Image by Ryan Poole. Facade of la Casa Rosada in Buenos Aires, at twilight

Candidate-sourcing for Argentina

In the UK, it’s not always easy to find reliable data about candidates before an election.

Official sources don’t publish final details until just a few days before the voting, so anyone who wants to build a web tool around the election has to source their own data, often at great cost.

In 2015, a group of volunteers, including people from mySociety, got together to tackle this problem under the name of Democracy Club.

They created YourNextMP, a platform which allowed the public to contribute data on every candidate in the entire country—data which could be found in news stories and party websites, but which was not in one place or in a standardised format.

Within weeks, they had assembled a database which was more accurate and had deeper data—including details such as the candidates’ email addresses, Facebook URLs and Twitter names—than paid-for sources. And they released it all as open data, so that anyone could use it to power their own web tools.

YourNextMP can be considered a success. But it took a lot of work for something that won’t be needed again in the UK until the next election in 2020!

The code won’t be going to waste, though, because of course there are elections all around the world, and it became clear that with a bit of work, it can be reconfigured for any of them.

Re-use in Argentina

YourNextRepresentativeYourNextMP’s first new home was on the website Yo Quiero Saber in Argentina, collecting data in advance of their election in October 2015. Some work was needed to adapt it to Argentina’s political system, and in the course of that, it was renamed YourNextRepresentative, since ‘MP’ is not a relevant title everywhere.

Martín Szyszlican from Congreso Interactivo explains that he first heard about the codebase on the Poplus mailing list. Poplus is an organisation where people can share code, advice and community with others making civic tech around the world.

We knew that the election would be a huge opportunity to get attention, and we wanted to take advantage of that to boost our community, as well as expanding the public’s knowledge about politicians.

mySociety were clearly very interested in the re-utilisation of this tool and so we knew they’d be able to provide extensive support with both strategy and development.

Although YourNextMP had been designed with re-use in mind, there was work to do before it could be deployed in countries with different political systems, languages and electoral procedures.

Does your country need a candidate-sourcing site? Get our help, for free

At the mySociety conference on Impact in Civic Technology, Martín subsequently met up with one of Democracy Club’s driving forces, Sym Roe, and the decision was made to apply for grant funding. A successful bid was made to Hackslabs that enabled the alliance to be made and for work to begin.

Two things were absolutely crucial: adapting the data model to fit the way that politics works in countries outside the UK, and allowing for translations.

As we inherited it, the codebase did not support internationalisation and we provided the translations for all the various words and phrases on the site.

From there, Martín explains, it was a joint effort with mySociety’s developers:

Most of the code changes were based on my input but actually effected by mySociety.

We did the design ourselves.

I did make some changes to the code myself, to fix bugs and adapt the design. I also performed some usability testing and promoted the use of the site.

I also handled infrastructure. I installed the software on the server and made sure it could withstand the avalanche of visitors it would be experiencing!

MyNextRepresentative launched as part of a wider voter-informing site at Yo Quiero Saber in August 2015, and had a great reception, as Martín describes:

In just two weeks, we’ve already had more than 100 registered users contributing information such as pictures of candidates, contact details and social network profile links.

We’ve also managed to add all the official candidates from DINE (the national elections office).

So far, we’ve had 350,000 unique users and a million page views since launch. That means we are close to reaching 1% of the total number of voters in the country. Neatly, the number of people who have used the site is roughly equivalent to the number of voters a party needs to pass from this election to the next ones.

Media reception has been great with online portals big, small and regional mentioning our site and some of them embedding our game in their articles. We’ve also been kept busy with radio interviews and some tv programmes featuring the game. In Argentina, the media is deeply split down party lines, and we very much like the fact that we’ve surfed that divide, being featured in media from both sides of the political spectrum.

This is just the beginning: we’re working as an alliance of local NGOs, and our bid for a prototype grant from the Knight Foundation has been successful, meaning that we can forge ahead with our plans.

And onwards into the future

As of August 2015, the work is far from finished.

There’s still much more to do in terms of adapting the software to support our local model of elections, and in increasing the attractiveness of the tool both for contributors and for users of the API.

We’re also going to add local-level posts, and we know that the general elections in October will generate another influx of interest in the data.

Perhaps most excitingly (and most of a challenge), there are other organisations interested in having this tool for their countries, which will bring a lot of new requirements and new developers on board.

But right now? Our goal is to have a comprehensive user-created and curated database of all Argentinian politicians that can serve as the basis for many other data-journalism and civic projects.

mySociety is really excited to see this software working for Argentina as it did for us here in the UK. We hope it will facilitate Argentinian developers to power many voter advice tools and maybe new technologies we never even thought of here in the UK!

Does your country need a candidate-sourcing site? Get our help, for free

Image: Ryan Poole (CC)