DIGITAL DEMOCRACY: There’s a plethora of apps and online tools out there aiming to help you decide who to vote for in the May 7 general election. Some are frivolous, others more serious. All use code to demystify the jargon of politics. In the final part of our digital democracy series, Joshua Neicho reports on how tech can help you choose.
The 2010 general election campaign was enlivened by a craze for online surveys on party preference, such as Who Should You Vote For and VoteMatch, based on voter advice applications commonplace in Germany and the Netherlands.
Then there were apps disseminating more straightforward election information, and funny election games such as Downing Street Fighter, which cast Cameron, Clegg and Gordon Brown (remember him?) in a political twist on the classic beat ‘em up game.
In 2015, election apps and tools have grown in sophistication, blending the above concepts or running with them as far they can go.
Some development teams, notably the creators of Bite the Ballot’s Verto, have been motivated by a mission to narrow the generation gap in turnout. Others seek more generally to bust myths and hold politicians to account. A few are trying to create a sustainable business model.
Ask Amy is a Siri-style Android app in which young users can pose political FAQs as if texting friendly “Amy”. It’s the first fruit of a cross-party activist group called No-one Ever Told Me About Politics.
Coder and developer Joe Hall was an independent candidate at the 2010 election. Project PR Binita Mehta, at 24 the sole Conservative on Watford council, talks about the information imbalance whereby there is little effective political education in schools and official political communications are written in “gobbledy-gook”.
Supporters in Parliament include Conservative Chloe Smith, Labour’s Ivan Lewis and Cheltenham Lib-Dem MP Martin Horwood.
The app was crowdfunded and has seed funding from TalkTalk. It took around six weeks to develop based on DIY app-creation platform Como, with functionality built in.
The programme takes a few seconds to reply as if Amy really were furiously typing, and more subjective issues (“what is right wing?”) are answered by website links not definitive statements.
Anything Amy can’t answer she invites you to ask by email. There’s 400 questions in the database – but “what is a hung parliament?” and “what are the Green Party’s policies?” leave Amy stumped. It’s early days; it would be nice if future users could also consult Amy’s savvy older sister Amanda.
Twenty-year-old Matt Morley first got interested in politics at the 2010 election, staying up till 3am to watch the results. As a student at Exeter University he has dabbled in canvassing and speechwriting, “but not in one party”.
He set up TickBox in 2013, working with childhood friend Sam McShane on a site that attracted 40,000 users a day at the 2014 European elections.
Since then they have earned revenue by providing candidate information for student union elections.
Other sites have taken the voter advice application concept in different directions. Vote for Policies (whose 2015 app features in TechCityinsider this month) runs long lists of policies in the parties’ own words, but anonymised so survey takers make a considered choice free from preconceptions.
TickBox has a voter advice element with 75 questions and initial party recommendations after you’ve answered seven. But it aspires to more: striving for comprehensive coverage of all parties (though you’ll need to answer “don’t care” to lots of survey questions to get a match with Class War) and including displays of candidates’ integrated social media feeds.
The site is built on the Google Cloud using PHP; the scale of the data has been the key challenge, says technical director Kent McClymont. Morley’s role models are Airbnb and Eventbrite – “we’re not campaigners, we’re not going to wave a flag for the youth vote”.
He wants to offer a “digital door”, empowering us at every point in our democratic life, while recognising that most want a “happy medium between a quiz and something very policy heavy. We’re an elastic service – you can use it when you’re waiting for a bus and complete it on the way back”. Alastair Campbell, Al Murray, Mary Beard and Sarah Brown are fans.
Those really dismayed by the political scene can let it all out with Pigeon Poop.
In this quirky cartoon iPhone game, players select a pigeon, a rosette and a target out of the party leaders plus Boris Johnson, Ed Balls and John Prescott. To complete a level you must cover a politician with what looks like a full-face shaving foam beard. “It’s incredibly satisfying,” says app creator Nigel Hall.
Hall grew up in Deal when it was a mining community and has always voted. He insists the game has a semi-serious purpose – “one of the problems in the political world right now is a complete denial of reality – trying to get some point of engagement is really important.”
Around 15,000 games have been played so far (they’re aiming for a million poopings) and “National Opinion Poop” stats show that Nigel Farage is top target, followed by Cameron and Nicola Sturgeon. Hall also points out that 9% of players choosing a Labour pigeon selected Miliband as a target.
He says the app will stick around for after the “interesting politics” after the election – “maybe we can have a few politicians sitting in Cabinet meetings playing on this instead of Angry Birds”.
So many creative apps – something to lift the spirits in what Nigel Hall calls the “dismal world” of modern politics. But ultimately, will anything really change until voting itself is online, as the Speaker’s Digital Democracy Commission has recommended?
In 2015 the fact remains that everyone will still be voting with a pencil and paper down at their local school or community centre.
For most people, an app is easier to find.
Joshua Neicho is a freelance journalist.