Election 2020: Student Hopes to Repair World With Data

Zach Schapiro, alongside the code that makes up Election Accomplice. Photo by Edward Glassman

If you’re not careful, you’ll lose the battleground states pretty quickly.

Georgia is more up for grabs than you realize, but if you spend too much time fighting what feels like a lost cause in Florida, you’ll probably let the Peach State and North Carolina slip away. Thirty-three days to go until the election, and you realize that you haven’t done any fundraising in a few days, either. Rallies take a lot of energy out of you, and whether they move the needle is an open question.

There’s just so much to juggle; you have to take a whole day to pander, and even specify which ideological key you want to pander in.

It isn’t Zach Schapiro’s intention to stress you out with his presidential election simulation game, Election Accomplice, which is based on a forecast model he designed. In fact, the 16-year-old junior at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy hopes that his game, available for free in the Apple App Store, spurs people his age to a greater interest in politics.

“Being able to help teach people about politics in a way I’m able to, with all of the numbers, is something that is pretty cool,” Schapiro said. “And I’m hoping people are able to learn a lot about that so that they can become more educated voters.”

Vincent Day, program director of Computer Science & Interactive Technologies at SCH, has known Schapiro since he was in elementary school. Back then, Schapiro’s warp speed advancement in math, computer science and whatever other subject he put his mind to was already well known throughout the school. Day began working with him in a one-on-one capacity, and he’s ready to present his conclusions. Schapiro, he said, “was the first genius that I have ever worked with.”

“He’s one of the kindest, and empathetic, and helpful young men I’ve worked with,” Day said. “In all of the classes that I taught, he was well advanced, so he could do things in a week that would take a lot of the other students an entire semester to do. So Zach took it upon himself to become a very thoughtful student leader.”

Schapiro’s early aptitude in computer science was noticed by Day, as well as by Edward Glassman, executive director of the Sands Center for Entrepreneurial Leadership at SCH. Both men see their jobs at SCH as “unlocking the passions of our students,” according to Glassman, and for this particular student, that’s meant years of tutoring, making sure Schapiro had all the resources he needed. Day has even had to learn right alongside Schapiro, in some cases, given the advanced nature of his pursuits.

Schapiro is a devotee of FiveThirtyEight.com, the website created by the banner-carrier for data-based political analysis in the United States, Nate Silver. But his interest in coding and data actually precedes his interest in politics; his first major coding project was called Mahjong Accomplice. Schapiro learned the game by watching his bubbe play and, like any good grandson, translated that knowledge into an app that teaches people how to play the game, alongside data-based suggestions on the correct move to make in a given situation.

Another project, hoping to beat the Las Vegas NFL spreads, was “somewhat successful.” “Not amazing,” he said, “but better than 50/50.”

The furor of the 2016 election drew Schapiro’s interest, and the work he’s done since then — on Election Accomplice, but also on Fantasy Politics, a project undertaken alongside fellow SCH student Elizabeth Shoup — reflects that his interest in data preceded that of his interest in politics. Assumptions that are baked into Election Accomplice, as well as into Fantasy Politics, come from probabilities divined from the data, rather than gut-feeling punditry.

The project of Election Accomplice, Schapiro said, which involves an interactive election modeling tool alongside the game itself, is his method of tikkun olam. The rabbi at his synagogue, Congregation Beth Or’s Gregory Marx, talks quite a bit about leaving the world better than one found it, and educating people in the way he’s capable of doing, Schapiro said, is his way of living that.

Though predictive analysis may be a mostly sound method of thinking about politics, it doesn’t function in the same way when you’re deciding what you want to do with your life. Schapiro is fortunate to have the problem of many interests — robotics, history, sports and economics are also subjects of frequent inquiry and practice — and he isn’t yet sure what he will pursue.

“Whatever field I’m in, I’d like to be using all the different things I’m passionate about in my work, so that I can really enjoy my career,” he said. “Whatever it is.”


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