Re-visualizing Spokane

Thoughtexchange's cohort visualization feature shows how opinions can change
By: | Issue: November, 2015 | Case Study
November 2, 2015

What makes community engagements meaningful? For many district leaders, meeting community members face-to-face captures the spirit of meaningful engagement but falls far short when it comes to representing the broader community’s wishes. When Spokane Public Schools passed their $145 million bond with an unprecedented 68.9% majority vote, they credited their partnershipwithThoughtexchangefor helping them achieve that success.

While the outcome significantly benefited Spokane’s children, the true measure of their engagement effort was their ability to listen and learn authentically on a large scale. Taking a look at Spokane’s engagement with Thoughtexchange’s cohort visualization feature allows “listening and learning” to be seen and understood in a concrete way.

Spokane used Thoughtexchange’s email-based platform to present two bond proposal scenarios to the community and ask for their feedback. They expected upgrades to Albi Stadium and Spokane’s high schools to be top priorities.

However, when 3,500 participants provided 7,800 thoughts and assigned 137,000 stars to the ideas valued most, a different picture emerged.

Seeing agreement
The thoughts in the middle, away from the colored circles, are common interests everyone can agree on. In Spokane’s case, these thoughts centered on upgrading elementary schools, and represented must-haves for their budget.

The thoughts represented by the colored circles, are important to people with shared special interests (called cohorts), and represent that particular group’s priority.

For example, in the green cohort, people are concerned about safety, security, and technology.

Opportunities for shifts in thinking
Cohort visualization also uncovers groups that haven’t yet formed an opinion. For instance, the pink cohort’s thoughts center on making good decisions, but don’t identify specific issues. Cohort visualization will reveal if and how this group changes their thinking.

Potentially polarizing issues
Two cohorts in Spokane’s community articulated strong opinions that directly opposed each other. The orange cohort’s position is very clear: “the budget must include the work on the football stadium.” The blue cohort believes that “the football stadium should not be a priority.”

At this point, participants have shared their own priorities, but haven’t yet seen the thoughts of others. The circles are roughly the same size, meaning people are close to evenly split between these issues.

The transformative power of conversation
The Share step is like a poll. You ask an open-ended question and receive a direct answer from each participant. The Star step transforms the process into a conversation.

Participants get to read each other’s answers in an environment where all thoughts are presented equally. They can consider new perspectives, perspectives that differ from their own, or ones that resonate with their initial thinking. And because the process takes place in private, at the participant’s convenience, stars can be assigned to the ones that matter most without consequences for changing positions.

After the Star step, Spokane’s cohort visualization shows how undecided constituents formed strong opinions. When everyone considered the renovation of Albi Stadium – reading thoughts that supported it as well as thoughts that did not – a substantial number decided it should not be a priority. What seemed at first to be a 50-50 split turned out to be approximately a 6 to 1 sentiment against the football stadium investment.

Looking through the lens of cohort visualization, Spokane’s Thoughtexchange process didn’t just reveal broad support for leaving the stadium’s renovation out of the budget–it helped forge it.

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