Earlier this year, we pitched at Bethnal Green Ventures’ demonstration day. The pitch tells the story of why we do what we do, and what we want to do more of. If you prefer to read, the story goes something like this…
At the general election last year, we gained a useful insight into the user needs of voters on polling day. On Thursday 7 May 2015, the top ten Google searches all related to the election. Voters asked questions that might seem pretty basic. The top five?
- Who should I vote for?
- Who are my local candidates?
- How do I vote?
- Where do I vote?
- Where is my polling station?
Now, the first question is admittedly tricky. But questions 2-5 should be pretty simple to answer - it’s basic, factual information.
Unfortunately, there’s no national-level public data on any of this. So people have to squirrel around in their local council’s website, delving into PDFs to find answers. That’s assuming they even know the name of their local council.
At Democracy Club, we thought it might make sense if voters could get information where they want it. That is, by googling. Or by reading their favourite newspaper. Whether they’re on a laptop or tapping away at their smartphone.
So in 2015, learning from an earlier prototype, we crowdsourced the 4,000 candidates seeking parliamentary office. And their facebook details, twitter profiles, homepages and sometimes even CVs. It was tough work, but over a thousand editors including, often, candidates themselves, helped us build a comprehensive open database that anyone could use to get voters better information.
And they did: campaigners, media organisations, voter advice applications all used the candidate lists to help inform voters. The data reached millions of people.
Doing the same for candidates in May 2016 presented a far greater challenge than the General Election. We estimated that there would be over 12,000 candidates for a range of different elections across the UK. And these weren’t your, erm, everyday First-Past-The-Post elections, but included fun stuff like constituencies + regions, and multiple winners across long lists of candidates. And for local elections in England, did people really care enough to crowdsource the candidate details?
Happily, yes. Through some incredibly dedicated volunteering from some people we know — and many people we’ve never met — we crowdsourced the details of every single candidate. And not just their names. We had thousands of profile photos, twitter bio’s and facebook pages, sometimes even wikipedia entries.
That database meant we could build WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk so voters had the chance to find their candidates and learn more about them. It meant that Buzzfeed readers could find out about elections near them. It meant that Democratic Dashboard could present candidates alongside past election results.
It still wasn’t enough: there’s loads more to do. A first glance at the WhoCanIVoteFor feedback suggests an overwhelming demand to learn where candidates ‘stand’: their personal histories, priorities and plans if elected. These things are easy to solve, we just need to start earlier and reach more people.
We need more resources. We need to start now for May 2017 and beyond.
Polling station finder
We also tried to answer those Googled questions about ‘where to vote’. For 2016, we focused on Wales: its 22 councils seemed like an achievable task. It’s been hard going, but there were 10 councils with data at wheredoIvote.wales, and it’s been widely publicised by our partner NUS Wales to their student membership who asked them to help make this happen.
This is the Democracy Club product that’s probably most relevant to the EU Referendum. We’ll continue to run the polling station finder for the referendum and hope to increase our coverage outside Wales. Get in touch if you can help us work with your council to open this data. You can check whether we have your council’s data here.
Overnight, we’ve been working with LGiU and a marvellous network of ‘count correspondents’ to crowdsource the results data from vote counts for the local elections in England, supported by the Open Data Institute. It’s still coming in now.
Results data is one of those things that people expect to exist somewhere. But nope. Not in an open, machine-readable way. If we had it, we could do things like provide email alerts to tell voters who won in their area, thus giving them faster feedback and a more satisfying democratic experience. Results data can also help guide people’s voting decisions in future. So get adding!
The rest of the summer we’ll spend fundraising, planning and looking at similar organisations across Europe. We want to go further, do better and help more people in the years to come.
We can use by-elections and local elections (Wales and Scotland) next year to keep testing, iterating and improving. By the time of the next general election, scheduled for 2020, we want to see millions of voters using highly tailored, accurate information to guide their decision-making.
But we need resources to make this happen. So the ask at the end of the video above still applies. If you think what we’ve achieved over the past few months has been valuable, then please have a think about how you can help us raise funds. You can personally donate here — and we’re keen to speak to councils, central government and philanthropic bodies about sustainable funding.
We’ll leave the last word to an email we received from someone at 9.30pm last night. We promise we don’t know this person — we don’t even know where they are in the country. It’s published here verbatim:
“It’s 2130 on polling day and I’m not going to vote. Why? - because I don’t know what posts I am voting for and haven’t received any information from a single candidate. It’s not that I can’t be bothered to vote. Over the past hour or so I’ve spent some time trying to find out who is actually voting today - only to discover it’s everybody in England. I’ve just discovered your website and am bookmarking it. It seems the ideal solution: a single place where all the candidates’ views are collated. This site should be 100% underpinned by government funding, while remaining a totally independent and disinterested supplier of information.”