Friday, January 27, 2012

Welcome to the Shadow Election

Things have been heating up in the second round of the Finnish Presidential elections, and the voting advice application that I have been helping to develop has been benefiting from the internet / media fueled race off between conservative Sauli Niinistö,  previously a sure bet, and Pekka Haavisto, the Green Party outsider, who is catching up in the general polls, and even racing ahead in social media-based polls like ours (see Äänestys tab in Vaalikone2012).

28 Januray 2012: Haavisto 53,442 – Niinistö 38,485

This is so exiting for Reality Creating Media (RCM), since we are now starting to see the fruits of over a year of self-funded work. In 2010 RCM initially spent a good chunk of a small government grant hiring Zipipop to help them develop the idea of a platform for harnessing the power of social media to unit and coordinate people into making their projects a reality (hence the name). 

As a first step towards a bigger dream, RCM and Zipipop worked together on a prototype of a startup rating and team building service called Bobofarm.  At the end of the contract Juha Mattila (CEO) asked me to join as a partner and Chairman. 

RCM's 2010 prototype of a startup crowd-rating platform

On one hand it made little sense: the funds were fast running out and the business model was still looking like a conventional sponsorship model with a lack of clear growth potential: even though the Bobofarm idea was garnering positive feedback from people in the Finnish startup community.

However, I liked working with such a challenging but flexible team, who were constantly willing to learn and keeping pushing forward with good old Finnish sisu spirit. And I appreciated their commitment to transparency (a topic I care deeply about).  But most of all they agreed that we should strive as long as possible to follow the "doing good" route prescribed by Paul Graham. It has not been easy: the lack of funds is obviously problematic, but things like judging just how pushy we should be with our viral strategies has been particularly tricky (especially when our CTO is viral guru); but there are now signs that this commitment could soon start to pay off.

Not long after joining RCM, the Finnish 2011 Parliamentary elections campaigns started up, and Alex Keskitalo (CTO) suggested we "pivot" towards his long held dream of a totally new kind of candidate matching service.  

Alex wanted to create a service that recommended candidates based on the quality of their ideas – rather than relying on the usual issue-based, multi-choice questionnaire + matching algorithm (similar to internet dating services) that is the norm in most candidate matching applications — or election machines as they are know in Finland. It was a now or never moment, but it made sense because we could incorporate  much of what we had learned and developed with the rating system in Bobofarm.

Crowd wisdom and intuition are at the heart of the concept
Towards Shadow Election 

Since our election machine can be embedded in multiple sites, it is possible to create unique versions of our application that can focus on particular advocacy themes (environment, motoring, etc.) or geographic political areas; while at the same time aggregating all the content into one central hub site. This structure was trialled successfully in the parliamentary elections. And this is why the current version running in Finland is called Keskusvaalikone – literally, central election machine. 

However, we are now developing a version for this year's Kenyan elections, and it will be know as Shadow Election – a hint at Alex's longer term aim of adding features that give everyday people more chances of having their voices raised up by the "crowd" (based more on the quality of their ideas and not their political muscle). A bit like speakers corner in London, but with much bigger social media-based platforms upon which to stand and be better heard. 

We have also now decided to call it a voting advice application (rather than candidate matching service) – since the matching is only one part of it, and via our service you can acquire a broad holistic view of the candidates: both what they are proposing and how they come across in the media. This is the reason why (upon the advice of Maari Fabritius) we have also been the first to integrate web-based video as a core rating component (see screenshot below).

Candidate charisma and voter identity play a crucial role in the virtual voting
This is important since candidates with good ideas also need the charisma / skills to sell them. We are already seeing interesting results showing that the candidates that people rate most highly are often different from the ones they have chosen to give the "virtual" vote to. Does any one have any research knowledge on why this might be? 

In the Shadow Election Kenya we want to include the two different "live" leader-boards (Most Rated & Most Voted) on the same page to make people reflect upon this phenomenon – since this behaviour on some level seems to express a sense of political immaturity – or is it just realpolitik or "he/she looks like me" psychology at work.   

In Finland there has been discussion in the media about the fast changing attitude towards the more open sharing of voting intentions. In Shadow Election you can choose to let your friends know who you are voting for and we have found this to be a popular feature.

For a small (currently) unfunded and distributed outfit like RCM, we are very satisfied that in a country with a relatively small population, we are currently reaching daily figures of around 8,000 unique visitors, and in total over 90,000 virtual votes (over 140,000 by the end of the elections) have been cast.  It's far from case-closed, but it is definitely proof-of-concept. 

As of 28 January 2012:  91,927 virtual votes cast
And when it comes to Kenya, where the Facebook fans of the current Presidential candidates quickly add up to well over half a million, and their status messages regularly get hundreds of comments and likes, well, let's just say we are pretty excited. 

In the meantime we are making connections to Kenyan civil society organizations and IT communities; and we are actively seeking sponsorship to keep the advocacy tool free of charge. But for any potential investors we have a superb commercial growth plan for the future that will have a symbiotic relationship with the current doing good work (but that is a different story). However, we are particularly interested in talking to impact investors.

Download the official short introduction here: Shadow Election Introduction Summary PDF

To learn more about the importance that crowdsourcing and intuition play in the service you can look at these presentation slides covering Shadow Election & Wisdom of Crowds that I used for an iHub Nairobi talk I gave on 10 January 2012. 

Finnish readers can follow the current Presidentti 2012 Keskusvaalikone blog.