What is Polis?

Polis is an AI-powered conversation platform used by companies, governments, nonprofits, and political parties around the world to inform decision-making. Polis combines quantitative and qualitative methods with advanced statistical methods to function as a state-of-the-art social research tool.

Polis works by creating a “conversation” that participants engage with by adding their opinions and voting on the opinions of others. This is the sort of data usually collected through time-consuming and expensive community forums, interviews, or focus groups. 

Then machine learning methods uncover patterns in real-time—mapping out the entire conversation by visualizing correlations between opinions and participants, sorting participants into opinion groups, and surfacing areas of consensus and divisiveness.

With Polis...

People do what people are good at—reading statements, voting, and sharing opinions.
Computers do what computers are good at—finding patterns and visualizing the results.

What can I use Polis for?

Polis is best used to ask open-ended questions of a large group. With Polis, you can engage dozens to thousands of people in a meaningful conversation.


Surfacing concerns or issues

  • “What are the main challenges we’ll face in the coming year?”
  • “What issues might arise if we incorporate Agile practices into our product development lifecycle?”

Crowdsourcing ideas or solutions for specific problems

  • “How do we solve the Seattle affordable housing crisis?”
  • “What should we start, stop, or continue doing in our company?”

“Taking the temperature” or get the opinion of a population

  • “The NFL and concussions: are they doing enough?”
  • “Should Oprah run for president in 2020?”

Running a postmortem

  • “What went well this year, and how could we improve?”
  • “Are you proud of our finished deliverables? If yes, what made them great? If no, what was wrong or missing?”

Polis conversations can work, but aren’t ideal for:

  • Crowdsourcing a single answer, e.g. “What should we name our startup?” 
  • Creating a hierarchy (e.g. what a comment thread or upvote/downvote system is meant to do). Polis’ strength is in grouping statements, not ranking them (though it can rank statements by the number of Agree or Disagree votes).

How does a Polis conversation work?

There are three stages of a Polis conversation: Create, Run, and Analyze.

  1. Create - Administrators create a Polis conversation, add some statements for participants to vote on, then invite participants to the conversation.
  2. Run - The participants click a link to arrive at the conversation, then vote—Agree, Disagree, or Pass—on statements in the conversation. If they have something to add, they can write their own statements, submitting it for other participants to vote on.
  3. Analyze - The voting behavior of participants is analyzed in real-time and presented in a report that administrators can use internally and/or share with their participants.

How does Polis analysis work?

The Pol.is algorithm analyzes all votes using unsupervised machine learning to find the underlying distribution of opinions within the conversation. First, Pol.is analyzes all votes on all statements, and generates an opinion landscape where statements that have similar votes are closer together. Participants are projected onto the opinion landscape based on their votes, where people are closer together if they voted similarly. This is done using Principal Components Analysis (PCA), a dimensionality-reduction technique which finds an optimal 2D representation of a dataset. Next, the algorithm clusters people into opinion groups based on their positions within this opinion landscape. This is done using a method called K-means clustering, which selects for groupings by optimizing within-group similarity. Finally, the algorithm surfaces statements based on how well they represent the generated opinion groups. This is evaluated by looking at the ratio of how likely members of a group are to agree/disagree with a statement, as compared with members of other groups. 

Is Polis a survey/poll?

A Polis conversation is similar to a traditional survey or poll, but it’s also much more—we often refer to it as a “generative” or “emergent” survey. Here are some ways it stands apart.

  • Polis provides unique data and insights - The Polis report performs quantitative analysis of voting behavior on participant-generated qualitative statements, making Polis’s results richer than a traditional survey. From Examining Pol.is as a survey methodology by Lynette Shaw, PhD: “Pol.is essentially allows researchers to have, in one tool, both the systematicness of a survey and the sorts of rich, organic observations that are usually found through focus groups or interviews.” 
  • Polis is more inclusive - With traditional surveys, the diversity of perspectives is limited to those creating the survey, potentially creating echo chambers that reinforce the biases of the survey creators. Since you don’t know what you don’t know about the mindset of your participants, Polis solicits statements directly from them so that you get a true sense of the distribution of opinion— facilitating the emergence of surprising areas of consensus.
  • Polis encourages higher participation/engagement - Participants react positively to seeing what their peers think AND being prompted for their own thoughts. We regularly see averages of 100+ votes per person in Polis conversations—significantly higher than traditional surveys.
  • Polis is faster to set up - A traditional survey with the quality of Polis will require weeks, if not months of work.  A Polis conversation can be set up in a few minutes—since participants themselves generate the bulk of the statements in the Polis conversation, so you don’t need to spend hours brainstorming or fine-tuning survey questions in advance. Your participants will let you know what’s important.
  • Polis provides insights, automatically - Polis uses advanced statistics to analyse your conversation in real time. The Polis report visualizes and explains the results to kickstart your inquiry and give you sophisticated insight into the distribution of opinions within your conversation.
  • Polis enables organizational agility - Polis allows researchers to prompt participants about new or unexpected themes that emerge from a conversation. This gives conversation administrators greater ability to delve quickly into areas of particularly fruitful exploration, and vastly speeds up iterative cycles.

How is Polis better or different than…?

Comment boards

Commenting systems are only good for the participants who comment a lot, and so bias towards the loudest voices, or those with special interests. Polis engages everyone will to vote (generally 5-10x more people), highlighting consensus while preserving important minority opinions.

Upvote/downvote systems

Upvote/downvote systems (e.g. Reddit, StackOverflow) are useful for prioritizing statements and seeing majority opinions, but they don’t cluster opinions well, so minority opinions get lost in the mix. Even if a minority feels strongly about some statement and upvotes it, all it takes is an equal number of downvotes to bury the statement, obscuring the fact that there was some minority group who felt differently. Polis preserves minority opinions by clustering them into groups instead of invalidating them.

Social media

While some of the methods we use are similar to those used by apps to route content to people based on what others in their opinion group enjoy, social media tends to show people only the opinions that either 1. reinforce their own beliefs, or 2. that they strongly disagree with, polarizing conversations and exacerbating differences between groups. In contrast, Polis explicitly highlights the groups that forms, then breaks down silos by showing participants statements from across the entire opinion spectrum, creating opportunities for compromise and consensus.

What do I need to run a Polis conversation?

To run a Polis conversation, you need four things.

  1. An open-ended question - What do you want to know? We can help you decide how to scope your question and make sure it’s not too broad or too narrow.
  2. Participants - We suggest a couple of dozen participants at a minimum, but Polis conversation can easily handle hundreds or thousands of participants.
  3. A distribution plan - Will you send the conversation link to your email list, or post it on a social media account? Will you embed the conversation on your website, or send your participants to the version hosted on Pol.is? 
  4. The will to analyze and interpret the results - While there’s immediate value in the report summary of the conversation, the data gets even more valuable as you dig deeper. We’ll provide you with an account adviser to help with the analysis—a single Polis conversation can provide you months of feedback to digest. 

What does the Polis report contain?

Polis uses machine learning to automatically generate a report from the voting patterns in the conversation. You’ll see several sections in the report:

General statistics - A summary of the engagement in the conversation; a breakdown of participants, votes, and statements.

“Beeswarm” chart - Get a sense for how divisive the conversation was. Visualizes all statements along a spectrum from consensus to divisive.

Majority opinions - A list of statements that garnered over 60% support. These are the topics to use when opening or continuing dialogue with participants.

Opinion groups - The Polis report groups participants based on their voting behavior. In this section you can see a list of the statements that make the groups unique. Visualization - The entire conversation is projected into this visualization, where participants and statements who voted similarly or were voted upon similarly are closer together. 

All Statements view - Here you can sort the whole list of statements several ways, including by consensus, the number of Agrees, Disagrees, Passes, and number of votes.

What does Polis cost? Is it open-source?

To use our main deploy of Polis and engage our team for consulting in running conversations, reach out for a demo. Our pricing and contract terms are different for every client, but Polis engagements generally include extensive consulting and cost several thousand dollars (USD) per month. We don't currently offer discounts for non-profits or educational institutions, but we're hoping to in the future.

There's an open-source version of Polis if you have a team technical enough to set up your own deploy. Some features are not included in the open source version, including the report and Monitor view.

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