Voting-scenario startup wins CITRIS Big Ideas prize

A web-based student startup that aims to refocus voters’ electoral decision-making landed the $20,000 top prize at Thursday’s poster-judging for the information-technology category of Berkeley’s Big Ideas innovation contest.

The information-technology contest at Sutardja Dai Hall, sponsored by the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society (CITRIS), is one of seven focus areas of the annual Big Ideas @ Berkeley, a competition that supports innovative student projects with the potential to solve pressing societal problems.

CITRIS awarded a total of $45,000 to five of the nine final-round IT team projects, which spanned broadcast media, medical diagnostics, energy, education and engineering.

“It is vitally important that we support the innovative ideas of students,” says Masoud Nikravesh, CITRIS director for computational science and engineering and a judge at the poster session. “These are the small seeds that grow into the strong trees that benefit society.”

Citris Big Ideas, Politify

From right: CITRIS judge Masoud Nikravesh looks on as Jeremy Blalock and Nikita Bier outline their Internet venture Politify.

The winning project, Internet venture Politify, combines economic modeling, political analysis and social media to create an interactive political-impact calculator; the site is designed to engage voters around the practical and financial implications of candidates’ policy decisions, actions and platforms.

Too often, American voters have a tendency to base their choices on emotion and “factors like the candidate’s appearance,” way of speaking and positions on moral issues, “rather than the policies they are proposing,” says co-founder Nikita Bier, a senior majoring in political economy and business administration.

To address this issue, the website generates projections about the potential economic impact of a specified candidate’s policies — using basic demographic information provided by the voter, complex mathematical algorithms and academic, political and government data.

“We wanted to make the process more empirical, less ideological — and hopefully help voters make more informed decisions,” Bier says. 

Launched in February, as the 2012 presidential election season gathered steam, the nonpartisan website has already generated more than 160,000 forecasts for users and attracted the attention of congressmen, representatives of both national parties and a high-ranking adviser on the Obama re-election team.

“For me, this project can have a huge impact, like Facebook,” Nikravesh says. “It has the potential to change the landscape of politics by taking voters’ decision-making about candidates and issues in a new direction.”

The $10,000 second-place prize went to Pathologicode, a non-invasive technology for the early detection of diabetes. A project to develop a low-cost, sensor-rich pen to improve the handwriting of children with disabilities, Pika Pen, received the $7,000 prize for third place.

CITRIS big Ideas 2012, Pika Pen

The Pika Pen proposal, pitched by Evan Chang-Siu, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, earned the third-place prize of $7,000.

Honorable mentions and prizes of $4,000 went to Pop-Up Radio Archive, which archives culturally significant materials produced by independent broadcast radio, and TxtWorker, a cellular-based project to improve low-income workers’ access to social services.

“The roots of so many successful companies can be traced back to college campuses and the imagination and drive of students in taking on challenges,” Nikravesh says. “We should be expanding the number and size of these awards.”

This year’s Big Ideas @ Berkeley competition culminates April 13, when up to five teams, selected from among 42 finalists, will compete for the $10,000 top prize during Grand Prize Pitch Day at Blum Hall. In addition, three teams will vie for a $10,000 award in the scaling-up category, which helps previous winners further develop promising projects.

Big Ideas projects are having an impact around the world. Members of the general public and campus community can vote for their favorite project through the People’s Choice Video Contest, which offers a first-place prize of $10,000. People’s Choice voting closes April 20. The winning project will be announced April 23.