Sunday, April 19, 2015

A vote for Technology?

From Communicating the candidates' messages to electronic voting and predicting results, technology is leading the polls....

Free elections are the pillar and most important element of any democracy.  Advances in technology is today aiding the voting process itself and in some countries vote counting is also aided by electronic means.  The most important changes in the last 10 years were in the use of social media to deliver political messages and rally people to vote.
The first election when social media such as Facebook and Twitter played an important role was the 2008 US election.  Barack Obama not only used these tools to deliver his message to the masses but also used data mining and analytics technology to predict who might be interested in possibly voting for him.  His team targeted such demographics directly instead of wasting energy and resources on people who were not likely going to vote for him.  For the first time in history the 2008 US election also saw a diminished amount of TV advertising when compared to previous elections.

Two years earlier Obama had met Dan Siroker who at the time used to work as Director Analytics at Google.  After a brief conversation with Obama, Siroker left Google on the spot and joined Obama’s campaign team.   First thing Siroker did was to introduce A/B testing on Obama’s website, which at the time was just asking for donations.  Half of the traffic started being diverted to one page using particular colours, text and font and the other half to a different site using a different schema of graphics design.  After two days the least performing website was dropped and a new colour scheme tested.  Siroker finally concluded that visitors to the website felt more at ease, spent more time and most importantly donated more when a light blue background and white text were used.  The decision was taken to use this colour scheme also throughout the entire campaign poster. This is why post-2008 election campaigns, even in Malta, are now copying such colour schemes.
Obama’s campaigners later used the same A/B Testing principle to evaluate various call for actions, such as the tagline ‘Change’ or ‘Forward’ and used the most well received messages throughout the entire election campaign.  A national survey, conducted online, showed that most 18 to 29 year olds ignored politics because they felt that politicians tended to ignore issues that mostly concerned their age group.  In response to this, Obama’s team focused on this age bracket and spent millions to target youngsters on social media.
Technology is playing a vital role in counting votes and issuing a result as quickly as possible in the USA.  In Malta we still use a manual system although both political parties are well equipped with statistical packages and are able to predict where an election will swing using a relatively small distributed sample.  
The United States have been testing electronic voting systems in local elections for the last ten years however most have been a failure.  Hacking is of course one major security risk and one that may keep conspiracy theorists rambling on for years if they believe that the counting process may have been rigged.  In November 2010, government officials in Washington’s local elections were getting ready to test an electronic voting system, however the computerised system was quickly removed from polling booths after only a few minutes.  What was meant to be an example of efficiency in voting and vote-counting quickly turned into a nightmarish scenario for the electoral office as soon as they realized that hackers had seized control of the network.   Election law experts warned administrators that the electronic voting trial presented an unacceptable risk which imperils on the overall accuracy of the result.  The system which had cost millions was scrapped, only to once again plunge the US voter back to use a simple pencil instead.
In a few weeks time, on the 7th May, the United Kingdom will hold a national election.   The U.K. is, just like Malta, probably a long way off from accepting electronic voting, nevertheless the UK electoral office introduced some technological surprises for the upcoming election.  Two years ago a Digital Democracy Commission was set up, with the sole aim of recommending how democracy in the UK can embrace opportunities offered by the digital world.  This commission has introduced technology in three main areas: Machines in polling stations, supervised by people, remote electronic voting for UK citizens abroad and electronic counting of paper ballots. Malta is still lagging behind in all these areas especially when one considers that hundreds of Maltese citizens have to fly to Malta to cast their vote in an election or referendum.
Election forecasts is one area where technology is playing a key role.  The methods used in Malta to predict quite successfully the last general election involve asking a random sample of people how they will vote, although this method proved to be quite accurate, forecasts in the United Kingdom are now being based on what people are searching for on Google using the live Trends tool.  This method was used to predict the Scotland Independence referendum outcome last year.
The latest polls using data extracted from Google Trends are predicting that there will be no overall majority in the upcoming UK election, but that the Conservatives will be the largest party with 282 seats.  Let’s wait and see if Google is correct this time as well.
Estonia is the only country who conducted the closest we have ever seen to a digital election in 2014. This country issued citizens a SmartCard identity system which could be used to cast one’s vote.  However analysis and tests, conducted after the election itself, revealed that the system was vulnerable, leaving it open to potential abuse causing an uproar by the losing party who called for fresh elections.  
Although most of us are tech-savvy and we thrust computers with our banking, personal and most intimate details we are unable to thrust technology in helping us create an efficient electoral and democratic process.

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Notice: Article was originally published on the Sunday Times of Malta, TechSunday 19th April 2015.  Written by Ian Vella.  Article is being republished here only for information purposes and copyright is shared between the author and editor therefore republication is not allowed unless written consent is obtained by all parties.

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