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THE LOOK AHEAD

ELECTION TECH

Kirsty Styles
@kirstystyles1

VOTE FOR TECH
SHOULD TECHNOLOGY HELP DECIDE YOUR VOTE?

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f you listen to the
pollsters, you’ll already
know that the 2015 UK
General Election is going
to be a messy one, with many agreeing
that the ‘big two’ will struggle to win
an all-out majority.
And even if one of them is able
to cobble together enough seats to
form a government, which could
be via an unholy four-way, it looks
like fewer than 25% of people will
have voted for the governing party.
#Legitimacycrisis?
Anyway, while broadcasters and
policy wonks battle over the muchdebated TV debates, and ahead of the
back room deals that may follow the
vote proper, people will actually have
to decide how they’re going to cast
their vote.

I

ENTER TECH
Since the last election, the UK has
become a de facto digital nation, with
the whole country and his nan now
the proud owner of a smartphone, and
possibly a tablet too. And there are
now tens of VAAs (that’s Voter Advice
Applications) online and in the app
stores aimed at helping those people

ISSUE 6 • techcitynews.com

who aren’t quite sure how, or even if,
they’re going to vote.
“It reflects the disengagement
people feel with politicians,
not politics,” says Emma Mulqueeny,
who founded digital government
service Rewired State. “It fulfils the
need people have to vote on issues not
people or parties, and they will trust
a third party assessment of what they
care about to steer them towards the
party that will best represent them.
“Representative democracy is
challenged by this digital age, but
people are not ready, willing or
even interested in challenging this there is an assumption that people
are not interested in politics,” she
says. “I have not found this to be
true, everyone is. They are just not
interested in politicians.”
Vote for Policies, which leads people
through survey questions based on
each party’s manifesto, is probably the
most well-recognised platform in this
space.
They think around 2 million people
in the UK used one of these tools
during the last General Election,
and they are expecting a significant
increase this time. As of March 19,

133,000 people had already completed
the new 2015 survey.
Its founder Matt ChocqueelMangan says he had voted in the past
but couldn’t have told you one policy
he voted for and how the parties
were different. That worried him.
But as a web developer, he knew he
had the skills to help other people in
his situation make more informed
choices.
“It’s pretty unreasonable to expect
people to align with one party on every
issue,” he says. “But you can only
vote for one party. We bring policies
into the conversation and we feel
that gives people the chance to know
what political parties stand for, which
makes them more inclined to vote.”
TINDER FOR POLITICS
Using up their weekends at youth hack
event Young Rewired State, London
teen coding pair Freddie Poser and
Zak Cutner decided to strip out the
parties and people altogether for the
launch of their Tinder-style app Votr.
Spurred on by an Electoral
Commission survey that said young
people were not engaging with
politics because they wanted more

information about candidates, Poser
and Cutner built a tool that curates the
anonymised views of local candidates
from Twitter.
“People are becoming extremely
concerned over just getting down to
policies whereas for us it is actually
the personalities of your local
candidates that adds the engagement
to politics, especially for young
people,” Cutner says. “It’s also
important to understand about things
happening at a local level and not
just nationally, it’s far too easy to just
vote for your favourite party without
actually realising what changes your
candidate will make in your area.”
IT’S TWITTER WOT WON IT
Having just released Votr, the app
is unlikely to influence an election,
but it definitely “fills a gap”, Cutner
says. “Twitter was the obvious choice
to power our app; the short, concise
tweets appeal to younger voters and
allow them to use a medium they’re
already familiar with to discover
something new. We’ve also received
feedback critical of the irrelevance of
some politicians’ tweets, so we want
to encourage politicians to tweet in a
more savvy way.”
“It can change the way that
representatives are kept accountable,”
agrees Aleksi Knuutila, who by day
is teaching anthropology at UCL
and finishing her PhD, by night
developing YourCandidates.org.uk.
“It means people are less dependent
on the major media channels and
party marketing for making up their
minds, and can hear more easily
directly from their candidates. This
is all positive. The next step that we
have only started on is to make it twodirectional, more like a conversation.
I think we have only seen the very
beginning of it.”
Twitter has become something of a
driving force for politics all of its own,
among the chattering classes at least,
with as many as one third of young
users surveyed by the social marketing
giant saying they have changed
their vote based on tweets they’ve
seen. The company also advertises a

“There is an
assumption that
people are not interested
in politics. I have not
found this to be true,
everyone is. They are
just not interested
in politicians”

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ISSUE 6 • tech
tynews.com

THE LOOK AHEAD
ELECTION TECH

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whole host of ways that politicians
might want to use the platform to be
more liked by its 15 million UK users,
but it may cost them.
“To add to the debate on how social
media is having an impact on politics,
Nesta’s Political Futures Tracker
analyses Twitter data to see what
MPs and candidates are talking about
ahead of the election, as well as how
much traction they are having over
this tech-savvy – but not necessarily
politically-engaged – audience,”
explains Jen Rae, senior researcher
at Nesta, a social innovation charity.
“We feed into it reams of data scraped
from social media sites like Twitter
as well as the web and it produces
for us a quantitative analysis of the
information.
“Voter choice web apps have the
potential to bring the political debate
to a wider and potentially younger
audience by making it easier to link
party policy with the problems that
voters would like to see addressed.
However, the jury is still out on
whether they will actually make a
difference on the voting habits of
harder to engage voters.”
Emma Mulqueeny agrees. “People
will use these to make their decision
but these are the people who are
inclined to vote anyway. I don’t think
they will persuade people to go and
vote who wouldn’t normally bother.
It definitely will have little impact on
that crucial younger vote – which as
we know, if they voted, could take us
from deadlock come election time.”
HARD TO REACH
Ask Amy launched in February as an
Android and web app where people
can ask any political question and get
an answer, ‘in plain, chatty English’.
‘Amy’ recognises key terms from the
question and looks up the answers
that best matches it.
“The top questions asked through
the app suggest that the people
engaging with Amy are unsure
about voting in general, and we are
excited to be providing an innovative

ISSUE 6 • techcitynews.com

solution to political disengagement,”
says Binita Mehta, co-founder of the
cross-partisan, independent campaign
group No One Ever Told Me About
Politics.
“There is a desperate need
among my generation to find out
no-nonsense, accessible, nongobbledigook answers to simple
questions about politics. It’s a
shame that political education isn’t
widespread or easy to access, and
with the most unpredictable election
of all time just weeks away, people
who wouldn’t normally bother realise
that their vote will count more than
ever before, and are keen to have their
voice heard.”

“This matters as it opens
the debate as to whether
people should be making
major decisions about
the country’s future on
such an app, rather
than better funded
public political engagement
with young people”
What unites all of these voter
choice platforms is the fact that their
founders are pretty much doing it
for nothing. Or for everything, if
you consider the very concept of
democracy is at stake. Both Ask Amy
and Vote for Policies crowdfunded to
bring their ideas to life.
“This matters as it opens the
debate as to whether people should
be making major decisions about
the country’s future on such an
app, rather than better funded
public political engagement with
young people,” Mehta says.
So will tech really change the
outcome of this, or any, election?
Between 30% and 40% of voters
across Switzerland, Finland and the
Netherlands have consulted a VAA
before casting their vote, according to
Vote for Policies research, so this isn’t

just a British phenomenon. But back
in 2010 in the UK, users of the Vote
for Policies platform actually came
out as majority Green Party voters
and that clearly didn’t translate into
a Green government. That’s despite a
recent poll that found half of its users
said they would change their vote
based on the results generated by the
platform.
END OF SPIN
“It’s really reassuring that people
are trying to break through the
spin, branding and PR surrounding
politics and make up their own minds
about what really matters to them,”
says Charlotte George, Green Party
candidate for Hackney South and
Shoreditch.
“But it will take a while for the
trend to make real inroads and
influence a greater number of people.
Also, our current first-past-the-post
voting system presents the election
as a two-party race and makes it
difficult for smaller parties to break
through. Hopefully a new government,
especially if it’s another coalition, will
look at our voting system again and
propose a better model.”
“Politicians often blame voters for
not engaging, we blame the usability
of the system,” concludes ChocqueelMangan at Vote for Policies. “The
digital sector should be able to play a
role in impacting society. We have the
skills, approach, tools and methods
and politics should learn from them
and help them make a positive
difference.
“There are massive social problems
that persist but there’s a huge
community of people doing amazing
things with and around tech. They
need rewards and support to show
them it’s cooler than building another
taxi app.” n

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coverage visit

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