Jimm Dispensa thinks baseball fans have it made. “If you go into a bar to grab a beer and watch a game,” he says, “and somebody sets in on some historical baseball fact, and you enter the conversation and correct them, you’re not only expressing camaraderie, you’re expressing a sick attraction to the minutiae of that sport.” But it’s different for people like him. When your favorite pastime is local politics, it’s not so easy to slip into a neighborhood bar and geek out with a stranger about the 12-candidate pileup in the 15th Ward.
Back in November, Dispensa decided he’d like to start a Web site where anyone interested in Chicago’s aldermanic races could gather before the elections on February 27. He called it AlderTrack (aldertrack.typepad.com), and for the next few weeks spent several hours a night refining the concept. At the end of the month he officially announced the site launch through blogs like Chicagoist and Gapers Block, and by January was attracting roughly 2,500 hits a day. When Chicago Tonight featured it, that number temporarily jumped to about 4,000. Dispensa estimates he currently gets around 1,000 unique visitors.
Part information hub and part social forum, AlderTrack is a kind of ESPN.com for election junkies. “It’s the central nexus for campaigns,” says Peter Zelchenko, an aldermanic candidate in the 43rd Ward. “Anytime someone wants to know something, they go there. It’s one of those things that hit so fast you don’t even remember how you heard of it, but you immediately knew it was mission critical.” Each ward has its own page, with a comprehensive list of candidates and related links, which are updated daily. Reporting in the Sun-Times and the Tribune may have been scant so far, but AlderTrack offers a glimpse of how much election coverage can be found elsewhere. Weeklies (including the Reader), neighborhood papers, smaller-circulation dailies, blogs, YouTube, and Google Video: they’re all included.
AlderTrack also presents data and news from government Web sites. In January, as the Chicago Board of Elections worked its way through the 192 objections lodged against the nominating petitions of various candidates, Dispensa updated each case using a color-coded system that allowed readers to track its progress. (That information has since been taken down.) Now that candidates are filing campaign-finance reports, he’s including fund-raising totals, posting links to each new disclosure.
Visitors are invited to leave comments, and while most wards are averaging only a handful, a few have generated full-blown conversations. The 12th, on the near southwest side, has over 50 comments so far, including a few from candidates and campaign managers. Not that Dispensa has much time to join in. “I have two kids and a full-time job,” he says. “I cook dinner and run errands.” Add to that the two or three hours he spends dealing with the site every day and there’s not a lot of time left to hang out. “It’s really a pain to moderate,” he says. “It can be like listening to the guy behind you at a Sox game all day say what a bum the pitcher is.”
Dispensa, currently the director of school demographics and planning for Chicago Public Schools, has a history of trying to make local government more user-friendly. “Working as a bureaucrat I find to be very fulfilling,” he says. “You’re the cog in the wheel that keeps things going.” In the late 90s, while working for the city’s Department of Planning and Development, he noticed that the mailing list for the Chicago Plan Commission’s meeting agendas had a basic flaw: the agendas were sent snail mail just before the meetings, which meant they arrived the day after. Dispensa took it upon himself to get it out by e-mail. “I’d stay up late at night and rekey the entire agenda,” he says. “My wife would really shake her head. Most guys are out with their wives on a Saturday night.”
But AlderTrack isn’t all business. In mid-December Dispensa set up virtual futures markets for each race, allowing users to bet virtual money on their favorite candidates. The markets are hosted by Inkling, a local company that allows anyone to set up a market on its public site for free. Users register for an account using an e-mail address and immediately receive $5,000 in funny money. Prices are established using an algorithm and shares can be unloaded or snatched up at will. When someone buys stock in, say, Dorothy Tillman, the price automatically goes up. When they sell, it dips.
Unlike the real-money markets run by the University of Iowa’s business school–which have predicted election outcomes with fair accuracy for nearly 20 years–Dispensa’s markets don’t seem to be an especially reliable guide to probable winners and losers. In the first week of February, underfunded underdog Ronald David had a far higher stock price than his two better-known rivals in the Seventh Ward, congressional spouse Sandi Jackson and incumbent Darcel Beavers, although a recent “market correction” sent Davis’s stock diving to a more realistic level.
Forty-third Ward candidate Zelchenko points out that AlderTrack’s markets are open to manipulation–anyone who wanted to game the system could just sit around making up new login names. And he dismisses the markets as a “distraction” from what really matters about the races. Dispensa readily admits there are flaws in the program, but says he “just set it up as a game. I hoped if anyone could do it, everyone would.”
Although he knows there are people double-dipping with multiple e-mail addresses, Dispensa says his markets have around 1,000 trading accounts. And many of the aldermanic races are getting heavier action than the other 150-odd markets Inkling hosts. Last week the Second Ward race, in which challenger Bob Fioretti’s stock was trading at $65 compared to $7.71 for incumbent Madeline Haithcock’s, had 186 traders; a market on the likely 2008 Democratic presidential nominee had 156. (Hillary Clinton held the edge at $31.23, although Barack Obama’s stock rose three bucks to $23.62 after he officially declared his candidacy.)
Dispensa has just introduced a new game, the AlderTrack Challenge, a 100-point contest to predict the winners in the most wards. This time he’s monitoring e-mail addresses, making sure people don’t enter more than once, and offering a real-world prize: ten gift certificates, worth $20 each, to restaurants with connections to Chicago’s political cultures, from Lou Mitchell’s to the Heartland Cafe to Army and Lou’s, the south-side soul-food joint that was said to be a favorite of Harold Washington. Fifty people have entered so far, and Dispensa’s hoping for 500. Maybe, once the election is over, he’ll have a chance to get to know some of them.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/ Jim Newberry.