talk, titled “Inside the Campaign Debate,” brought Republican National Committee Digital Director Gerrit Lansing and Democratic National Committee Digital Director Matt Compton together in a dialogue on voter engagement and technological advancement on the 2016 presidential campaign trail.
The second panel, “2016 is the Year of the Debate – Thanks to Technology,” centered around real-time audience response, search trends and data aggregation during and after debates. Panelists included Government & Politics Partner Manager Sean Evins and Google’s U.S. Politics Account Executive Steve Johnston.
Michelle Jaconi, CNN veteran and current executive editor of IJ, described IJ as a company that uses technology to reach a broad and youthful audience through multimedia, multi-platform journalism.
IJ Founder and President Alex Skatell, who also currently serves as a student advisor at the IPPS, emphasized the company’s goal of providing users with news in a technology-friendly context.
“IJ is focused on showing, not telling, and listening to people on the ground, not just our viewpoints,” Skatell said.
IPPS Executive Director Mo Elleithee (SFS ’94) noted similarities between IJ’s mission and that of the IPPS.
“We had an early partnership with IJ because of the fact that we recognize that if our goal is to inspire young people, to show them the different avenues to get involved in public service, we actually have to start a conversation on their terms and using their tools,” Elleithee said.
According to Skatell, IJ hopes to garner the same record-breaking viewership from earlier 2016 presidential primary debates using the technological innovations produced by the competition.
“This is the first time that any network or debate partner is opening up the floor for ideas from the public at large and thinking about what should debates have to stimulate and engage and inform them,” Skatell said. “Everyone is looking forward to listening to young people and across the spectrum about how to better engage viewers and have it be a debate that’s helpful to get to know [the candidates].”
Elleithee echoed Skatell’s sentiments, highlighting that the goal is of the hackathon to deepen the knowledge students have of political debate processes.
“It’s very much in the spirit of why we exist, to pull back the curtain and help students understand the hows and the whys but then hand it off to you to figure out how to do it better,” Elleithee said.