How Technology Can Disrupt Democracy

Their online polling location finder — Where Do I Vote? — had 1.8m uses at the last general election. Democracy Club tell us what else they have planned.

by Lydia Massey, September 12, 2017

Democracy Club is a non-partisan organisation dedicated to providing citizens with the necessary tools and information to make informed political decisions and participate in developing a healthy democracy. Democracy Club utilizes open data and technology to turn their vision of an all-inclusive civic process into a reality.

How do you describe Democracy Club?

Democracy Club is a group of thousands of people who share a vision of a society in which democracy thrives through knowledge, participation and openness. Our mission is to use open data, design and technology to give everyone the information and opportunities they need to participate in the civic process, in a way that suits them. We are non-partisan and we work openly.

What are your key achievements to date, and what would success look like over the next couple of years?

Our election data on candidates and polling locations is now trusted by several partners — from internet giants such as Google and Facebook, to the official voter information website provided by the Electoral Commission. We’ve reached millions of voters this way. 

Success in the next few years looks like continuing to perfect the candidate and polling location information until we — or the state, who might be convinced to take on the public good elements of what we do — can provide useful information to every voter about every election. 

For example, our work on an online polling location finder — Where Do I Vote? — had 1.8m uses at the last general election. We only provided answers for around two-thirds of those queries, so success looks like completing that database to cover the entire UK. 

Where do you fit in the context of social innovators working to improve British democracy? Who else should we look out for?

We sit at the more techie end of social innovation. We’re following in the footsteps of some greats, like mySociety. There are groups like the Democratic Society who work to improve participation in the non-election bits of democracy. FullFact’s work on fact-checking to improve the quality of political debate also seems like a vital bit of modern democratic infrastructure. There’s a community space called Newspeak House which plays an important role in providing a physical space that brings all of the above together. 

To what extent do you need to work with central government in your work? To what extent can change be achieved from ‘outside'?

We can work more quickly from outside the system — at least on proofs of concept. We hope we’ve shown that you can do a lot of good stuff here. But there typically comes a point where we do need government assistance. Elections in the UK are managed by hundreds of local governments — where we’ve largely found strong support for what we do. Local government can more easily see the need for voter information, and they like the fact a lot of our services save them time and money. Our next step is to convince central government, or parliament, to support us too. 

How do technologists avoid tech utopianism when working on social and political problems? Are fears of tech utopianism overblown?

Tech utopianism isn’t any better or worse than non-tech utopianism. Tech people have a habit of thinking they’re doing things for the first time, but normally they’re rehashing things that have been tried many times before.

A lot of people have an imagined utopia and in doing so have reduced the “problem” they are trying to “solve” down to a simple form that ignores messy real world complexity. Civic tech is often guilty of this, imagining the world as a series of transactions that are performed by time rich users.

Democracy Club tries to avoid this by making tiny improvements on the existing system, based on real world questions that people have. We don’t start with throwing away the system and starting again, we look at the friction that currently exists.

Having said that, the dangers of tech utopianism are huge, especially at the moment when we are giving massive amounts of power in the form of information and services to a handful of unaccountable US tech giants. It’s getting easier to imagine tech dystopia as we willingly fill our lives with always-on surveillance.

This is clearly a hugely tumultuous time for British politics. Does this help or hinder your work?

Definitely both! We had a splendid three year plan for the ‘next election in 2020’ — which got torn up on the 18 April when the Prime Minister announced the snap election. And there’s likely to be another relatively soon, so we have to be in a state of readiness. The benefit is that our work has never been more obviously important.

Do you think the apparently heightened political engagement of young people is here to stay?

Data on youth turnout comes from guesstimates based on mashing up demographic and geographic data — and sometimes from polls — so it’s not totally perfect, but it seems likely that more young people voted in the EU Referendum and in the 2017 general election than in previous elections. Politicians are probably more likely to try to appeal to young voters now, which might continue a positive cycle of engagement.

How do we ensure it does stay?

People engage when they feel they have something riding on the process, they understand what the issues are and how to take part. Everything we do is about the latter elements — the more we can do, the fewer barriers to engagement will remain. It’s up to the politicians and the political context to determine whether the first aspect is true.

What advice would you give people looking to launch or develop careers at the nexus between politics and technology?

First, it’s not clear that there is a sector large enough to have a ‘career’ in yet. If you’re thinking about helping out as a volunteer or just starting a project and hoping that it takes off, then think carefully about exactly what it is you can and can’t do with the resources you have (normally just your evening and weekends at first). A nice way to do this is to read “Topan Jaya” from Francis Davey and Francis Irving. Talk to as many people as you can, think hard about how to make your project work when only three people use it, about how to share everything you learnt if you don’t succeed. In the UK at least, we’re in the situation where so many things have been tried in the past that it’s likely you’re not the first person to come up with an idea. Work out why previous attempts haven’t worked (or have worked!) and work out what’s different now.

If you’re lucky enough to be offered a job in the ‘civic tech’ industry then the above still applies. Think hard about how the institution fits into the bigger picture. Make sure you know what ‘good’ looks like for you. Make sure you’re not accidentally making things worse for your users, even if that’s by storing information on them that could be used by someone else to harm them.

Beyond your own work, what/who can we read/watch/see/check out to learn more and get more involved in the work you and others are doing?


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