How a group of civic technologists helped swing UK’s General Election
At Newspeak House in London, politics and technology merged to tackle Britain’s Snap Election. Here’s how they fared.
It’s 10pm on Election Night at the packed War Room inside Newspeak House, and exit polls are about to be announced. A Wikipedia editathon is in progress, and when the results are projected onscreen, a mixture of groaning, swearing and cheering breaks out. It’s not the Labour majority they were hoping for, but the Conservatives are down by 17 seats. John turns to me excitedly and says: “Our model turned out to be the most accurate after Yougov! And we only began two months ago with a team of volunteer data scientists who’d never met before and had no experience of handling electoral data.” He shows me the screen where he’s adjusting the data, as behind me, a group of Labour supporters in red continue a heated discussion about Corbyn’s chances.
John Sandall is project manager for SixFifty, one of the many groups of civic technologists who’d been working out of the five-storey building in Shoreditch, building tools for the general election. Like SixFifty, most tonight are volunteers who had organically come together to address the needs of this election using technology.
Newspeak House in London has been growing into a hub of activity for technologists and activists over recent years. In the past, it has hosted hackathons, screenings, round-tables and community organising workshops focusing on digital transformation of civil society and the public sector. “When the election was called, I was aware of a significant community of people building technology to influence the election but I knew there’s not been much coherence to this movement,” says Edward Saperia, Dean of Newspeak House. “Because it only happens every 5 years, you don’t get a lot of stability to keep building. The advantage of this is that every time an election comes around you can start from scratch because technology moves a lot in 5 years: if you look back at 2010, we didn’t have smartphones.”
Within days of the Snap Election being called, Ed had announced the creation of War Room, a co-working hub set up at Newspeak for the 7 pre-election weeks. But getting technologists, campaigners and journalists under one roof is always a challenge, so Ed turned to social media.
“I created a set of online collaborative documents to collect useful resources for people building technology around the election and shared it around different groups: at last look it had 70 projects listed: from campaigning, to investigative journalism and infrastructure. Lots of community activities were going on where people were commenting, requesting and supplying data-sets.”
Jeremy Evans and Matt Morley, of the start-up Explaain were the first to snap into action. Within 7 minutes of the election announcement, they’d secured the URL for GE2017. “We soon heard about the War Room that Ed had set up and simply turned up. Most of our best opportunities came from connections made at Newspeak, and it’s hard to think of an election-related tech product that didn’t have a connection to the building in some way.”
What followed from this was a remarkable collective attempt at creating digital tools to help people make informed decisions before heading to polling stations: from finding local candidates and voting booths, to automated fact-checking of campaign propaganda and guerrilla-marketing manifestos using games.
Sam Jeffers, co-founder of WhoTargetsMe, a Chrome extension to monitor targeted advertising on Facebook by campaigning political parties, tells me the Press attention for their project has been overwhelming- New York Times, BBC, the Guardian, even Breitbart. “We [Louis Knight-Webb, co-founder] hadn’t even actually met when we began working together.” David Kitchen, of Tactical2017 a website advising on tactical voting, echoes this sentiment: “I saw a spreadsheet which Becky Snowden up in Yorkshire had created and got in touch to build the website. We’ve never actually met.”
The combined efforts at Newspeak saw 100,000 new voters registered by election day. GE2017 alone had secured 2.5 million unique visitors by the end of the election, double the previous record for a UK voter advice tool. Ed adds, “We also held a round-table discussion with representatives from Google, Facebook, Twitter, Electoral Commission, Parliament Digital Service, Democracy Club, Bite the Ballot, Full Fact, The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, The BBC, The Guardian, Labour Digital, etc. to work on a voter registration strategy.”
As a result, this year’s election saw the largest voter turnout in 25 years, with more than half the youth showing up to vote. In the aftermath of the election, where the Conservatives lost out on the expected landslide majority, I meet up with some of the technologists involved to assess how their efforts impacted this change.
What: Who Targets Me, a browser extension that monitors targeted advertising by political parties on Facebook
Why: Sam Jeffers, co-founder of Who Targets Me says: “We created this because we’re interested in how big money, Big Data, targeting and negative messaging are used on social media to win elections.”
“Facebook advertising is open to abuse and needs more regulation and control. Claims made by online political advertising in 2015 were impossible to record and fact-check. With this extension, people are now able to keep a record of ads to hold politicians to account.”
How it fared:
The extension was downloaded by 12,000 people and formed part of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s revelations on Dark Ads used in campaigning for the Snap Election.
The investigation found “at least 68 different types of political adverts tailored to individual social media users, being paid for by the three main parties [..] The Bureau found the Conservative party consistently attacking Jeremy Corbyn by name in each of the ten ads, with mention of Theresa May as a positive alternative in nine of them.”
What: A real-time automated fact-checking tool by Full Fact
Why: Mevan Babakar, Digital Project Manager of Fullfact says: “We were looking at everything the parties had put out, newspapers, even memes online, and doing our best to fact check as many of them as possible so people had the information they needed to scrutinise them. It’s not about telling them if it’s true or false, but giving them links back to the primary sources so they can make up their own minds.”
“One of the biggest things we did this election is automating the fact-checking process and using the tools we’d built within our own workflow to make the process quicker, with shareable visualisations. Our goal is to answer questions people have in a non-partisan and non-biased way, so we looked at things people were asking us, like the garden tax, the NHS crisis and immigration.”
How it fared:
10 million engagements on Facebook and Twitter.
What: Independent poll prediction model by SixFifty using open data and open code
Why: John Sandall, project manager of SixFifty says: “What we’d ideally hoped for is that in less than 2 months’ time, we will be able to generate a really good forecast model and show how the traditional techniques of forecasting an election are really outdated.”
“More importantly, we managed to open-source a lot of historical data by cleaning it up for analysis with unified constituency names.”
How it fared:
The most accurate election prediction model apart from Yougov, reaching 3.8k unique visitors and clocking 7.6k page views.
What: Who Can I Vote For and Where Do I Vote by Democracy Club to help voters find their local candidates and polling stations
Why: Co-founder Sym Roe explains: “Democracy Club was set up to provide better digital infrastructure around UK elections. We started in 2009 with the idea of a quiz to be sent to candidates with questions that couldn’t be answered in typical ways using soundbites. What we discovered was that there isn’t a list of candidates published centrally, the list is managed individually by the 390 local authorities, published in an obscure pdf called Statement of Persons Nominated with no searchable description.”
“So, we decided to contact local councils and create data-sets for third parties to use, for example, to build a voter advice app. For this election, we had two primary products where voters enter their postcode to get a list of candidates and nearest polling stations, respectively.”
How it fared:
The websites clocked 1.8 million hits in 4 days. They also had a partnership with the Electoral Commission to provide data, and with Facebook to provide push notifications for voters to check out local candidates.
What: NHScuts, a website by Outlandish showing cuts to local health services by postcode
Why: Brian Spurling, project manager and solution architect at Outlandish explains: “The idea was to try to create an emotive connection to the individual by going with the postcode entry point.
“We had built SchoolCuts before the election and felt there should be an NHS version. For the NHS one, we combined performance outcome measures like wait times and emergency services with funding measures, so people can make conclusions themselves about the NHS funding problem.”
How it fared:
Reached over 2,000 people in two weeks. “We’re now improving the website to find more hard-hitting ways to communicate the terrible cuts being imposed by the Conservative government on the NHS.”
What: Corbyn Run, an 8-bit political game based on the Labour manifesto to engage millennial voters
Why: James Moulding, designer and producer of Corbyn Run says: “We wanted to guerrilla-market the Labour manifesto pledges to 18–34 year olds in an unusual and digestible way. People played it for 3.5 minutes each, and that’s 3.5 minutes more than they would have ever looked at a political flyer or an advertisement.”
How it fared:
100,000 downloads in a week with 1.6 million impressions across all platforms.
What: Position Monster by Position Dial, a quiz for users to analyse and match with policies, resulting in a monster visualisation
Why: Mariam Cook, founder of Position Dial, says: “We already ran this platform for the last election to help people match to parties. For this election we tried a new visualisation: the ‘Political monster.’ You respond to policies and see a visualisation of your views through the monster.
For younger people or people who don’t engage with politics everyday, often what’s most wanting is an understanding of the issues and why you should support one point of view over another. This was to try to help it to be even easier for people to engage with politics and explore where they stand.”
How it fared:
Reached 20,000 people over a week. Cook adds: “We engaged a lot of people of pre-voting age, so we’re trying to develop this as educational technology for schools.”
What: Tactical 2017, a tactical voting website aimed at aligning all tactical voters behind the best candidate for their constituency
Why: David Kitchen of the Tactical2017 says it started with a viral spreadsheet by Becky Snowden, recommending who to vote for in each constituency to prevent the predicted Conservative majority. He got in touch with her and a week later, several volunteers came together to turn this into a website.
How it fared:
Attracted 2.6 million unique visitors in 5 weeks and 650,000 unique visitors in the 48 hours prior to polls closing.
GE2017 is already working on its next challenge. “The biggest takeaway for us was the sheer number of people who are willing to use a product with the right utility and design. We’re trying to persuade the Electoral Commission to back us, along with others, to create an official voter advice tool,” says Jeremy.
When I ask Ed how he feels about the overall impact of these efforts, he is hesitant to draw conclusions. “The results are still being measured. The big question is, is this positively affecting the outcome? We have to find out.” For now, he plans to keep the community going through a mailing list for the groups, at least until the next General Election (which could be soon).
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