LONDON: There’s an infuriating gap in the coverage of the UK election. It lies between the idea that “the internet has changed everything” and any detail of what might have happened on the internet. This gap has been filled with a bit of noise about Facebook ads and echo-chamber Twitter feeds.
But, in fact, civic tech is a real thing, featuring real people, with real technical expertise, trying to hack around every democratic deficiency. They are trying tackle a sheer lack of easily accessible information to the shortcomings of the first-past-the-post system. They don’t just exist. A lot of them exist in the same building: Newspeak House in East London. It’s a “community space for political technologists” according to its founder, 32-year-old Ed Saperia. In practice, that means that it looks like a Silicon Valley start-up — exposed concrete, free-flowing nachos, a pool table.
Tom de Grunwald is working on a vote-swapping website, SwapMyVote, which is “trying to hack the problem of first-past-the-post”.
“Look,” he explains, “this isn’t working at all. In 2015, 74.4 per cent of votes were wasted. It causes so many problems, from voter apathy to the difficulty of setting up new parties. Even the fact that we never argued with Ukip properly because people took it for granted that they were just extremists who would never cut through. If they had been getting the seats that reflected their popularity, we would have been arguing with them for 10 or 15 years by now.”
These civic tech entrepreneurs are not happy with the old-school duality that we know something is broken but accept it as completely normal. “Everyone here is used to iterating very quickly. If the product isn’t working, you change the product to make it work.”
I first came here two weeks ago to interview a Bernie Sanders campaigner, thinking it was just a hot-desking space, and noticed a few things: phrases such as “electoral data” uttered with a rare enthusiasm, open-ended questions along the lines of “what if we took the progressive alliance concept and applied it not just to voting, but to campaigning? Could we build an app for that?”
Some people, in groups of twos and threes, were working on a political matchmaking website (you say what ideas or policies you agree with, and it matches you to a candidate). Others were campaigning for online voting; some just building a centralised list of candidates, something that, remarkably, the government doesn’t do. Some were fighting education cuts, some were pushing voter registration, some were fighting fake news. There was a lot of cross-pollination, and a palpable sense of possibility.
On that first visit, I sidled over to Sym Roe from Democracy Club, who I had come across during the EU referendum, when he was building a polling-station-finder tool. “Can you give me five minutes?” he asks, with anxious courtesy. “I think we’re just about to solve something.” This, in the scheme of the 2017 election fly-on-the-walling, is not something I have heard anywhere else.
James Moulding, 24, is a political analyst at Crowdpac, the Steve Hilton / Paul Hilder cross-Atlantic project that crowdfunds for candidates and campaigns. Independently from that, he has cocreated an air-quality-monitoring start-up and is working on how you would crowdsource a manifesto. The latter technique has been employed by Spanish anti-austerity party Podemos, but the example the techies all use is Taiwan, where the government does real-time consultation with its citizens using the pol.is platform. This, incidentally, was Ed Saperia’s driving motivation in setting up Newspeak; the realisation that “all the parties right now are faking it. They are putting together platforms that they hope some people will support, rather than finding ways for their policies to be cocreated.”
Moulding’s core business today is a computer game modelled on the French socialist candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon’s Fiscal Kombat, in which a French president shakes bankers until money comes out of them. Moulding’s version, Corbyn Run, is better. A man runs past. “Why is he sweating?” I ask. “Because he’s a bureaucrat. Also, he’s running.” Corbyn catches him, shakes the money out of his pockets and then does the same to a few bankers. “It’s made by Labour Party members,” he says sternly, “not the Labour Party.” This mix of activity — some shallow, some profound, some fun, some not fun at all (there is nothing playful about creating mobile sensor networks to produce air quality data) is typical, though everything is marked by a sense of urgency.
“Elections are not really mostly what we think about, here,” Saperia says. “The thing that’s fascinated me, for as long as I can remember, is how humans can successfully interact at scale; in a way that we think is good and meaningful. If you wanted to have a conversation with 10,000 people, how could you do that? Wikipedia is a really good example of thousands of people creating something great, through communicating. Whereas Facebook is quite atomising; everyone sticks to their small groups.”
In 2014, he was asked by the Green party for digital help with their membership surge. He had never previously been interested in party politics. “That’s when I realised that this whole political ecosystem is not functioning very well.” He made a diagram of civil society, one-third education, media, journalism and academia; one-third civil service, local authorities, government, parliament and one-third unions, activists, party members, campaigners.
“A lot of these people don’t know each other. I thought: what this space needs is some community building.” These networks in Newspeak are noticeable — lots of people have links in the electoral commission, or in the Government Digital Service (GDS), or have only just resigned from the civil service.
The election has sharpened everybody’s focus. Jeremy Evans, 25, and Matt Morley, 22, usually run the “fact-card” start-up explaain.com, but have given themselves full-time to GE2017.com. The site pushed voter registration with a tool for students, where they could check which constituency — home or college — their vote would make the most difference in. It came up with Vauxhall as a potential swing between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, something that didn’t show up in any polling I had seen. “We’ve got an algorithm that takes in many factors, including betting odds.” “Where do you get those?” “We scrape data from ... actually, I can’t tell you that.”
Morley and Evans can tell me how many people landed on the registration page — 100,000 — and how many clicked on the link — 72 per cent — but “beyond sending the link, we have no idea. Only the GDS has that information,” Evans says. “The government gateway was tedious; [it] put people off [and] made them think they needed their national insurance number when they didn’t.”
Now the registration deadline has passed, GE2017 has moved on, with a quiz that matches you to a party, not unlike Crowdpac’s matchmaker quiz. “Fragmentation is one of the problems we wanted to solve. There were about six or seven who-should-I-vote-for? apps at the last election, all of them got between 100,000 and a million hits. We spoke to the Electoral Commission about having a state-sponsored app — they have one in Germany. We wanted to make it semi-official, get everyone under one roof, build a really, really good one.” Events overtook them, and there wasn’t time. Once you have done your quiz, there are a couple of telling links: a link to a longer quiz; a link to SwapMyVote; a link to how to spoil your ballot. “Most people think you can just draw a cock, but it won’t be included in the official results unless you do a straight line through all the candidates. Even now, Matt and I aren’t completely clear on it. He thought you did a line through the page on the left, and I thought you did it through the candidates. It’s amazing how difficult it is to find this information.” I’m still not clear on whether you can draw a line and then draw a cock.
Across the desk, Areeq Chowdhury, 24, is working single-handedly on WebRoots Democracy, which started as a campaign for online voting but has evolved into a think tank “covering the use of personal data, fake news, e-petitions, voter advice applications”. His own evolution (not counting the one that brought him here, having studied economics and political science, through KMPG, into the civil service, which he quit a month ago) is interesting. It started as the glaring answer to how to get young people to vote, but “it soon became clear that the main beneficiaries would be disabled people, those who were bedridden, or with very limited vision. The Royal National Institute of Blind People estimated that 1.4 million people struggled to vote in 2015. They do it with Braille, but a lot of people don’t read Braille any more.”
Newspeak runs fellowships, one of whom is Sophie Chesney, 26. She is studying for a PhD in computer science at Queen Mary and her field is “natural language processing — specifically, I’m looking at the automatic detection of misleading headlines”. It sounds like, if it came off, an algorithm for the discovery of fake news, but she chooses her words carefully and makes no outlandish claims. “If the text is making an exaggerating claim, that may be linked to a negative sentiment. But I’m not at the moment experimentally ready to show that.”
Democracy Club has been running since 2009, set up by Sym Roe and Joe Mitchell. It is run on no money: Roe does six months contracting as a software engineer, then six months unpaid for Democracy Club. “A lot of people here are doing really cool stuff, but we’re doing the boring bits: aggregation work, creating data that is open for everyone to use.” He is doing a centralised list of candidates, and “for the 2016 and 2017 local elections, we created a database of all 16,000 candidates, and all of that was open data.” They have partnered with the Electoral Commission, and had support from Google and Twitter. The work does sound quite boring but incredibly good for amassing contacts. “I was working in digital government, for the DWP and the Ministry of Justice. A lot of it is knowing the way the civil service works. Also, being a white, middle-class man who works as a software developer. That helps.”
As we are speaking, something interrupts my vision from the left, and a man who looks like a Stone Roses fan is crouched on the floor, with his arms reaching up to Roe’s keyboard. This, it transpires later, is Michael Smethurst from the Parliamentary Digital Service. Along with Anya Somerville, a parliamentary librarian, and Ben Woodhams, who originally worked for Hansard and “slid into change management”, Smethurst is engaged in trying to make the parliamentary website more functional; they come into Newspeak House periodically. “We can’t really editorialise parliament, it’s not our job. There might be 500 statutory instruments of which two are of any interest. It’s not our job to pick out those two.” Yet any meaningful access to democracy requires that the citizen can navigate the terrain. These mini institutions — whether Democracy Club or mySociety (which created the seamlessly influential TheyWorkForYou.com) — collate, editorialise, create digital order for the public good. The more transparent and accessible democracy is, the more obvious it is which bits could be better. It’s like sitting in on the meeting where they invented dentistry, or clean water: kind of obvious, kind of earth-shattering, kind of tedious, kind of magical.