In this issue: Spring 2020
Revolutionizing Polling Through Data
Skylar White is intellectually curious, extremely engaging and might have a new business that will change election polling forever—thanks in part to his experience in a completely different industry.
White (MSBA 2019) launched UnumAI while pursuing a Master’s in Business Analytics at Daniels. With an undergraduate degree in political science from Washington and Lee, White had been working in analytics, first at Deloitte in consolidated purchasing for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then, with Accenture, he moved into an unfamiliar space—project sales analysis in the hospitality industry.
“It was risky to move from consulting into hospitality,” he said. “Analytics wasn’t culturally accepted in the hospitality industry. It took me coming to Daniels to see why I wasn’t successful there. I needed to sharpen my skill set to take the risks I needed to take.”
While White was studying for the GRE to come to DU, he worked for Mike Johnston’s gubernatorial campaign in Colorado.
White was convinced the polls weren’t giving the campaign an accurate prediction. In polls taken between November 2017 and June 2018, Johnston was polling between 4% and 12%. Yet in the Democratic primary, he received 23% of the vote. “Polling is really poor at assessing support because of the inherent fallacies within the psychological basis for polling,” White said.
White explained that when pollsters call someone, they’re asking, “If the election is held tomorrow, who would you vote for?” White believes that misses a critical mass of support where people might be leaning a certain way, or interested in a candidate, but aren’t exactly sure how they would vote.
That conclusion and a bunch of time at the Tattered Cover Book Store on Colfax Avenue led to his idea for a new way of collecting voting sentiment.
“I happened to see an interesting book in the computer science section, ‘Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are’ by Seth Stephens-Davidowitz. That got me thinking. We could use Google Search to predict candidate outcomes.”
During his master’s program, White tested his theory and built the business. White believes he will transform the polling industry because UnumAI can offer a less expensive and more accurate product. “Paying people to conduct phone calls is very costly,” White said. “We don’t have labor costs. Our methods are also more effective because there is no social bias because you didn’t even know we were listening.”
White credits professors like Phil Beaver, professor of the practice, and Ryan Elmore, assistant professor, with providing the support and helping him gain the skills to make the business happen. White also found his business partners through his program cohort.
“I’m excited about this work because I think it’s the perfect example of how analytics can completely transform an industry,” said UnumAI team member Lauren Beaver (BSBA 2017, MSBA 2018).
“I believe in Skylar because he has demonstrated his commitment to his idea by investing in a team that believes in him.”
The UnumAI team is trying to attract presidential campaigns. Team members also think newspapers will be a good target market. With election polling now of substantial interest to voters, especially in the wake of the post-2016 debates about their accuracy and effectiveness, there is ample opportunity within this volatile and valuable industry.
“UnumAI has the potential to disrupt the traditional polling space,” Elmore said. “There is a lot of work still to do, but the early results are extremely promising.”
Editor’s note: We reached out to Skylar White to inquire about how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting UnumAI. As of March 30, 2020, he said the company is using its unique real-time data capabilities to track and communicate the state of the Colorado Senate race to 40,000 Coloradans in a biweekly e-newsletter. “We feel like we are being accepted as an authority on how the crisis is changing the political landscape,” he said. “We feel a lot of responsibility to inform voters and politicians on how the crisis is impacting the upcoming elections.” Visit unumai.org to sign up for the newsletter.