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PdF Relaunches to Reboot Citizen to Candidate Engagement

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Today the Personal Democracy Forum (PDF) relaunched, a platform that allows citizens to submit videos of questions for candidates, vote on the best and then rate the quality of the answers.

"To me, this is about using the inherent abundance of the Internet to change how voters engage with candidates," said Micah Sifry, co-founder of the Personal Democracy Forum. "It's a shift from a world of media-driven soundbites and time-limited debates to something that's much more interactive. It's two way. There's a real feedback loop. People can not only submit questions and vote but also vote on whether the candidates answered them. We want to change the incentive structure and the process of questing candidates. it's not just them answering the same soundbites."

The site works simply: submit a video question for candidate using YouTube's platform and then vote on the best questions. Candidates then are presented with the top ten questions. Their answers are then rated by the community. Once they've asked a question, users can share their video through email and social media like Facebook and Twitter. is integrated with a Facebook group for more discussion. has the ability for any campaign to sign on, said Daniel Teweles, vice president of business development and marketing for PDF. "What that means in practice is then answering the top ten questions posed by users. The bigger picture is that this enables better local politics on the national level, flattening the process. it provides the ability for candidates to answer directly to the American people. there's no filter aside from the community. top 10 questions get asked." has its roots in the "CNN YouTube debates in 2008," which added a new wrinkle to the presidential campaign. "That was really cool at one level, since it brought in user-generated content, but CNN picked the questions, not the voters," said Sifry. "The result was actually fewer opportunities for people to ask questions than in a traditional town hall meeting. the Internet is good at interactive filtering. leverages that ability."

Google and YouTube are technical sponsors, said Teweles. "The Knight Foundation has given PDF the ability to do this in eight target markets initially. Two are live today, re-released in beta. will have local partners for every media market. For example, PDF is partnering with, The Inquirer, Philly News, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Akron Beacon Journal. "We'll also be working with local political bloggers to help them use and create local user-generated content," said Teweles. "This helps them to extend coverage, especially if they use the embeddable widget."

David Colarusso was one of the people who wrote an open letter to CNN, said Sifry, which they published on techPresident. Colarusso was already building, which is the underlying platform for "This was something that grew up organically out of the YouTube community and a teacher who happened to be a good coder in his spare time," said Sifry.

In 2010, the platform has been extended, streamlined and made available to several news partners around the country for use in the upcoming general election. " is built on Google Moderator for most of the tracking and a lot of the data," said Colarusso, now a third-year law student at Boston University. That allows us to embed YouTube videos. running on Amazon EC2 cloud, with a MySQL database on the back end. There's lots of customized code in PERL that's a holdover from the original project."

Below is the introductory video from 2007 from Rocketboom:

Colarusso built the first of my apartment in Scotland, where he was on a Fullbright fellowship, teaching physics. "I was using YouTube to help with my classes by making educational videos for my students," said Colarusso. "I had a video project back in the States that I wanted to keep alive. YouTube had something called the "Spotlight feature, which they used during the primaries. they'd give the candidates a week featured under the politics section. Candidates would then respond to the comments. The first candidate was Romney. I'm from Massachusetts and happened to do a response that he responded to.

Colarusso said that people in the YouTube community realized that maybe that his questions wasn't the one they wanted to have answered. "So in the comments, I said comment on the response you'd like to see the candidate answer. I'd come through and tally up the responses. When Kucinich came along and wouldn't allow comments, we moved to a new site, CommunityCounts, that scraped videos from YouTube and allowed people to vote on them. When the debates came along, it was as simple matter to change where it was scraping."

Now, Colarusso hopes moves the political discussion away from sound bites. "This diffuses a lot of the normal excuses for not engaging questions. There are no scheduling questions. You can't claim media bias, as long as the user base is representative of constituents.

Colarusso knows that gaming the system will be an issue. "There are going to be constituencies that promote their agenda. We're using Google's federated log in system to limit questions to Google accounts which prevents some level of protection. We'll also do an audit of votes before questions before promoting them, to understand where the questions are coming from. We will open up some of that data on the site so that people can see that, including geographical data and the times when votes come in. There's no algorithm here yet; it's people. if we can see what the right metrics are, we'll codify that in the system."

The FAQ at states that site does not collect the user's Gmail address. Instead, uses OAuth to authenticate users, verifying only that a user has a valid Google account.

Colarusso allows that people asked questions and rating answers online may not be a representational sample of voters, given the digital divide that still exists in 2010. "It's true that this is a subset of people connected to the Internet and Google accounts, but people rarely complain about the space of the building when there's a physical town hall," said Colarusso. "We're not replacing traditional town halls. This is an attempt to complement the existing political process."

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