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Philadelphia Is Trying To Connect With Its Least-Heard Residents

“We are finding people who want to have their voices heard.”


Imagine you’re the commissioner of your city’s sanitation department (a very common fantasy, I know). You want to know how residents feel about trash pickup, or a new composting program, or street cleaning. To find out, you could go door-to-door, have community meetings or do phone surveys — but with all these methods, biases can be built in. The most underserved, lowest-income, least digitally connected communities are often the hardest to reach with traditional survey methods.

In Philadelphia, a new effort from Temple University’s Institute for Survey Research is trying to take an all-of-the-above approach to polling city residents. BeHeardPhilly is combining traditional phone polls with community outreach and online and text message-based surveys. In the process, the institute is addressing some of polling’s biggest challenges.

On this week’s What’s The Point, Nina Hoe, study director at the institute, discusses the project, the results and the lessons for other cities. Stream or download the full episode above, or subscribe using your favorite podcast app. Below is a transcript of a few highlights from the conversation.

Jody Avirgan: What are the lessons for other pollsters? It’s something that we’ve talked about a lot here at FiveThirtyEight — the state of polling, that web polling is really unreliable at the moment. But someone’s got to figure it out.

Nina Hoe: That’s exactly what we’re trying to do right now. We’re [trying to] help figure this out and be part of the research and the solution to figuring out a better way to take the pulse of our municipality or whatever the citizenry of interest is. We are in a very experimental phase and trying to do everything we can to try and test ourselves and our panel members.

Avirgan: I can see how people [in your survey group] would be engaged and you would get good response rates around this project. It’s civic engagement — the people who are opting in have a desire to be heard. But do you think that your lessons actually would translate to, [say], the heat of the election in an early primary state? What would it be like when all of a sudden your phone is buzzing five, six times a day.

Hoe: This goes back to that notion of giving the respondent more control over how they are being contacted and how often they are being contacted. We are very cognizant of people who say, for instance, that they don’t want to be contacted more than once a month. Even if we are running surveys more than once a month, we are only going to contact them once a month so we can maintain that relationship and that level of trust.

From a scaling perspective, if there are [versions] of this at the national level or the county level … there could definitely be survey fatigue, which is the major problem happening nationwide now.

If you’re a fan of What’s The Point, subscribe on Apple Podcasts, and please leave a rating/review — that helps spread the word to other listeners. And be sure to check out our sports show Hot Takedown as well. Have something to say about this episode, or have an idea for a future show? Get in touch by email, on Twitter, or in the comments.

What’s The Point’s music was composed by Hrishikesh Hirway, host of the “Song Exploder” podcast. Download our theme music.

Jody Avirgan hosts and produces podcasts for FiveThirtyEight.