20-Year-Old Guru develops Chatbot to increase Texas’ early voting turnout
By Jeffrey L. Boney
Regardless of whether you like the results of the midterm elections or not, there is one positive story coming out of Texas that everyone should like, as it warrants some much-needed attention.
At 20 years old, he’s barely able to vote, but Houston-native Nile Dixon is a young, Black tech guru, who recently created a new chatbot that has been able to help Texans in many counties across the state effectively get to the polls in droves for early voting during the midterm elections. Inspired by the lack of voter turnout in previous years, Dixon created a free “Text to Polls” text bot in his spare time that allows voters to find out where their nearest early voting location is, as well as directions on how to get there, whether they were traveling by car or by public transportation.
By simply texting the word “VOTE” to telephone number 832-558-8306, potential voters receive a response encouraging them to follow specific prompts that help them identify their closest early voting polling location.
The service is available in several languages, including Dixon states that low voter turnout by Texans in previous elections inspired him to create this easy-to-use tool that encourages voters to find their closest early voting location and get to the polls without the hassle, stress and strain of having to hunt down the information.
“I decided to create this text bot because voter turnout was only at 28 percent for the midterm elections of 2014,” said Dixon. “I hope this technology has inspired people and made it easier for them to go vote. More importantly, I hope this technology will be used as a tool to address the issues that come with the results of having low voter turnout, especially for future elections.”
Voters in seventeen (17) counties, representing nearly 80 percent of Texas voters, have been able to use “Text to Polls” for the most recent midterm elections. After the success of his “Text to Polls” launch, Dixon is now working toward including other states in the future, such as Louisiana, Florida, California and Massachusetts. Expanding the feature to all 50 states across the nation is currently a challenge, in that only counties that publicly release their early voting locations can be added to the text bot. Dixon is hoping that changes soon.
Dixon has always been interested in politics from a theoretical and practical perspective, and is often found discussing political theory, learning about policies and finding out how public policy impacts our city, state, and country.
“My motivation to get into politics stems from the desire to see changes in America politically, especially in the local community,” said Dixon. “There are elections where there is only one person on the ballot, which doesn’t seem reflective of a healthy democracy where many individuals feel like they can contribute positively to the society at large.”
Dixon states that based on Vote.org’s research, SMS (text messages) that help people find their polling locations could help increase voter turnout by 0.2%, which would lead to an additional 20,000 voters in Harris County alone.
Dixon is interested in applying more big data techniques to improve how we organize as a society and increase voter turnout. Currently, he is working on a research paper to use machine learning to possibly improve the selection process of early voting locations in Harris County, Texas. He is hopeful that his new technology will encourage more young people to get engaged in the political process by voting.
One of the things that Dixon has been most inspired by the most relative to his new text bot being widely used has been the number of people with disabilities who have been able to use the technology to assist them during the midterm elections. A lot of websites are not ADA compliant, but text messaging apps usually are. This increases accessibility to a demographic of people who are often overlooked.
“Many technologies are inaccessible to individuals with certain disabilities,” said Dixon. “A lot of websites put polling location information in PDF form, which can be hard for people who are visually impaired to read using e-readers. Plus, some websites aren’t ADA compliant or they’re in a language someone doesn’t understand, but text messaging apps usually are. This increases accessibility to a demographic of people who are often overlooked. I also want this technology to improve accessibility to individual’s dependent upon screen readers.”
Dixon has long had an interest in technology. His interest came out of a desire to create solutions to problems that people in his community were dealing with. The first website he built was to help first-time home buyers find down payment assistance programs and home buyer education classes. From there, Dixon worked on more complex issues using technology. Nobody introduced him to coding and no one ever taught him how to code when he started off. He was self-taught.
This is also not the first time he has created a text bot to help solve social problems. While on break from college during Hurricane Harvey, Dixon created a text bot to help storm victims in need connect with people and organizations who were able to help. While in high school at Challenge Early College High School (ECHS), Dixon was the only student on a team writing code to address human and sex trafficking issues in the city of Houston.
Dixon is also working on a variety of other tech projects, such as a chat bot to help people find social services. He hopes to one day start his own tech company, focused on developing websites that thousands of people can use relative to a variety of different areas, such as education, finance, real estate and other industries. With the right investors, Dixon is hoping he can make that dream a reality – sooner than later.
Dixon is a junior, majoring in Sociology at the University of Houston-Downtown.