A new Vancouver startup is trying to boost voter turnout by playing matchmaker between candidates and voters.
While recent civic elections in the Lower Mainland saw the highest voter turnout in over 10 years, the number of people that actually voted is still remarkably low.
“People are overwhelmed by the amount of information out there. They feel guilty about not voting and struggle to make an informed decision,” says Kristin Eberth, founder of Votely.org.
To help overcome that, certain segments within the civic-tech sector have taken up the challenge of simplifying a complicated electoral process.
Votely was formed at a recent startup weekend that happened to coincide with B.C.’s civic elections.
In its most basic form, the Votely app provides users with a series of questions meant to understand their own interests and values and link them to a candidate.
These responses are then matched with similar interests and values that political candidates themselves have generated.
“This allows users to quickly and easily decide on who to vote for in a way that they feel confident about,” says Eberth.
The result is an application that functions much like a dating site… but without the dating.
Growth in private sector
The development of a web application like Votely fits within a broader and increasingly valuable trend in the high-tech sector that is based in voter analytics and big-data collection.
U.S.-owned civic-tech companies like Brigade, which recently raised $9.3 million in first-round financing, or MindMixer, which now sits at $23.2 million in funding, prove there is interest from venture communities for the development of technology geared towards civic engagement.
David Eaves: Too many choices (0’38”)
Local news organizations in the past have generated guides but most are search tools, rather than true interactives that allow users to input their own issue preferences.
In 2013 for example, The Tyee created an interactive map and guide for the BC election that provided detailed information and related coverage on election issues riding-by-riding.
The “engagement level was really high” for the website and it was “an incredible traffic generator,” said Robyn Smith, managing editor for The Tyee. The publication didn’t repeat this exercise during the latest 2014 civic elections.
Other online tools adopted by Canadian publications have also made it into the civic tech market over the years including CBC’s Vote Compass, which was developed as a way for users to compare their opinions on policy with that of electoral candidates.
One of the problems for civic elections is that the people being elected often don’t tackle the big, weighty issues.
“Civic elections don’t generate the level of interest that provincial and federal elections tend to generate. And that’s primarily because the nature of the issues that people deal with at the local level are highly particular,” says Max Cameron, a political science professor at the University of British Columbia.
He said many small cities in BC are more comparable to corporations than parliaments. They deal with issues that are much more about the maintenance and management of daily life.
Cameron argues that cities are basically “big property managers.”
“They deal with zoning bylaws, sewage and garbage disposal. These are not things that generate broad philosophical differences.”
Typically, it’s the big philosophical positions that help people clarify how to vote in a tight race similar to what was experienced in Vancouver or Surrey during these latest civic elections.
Apps like Votely seek to simplify these complex issues and provide just enough contrast between candidates to help with the decision-making process.
Too many choices
Even Votely may not help simplify the choices, say some experts.
News outlets, socially driven websites like Facebook and Twitter, government, and now tech apps like Votely are all vying for a voter’s attention making how we choose to filter information that much more complicated.
“There was a world when there were only two or three newspapers and that’s what everyone used to view their news. The upside to that was that the filters were few,” said David Eaves, a policy entrepreneur and open government activist who is currently an executive member of Vision Vancouver.
“One of the things I think that people are struggling with is that there are fewer more obvious choices. The other is that there is an explosion of new filters like blogs, Twitter, and the parties themselves. They all have a better capacity to explain their message.”