We asked the democracy club’s Joe Mitchell to tell us about their work helping people to engage more in the democratic process. Over to joe!
What are you working on today that you want people to be excited about?
If you want people to take part in elections — which we do — it’s quite helpful to know when the elections are. Now, it might sound a little ridiculous, but the UK has never had an authoritative list of forthcoming elections. Nobody actually knows when and where elections are happening. (It’s because elections are managed by 350+ local authorities). While academics and some enthusiasts have long tried to keep records, we’re today very close to having the first machine-readable, open database that everyone can add to, and everyone can use.
This is a real step forward because it means we can run our candidate lookup service (WhoCanIVoteFor.co.uk) on a constant, rolling basis, providing alerts and information to voters, to increase awareness of local elections, and thus hopefully turnout too. The open nature means that others can come along and build things too — your favourite transport or maps app on your phone, for example, could remind you when there’s an election.
Sounds great – what else do you do/develop/deliver to enable a digital democracy?
Our view of digital democracy is fairly near-future. We’re not working on liquid feedback systems or building an always-on direct democracy. We’re just making use of the opportunity that digital provides, to give people information about the democratic process where they want it, when they want it. So we have a polling station finder at WhereDoIVote.co.uk, for which we’re aiming for 100% coverage of the UK within the next few of years — but we also work with digital media giants to get this information in front of people even before they search for it. We do the candidate lookup mentioned already — and we’re keen to deepen the information it provides, so people can learn more about the candidates and take a better informed decision when voting.
Why is what you do important for the average person on the digital highway?
The way you engage in democracy in 2017 should reflect the way you live your life in 2017. If you can order takeaway, organise events or access vast video archives with a few taps of your phone; you should also be able to find out where to vote, who your candidates are and how to get involved, just as easily. If the process of ‘doing democracy’ doesn’t keep pace with social and cultural changes wrought by technological change, then democracy itself might become seen as an anachronism, out-of-date in the 21st century. That’s scary.
How did you get started, who was involved
The club kicked off as a group of volunteers in 2009, working on the 2010 Parliamentary General Election. It was restarted by Sym Roe in 2014, Joe Mitchell joined in, they raised some money, set up a Community Interest Company — and have been full time since 2016. We were lucky to convince Chris Shaw to join to apply his geodata expertise to our polling station finder. That’s the full time team — but we rely hugely on an enormous group of amazing volunteers — some of whom contribute just 10 minutes to add data to the databases, some of whom contribute hundreds of hours to ensure we’re making progress. They’re amazing.
What are your plans for the future?
You can see our top priorities for the year here. These obviously include greater coverage of elections and more and better data, but we’re also looking further ahead. We would love to raise money to recruit a researcher to further delve into what voters are looking for and what the next useful digital democracy product should be; we’d love to recruit a community manager to make sure we’re properly galvanising democracy activists.