Houston Software Developer Seeks to Raise Voter Turnout With ChatBot

Houston—There’s a lot of speculation about voter turnout in the upcoming midterm elections on Nov. 6. Nile Dixon, a Houston-based software developer, wants to help turn that speculations into actual votes.

Dixon is developing what he calls “Texts to Polls,” a SMS technology-based chatbot that can help voters find their designated polling place for early voting, which begins in Texas on Oct 22. (The deadline to register to vote in the state is Oct. 9.)

So far, the chatbot is available in 17 Texas counties. These counties encompass many of the state’s urban areas, accounting for about 70 percent of the population. Dixon aggregated polling place information from state agency websites.

A user can text VOTE to (832) 558-8306 and follow prompts that will ask for an address. The bot will reply with that person’s polling place and ask if they need instructions on how to get there via car or public transportation. The service is available in English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Cantonese, and Arabic. Dixon says he hopes to eventually set up a second chatbot, this time designed for polling places in the general election.

“We have, in America, a very big problem with information access and making it available and accessible to everyone,” he says. “There are times when we just assume that just because something is on the internet, that everyone has access to it.”

For example, he adds, many polling place lists are on PDFs, which can be difficult to read for people with visual impairments or who use mobile devices to surf the Web, rather than computers. Even for those of us who can read those documents, agencies typically only provide a list of polling places. It is up to the individual to try to determine the one at which they can vote.

Dixon, 20, is a University of Houston student and works part-time at January Advisors as a web developer. He has funded the chatbot development on his own with a “lot of Twilio credits,” he says, referring to a company that sells telephony infrastructure via the web to support services such as chatbots.

He has started a crowdfunding campaign that’s seeking to raise $5,000 to help expand the service throughout Texas, as voters get ready to go to the polls in the coming weeks. Dixon says introducing the service in other states is also a future possibility.

“If we meet our modest goal of $5,000, we can help over 20,000 people find out where to vote during early voting,” he says on the website.

Turnout in the midterm elections four years ago was the lowest in 70 years, with just 36.4 percent of eligible voters in America casting a ballot, according to the United States Election Project. (That number was even lower in Texas: 28.5 percent, even with a gubernatorial race at the top of the ticket.)

Dixon says he hopes technology can help to increase that number. He’s an advocate for using tech tools in for civic goals. Last summer, Dixon helped develop chatbots to help people connect those in need with resources during Hurricane Harvey.

“Carpe Democratian,” Dixon says. “Help us seize democracy back.”

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