A digital election?
My thoughts about the emerging digital engagement around the UK’s General Election (#ge2010) are many and varied. On the one hand it’s interesting to be able to debate issues with friends online, and there are a variety of cool sites which are emerging to locate and contact candidates or share concerns on “geek issues”. On the other, certain aspects of the “digital election” make me feel even more disenchanted. For one thing, the furore prior to the passing of the Digital Economy Act in the dying moments of the last Parliament made me feel very frustrated – even when those of us in the industry were offering to share our expertise with our local MPs to enable them to make better value judgements, we were fobbed off. The discussion on Twitter over the first leaders’ debate (#leadersdebate) was dismissed by the media as background noise – actually I think Radio 4 referred to it as “piffle”. My incumbent local candidate uses his Twitter account for broadcast rather than for discussion (and as far as I can tell, the others don’t have much of an online presence).
Engaging with candidates
One glimmer of hope is that new technology is not going completely unnoticed by everyone. I’ve had contact with a few candidates and former MPs which at least shows that not all of them are wedded to tree-based communication. Just, not my local ones.
It turns out that it was the hustings for my constituency yesterday. I didn’t hear about the event locally, but only via @FarnboroughNews on Twitter. I was abroad and not able to attend, but the guys from the paper were good enough to ask a couple of the candidates about their digital engagement strategies for me. The Conservative candidate responded by saying that he’s on Facebook and Twitter and can be emailed… which rather misses the point of my question, as he has a Facebook page which I can only choose to “like”, and where he doesn’t obviously actually talk to anyone, and his Twitter account seems to contain information about his diary events rather than having him behind it responding to reasonable questions. The Lib Dem said he knew that he needed to be more digital and would get there, he gets most of his inquiries via email. I didn’t hear whether the others had anything to say.
Overall, this is all still hit-and-miss. A few candidates “get it” but I’m left with an overriding impression that they are not understanding how communications and voter engagement has moved on in the 21st century. As I’ve been saying lately, we’re in the age of social everything.
These (heavily abbreviated) lines of thought bring me to the real point of this post. Some of my friends have put together a nice little mashup which aims to collect a sense of the political feeling around the country.
What gave you the idea for TwitVoteUK? How did you get involved in the project?
Chris and Ben: it was all Kieron’s idea! (although @andysc may have pointed him to us…)
Kieron: the idea was sparked by the success of the #uksnow tag on Twitter and the accompanying website. The accuracy of the data was amazing when compared to the rainfall radar on the Met Office website. Some time before the election was called, I thought that many of the same principles could be applied to a Twitter-based polling site.
Who else is involved?
Chris: Ben and Kieron did the majority of the work. I just helped with the first draft of the database schema and coded the website with a friend Ian from theAttick doing the initial design and graphics.
Tell me a little bit about the system it is running on?
Ben: I wrote the code to pull the posts from Twitter. There are 2 separate Java processes doing the work, one for the hashtags and one for the @replies. These take in the username, postcode and party, then pass the postcode to the They Work For You API to find the constituency. This is then put into a database for the event processing software to work magic on.
Kieron: When a new vote is successfully recorded, some scripts are run to establish whether this new vote has changed the leading party in the constituency for which the opinion was received. If it does, then this is a significant event and it is sent to the event processing engine. This uses rules to see how often the leader has changed for each constituency within a given time period so that it can tweet about particularly “hot” constituencies, i.e. those where the leading party changes quite often.
Various other rules also control the frequency with which the overall results are tweeted and tweets about constituencies receiving a lot of votes within an hour. An example of one of these rules is that when the leading party changes in a constituency, the events engine checks how long it was since the last set of national data was tweeted – if it was more than an hour ago, then as well as the tweet about the change of leader in the constituency, it tweets about the party with the most constituencies and voting percentages.
Have you had any problems getting things going? How has it evolved?
Ben: I’ve had fun dreaming up regexps to match all the combinations of @replies and #hashtags that people have been using to try and “vote” with. Matching postcodes is a pain. The next step is to look at validating if a party has a candidate running in that constituency now the filing deadline has past.
Chris: People were not prepared to tweet their postcode, which is fair. The three of us got together and decided to add a form on the website so people could do it without their postcode being stored or tweeted.
Have you noticed any surprising results from TwitVoteUK so far?
Ben: Not really a surprise but the early influx of the Pirate Party UK shows they are on the ball with tech. It also looks like we may have found a Liberal Democrat mailing list as well.
Chris: I am surprised by the disproportion of votes. I expected it to be much more equally spread between the main three parties.
Any thoughts on the levels of digital engagement that the political parties are showing?
Chris: I hear murmings of lots of things that are being done by the parties but I have not come across anything that really makes me want to vote for a certain party. Maybe if I looked I will find something.
Any other favourite #ge2010 sites that you think are innovative / useful?
Chris: With the exception of They Work For You (and presumably Twitter, Chris? –Andy) I have not really taken the time to look at election-related sites. I follow the news quite closely though via the BBC.
Andy (yup, back to me!): Well I don’t know about what others think, but I reckon this is a pretty nice experiment. Thanks to Chris, Ben, and Kieron for taking the time to answer the questions I threw at them!
I can’t help thinking that the US were much more advanced, particularly the Obama campaign. Maybe next time around, the FTW Party will give me something more compelling to vote for!