Thursday, May 05, 2005

Election Intelligence

It must be 2005 - the future. Election day is among us, and I've become quite adept at dodging the visceral political arguments flying across the wireless for the past month. In amongst all the media chaff, I've been particularly impressed at the various URLs that actually want to do something for the election.

The promise of the Internet age* was communication. Democracy in the modern era is, we're told**, one where we can chat freely with our candidates via high tech avatars, submit our vote with the click of a secure button, and watch the whole proceeding unravel on-line via a scrolling tickfest. I like to imagine.

So where do we stand then? Well, I'd say that currently there are 2 main successful approaches to democracy on-line. Nobody's really yet figured out how to make on-line voting work in the real world, for example, or even if it should work, but really who cares when the stuff that is happening is actually more important and (therefore) exciting?

The first approach adopted is that of information - this one's obvious. Political data is tenfold, for example the Guardian's Aristotle, and DoWire's attempt to wiki local election data in advance. The Internet was always about making information available, and now this is really getting into its stride. Methods not just to get the raw data out, but to make it searchable too, have become more integrated, and streamlined as a result. They Work For You is another great example of being able to punch through the lists and speeches to find what you really want.

The second facet to emerge is a twist on this. This year, more than ever before, we've seen the creation of several "tools" (rather than sites) that go out of their way to help you decide how to vote. In other words, all the data out there concerned with which MP voted for what, and what lines are in whose manifesto, have been actively hidden from view, and other devices (generally a questionnaire on views, say) employed to link a potential voter's views with those of the main parties.

2 I've seen recently, for example, are How They Voted 2005 and How 2 Vote.

In many ways, these are variants on old sites such as the political compass (which also had many variants in turn). The big difference I've noticed this year is that the URLs are actively getting forwarded around via blogs, e-mails, et al - these on-line tools have left the dirty halflight of political geeks, and bounced heartily into an "accepted mainstream". (Of course, mainstream on the net doesn't necessarily equal mainstream everywhere, but it's a big step.)

I think that what's driven the uptake of these sites is a general confusion surrounding the political arena. As a result of the polemics I mentioned at the start, along with a relatively inacessible political system, the threat of tactical voting, and a democracy in which a majority anti-vote often means nothing, many people are particularly uninspired to even investigate the arena. As such, these sites are the "small shell script" that sift through the public electioneering maelstrom. They allow us to make a choice (without ever making the choice for us - they merely indicate) based on how we feel, rather than what's defined by the politicians. In many ways, they also help us to discover what we really feel about particular issues. Free of social pestering and so on, we actually have the space to think about the questions that we're answering - we get to know ourselves, in a sense.

Alas, I think the audience for these things are still somewhat small. Turnout will be interesting to watch this year, but I wouldn't claim that any of this was directly responsible for any upturn just yet - we're still at the stage where the people looking at these sites are going to be those that have a political interest and were going to vote anyway. But I hope this is a good trend. After today, we have 4 more years to develop more tools, better tools, ones that really make us think. And by that point, perhaps we'd be justified in expecting to see politics making a bit of a comeback.

* I like the phrase "bitpunk". We're not anarcho enough for cyberpunk yet.
** in a straw man kind of way...

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