• Clare Hao, Associates-funded SURF Student
    Clare Hao, Associates-funded SURF Student

Improving Voting Technology One Tweet at a Time

An Interview with Caltech Associates SURF Student: Clare Hao, Class of 2019

Clare Hao, Class of 2019, was awarded a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF), funded by the Caltech Associates. We met with her to find out what she is most excited about as she begins her research experience and what brought her to Caltech. 

Name: Clare Hao, Class of 2019
Hometown: Bothell, WA 
Major: Computer Science


Why did you choose Caltech?

I was attracted to the size of Caltech because I felt that I wouldn't get lost at this smaller school. It is also easier to connect to the people around me on the smaller campus and to gain more exposure to new opportunities. Due to its excellent reputation, I got the impression that the Caltech community was meaningful, and I wanted to be a part of it. I watched the Caltech student experience videos online and was excited by previous students' descriptions of their projects and campus life.


What do you enjoy most about being a student at Caltech?

I enjoy the people at Caltech. I am fascinated by the science and new discoveries made here, but I think the people express their passion for this science very well. I am also inspired and humbled by the geniuses that I get to chat, live, and work with on campus every day! These are the faculty on campus, the professors in my computer science major, and the upperclassmen who help me if I am stuck on a particular topic. If your house mates can't help with a specific problem set, they will direct you to someone else who is brilliant!

The academic workload is intense, but this is balanced out by a fun social life. In each house, we have SURF ambassadors during the summer and social vice presidents during the school year who help plan activities and adventures away from campus to counteract the stress of problem sets. I live in Ricketts, which is known as the "party" house. Once the work is done, we have fun! People are really supportive of each other, too.

I play clarinet for the Caltech-Occidental Concert Band and the Caltech Chamber Music group and really enjoy the camaraderie from this activity.


Who are you working with for your SURF, and what is your project focused on?

I am working with R. Michael Alvarez, professor of political science, and with Nicholas Adams-Cohen, a graduate student guiding this project, Cherie Jia, a fellow freshman SURF student, and Nailen Matschke, a former SURF student of this project who isn't here this summer but is still remotely helping us. Our project uses computer-science skills to research political-science topics. I am involved in a part of the Voting Technology Project that gauges public political trends through online social-media data mining. Specifically, we monitor the stream of posts to the micro-blogging site Twitter, which has a 140-character limit and makes it easier to analyze the context of a keyword than on other social media platforms. We filter for tweets containing keywords from our predetermined list of election-related words, such as ballot or voter ID, and store these tweets and basic information about each tweet in a database. We can also visualize the networks between users that retweet what others post.

Cherie and I collaboratively wrote code in Python that reorganizes the data by week, US state, keyword, or a combination of these. We plan to use this setup, as well as more code that generates graphs for these data, so that eventually we can automatically update graphs on the Voting Technology Project website to show voting-issue opinions from Twitter in real time. The method of surveying social media to gain real-time information during the election season could replace traditional survey methods at the polls and eventually affect voting decisions or strategies.


What most excites you about your SURF?

I am excited that I can see the results of my work in graph form on the Voting Technology Project website. Knowing that I figured out how to write the code to produce these visual results is really satisfying. It is also fun to work collaboratively with team members to figure out problems, and I look forward to these partnerships with other SURF students and graduate students in the group. I hope to continue working on this project even after my 10-week SURF program ends.


If you could have a superpower, what would you choose and why?

I would want to fly. It would be amazing not to be confined to the ground and to be able to travel more quickly by flying straight from point A to point B. Flying seems like it would feel light and free.


Closing sentiments?

I am sincerely grateful to the Caltech Associates for this opportunity. I am deeply moved by their generosity in supporting my SURF, and on this wave of inspiration I will ride forward in my project with renewed vigor and determination! I look forward to presenting my results at SURF Seminar Day on Octobr 15, 2016.