Why I don’t do polls on Coastsider


Posted by on Wed, June 13, 2007

Reader polls have been on my "to do" list since before I launched Coastsider three years ago, but I’ve held off because I anticipated some serious problems. The Review’s poll this past week on what to do with the Pilarcitos Creek park site points out exactly how easy it is to go wrong.

I’ve received plenty of email from various sources urging people to vote, and asking me to point to the poll. But it is so easy to vote more than once on the Review’s site that the whole thing is worse than meaningless. It gives a very concrete but utterly false sense of what people are thinking. No disclaimer in the world will keep people from being influenced by a graph of the results.

It’s too easy to vote more than once on the Review’s poll. They’re not even setting cookies properly, let alone using IP addresses to prevent cheating. For you non-geeks out there, they’re not only leaving the front door unlocked, they’ve left it wide open. I still plan to do polls in the future, but when I do, I’ll have some safeguards in place to cut down on cheating, and I’ll be careful about what questions I ask.

Watching the vote for "sell the site" drop from about 45% to 33% on Saturday, and then rally back to the mid-40s, it’s clear that we’re not seeing a random sampling of anything. Everybody’s cheating on the poll.  Considering the stakes, they’d be crazy not to.

Having one of the few (if not the only) active poll on Coastsider, I’d say that it’s virtually impossible to cheat the Coastsider polling software.  Why?  Simple—you must be logged in with a vetted id and the software keeps track of who, by login id, has voted.  No cookies needed, no IP tracking needed, no cheating allowed.

(I am still asking El Granada residents to go vote in my poll, regarding DSL vs Comcast in El Granada:  https://coastsider.com/index.php/townhall/viewthread/26/ )

“you must be logged in with a vetted id “

Yeah, but how “vetted” is vetted?

This is, of course, a rhetorical question. I don’t expect Barry to tell us how he figures out if a person really exists before allowing posts on Coastsider.

To me, polls are just a fun thing. The response depends on who sees it and wants to take part. (And how many rascals have more than one id!)

In my opiniion, as far as posting—a “vetted id” (and more importantly a real name) give the message more meaning. I could point to another local site where folks can post without signing in. Users can add any name they want to the post, including a name that has been used by someone else in a previous post. I am not suggesting that anyone do that!

Then there’s the scenario of one person starting a discussion and taking both sides under different ids and having an argument with themselves. I guess you’d have to be pretty sick to do that.

Wouldn’t you?

(Hmm which id am I using today? Important Disclaimer

The general Coastsider registered membership is pretty random, includes a substantial population of would-be spammers, and many users have more than one account because they forgot their old id or password. However, if I limited a poll to registered members only, I would be reasonably confident that it expressed the preferences of Coastsider readers.

The accounts authorized to post in Town Hall are pretty well vetted to represent real, unique individuals. You have to request Town Hall posting access by email.

I can’t tell you how glad I am that I started requiring real names in comments two years ago.  I think it has made a substantial difference in the quality of the contributions and the feeling of community on Coastsider.

Identifying the population one wishes to sample with a poll, determining a statistically valid sample of that population, and wording questions for the sample so that they produce objective, relevant information is some of the stuff of polling. Entire companies are built on developing and implementing polls that produce reliable results.

The sad part is that the sloppily-created, unreliable polls on local controversies that the Review has conducted from time to time are presented and read by many as if they indicate something about the overall HMB or midcoast populace.

Carl May

Barry Parr deserves a “well done” for refusing to point people to the local poll as he cites in the example above. It can certainly skew the results.

Barry writes:

“Watching the vote for “sell the site” drop from about 45% to 33% on Saturday, and then rally back to the mid-40s, it’s clear that we’re not seeing a random sampling of anything. Everybody’s cheating on the poll.  Considering the stakes, they’d be crazy not to.”

I found the following interesting Action Alert on the Committee for Green Foothills website.

“Express your views in an online poll at the Half Moon Bay Review that will end today Tuesday, June 12th. It asks whether the park should be developed as planned, developed to a lesser degree, or sold. We have learned that some of the pro development folks are spamming the poll, so it is important to get more people to speak out in favor of proceeding with development of the park. To vote, go to the Half Moon Bay Review. You will see the poll in the upper right hand corner of the main page.”

On the internet you don’t have to be local to be vocal.