They may describe themselves as “civic hackers,” but the Voxe.org team is only using the political information already in the public realm and channeling it toward a wider audience.
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These modern-day Robin Hoods are on a mission: They have created an online system that allows users to compare the manifestos of political candidates and makes their policies more accessible to the everyday voter.
Voxe.org launched in 2012 as a tool to help the public differentiate between the candidates in that year’s French presidential election. “Before even reaching the comparison stage, we realized that information is hard to find in this area,” recalls Léonore de Roquefeuil, president and cofounder of the organization – which received a grant from the Google.org foundation last year to help it continue its work.
One of the problems, of course, is that the manifestos released by candidates come in a variety of formats – such as PDF, scanned documents and old-school pamphlets. Many of these agendas also contain over 50 different policy proposals, making the processing of them a daunting and arduous task.
To handle the workload, Voxe.org has recruited a small army of volunteers – many of them politically engaged students.
For each election, the team has the task of transcribing all of the candidates’ manifestos into a neutral format. The user of the comparator system can then choose a candidate or theme and review the different policies the candidate is offering; alternatively, they can compare them against other candidates to begin to form a political opinion.
The overall objective of the system is to “provide citizens with the tools to be able to vote both clearly and calmly, without trying to sway or persuade them toward a particular agenda,” says De Roquefeuil. “Contrary to what we are often told, we know that candidates don’t offer the same thing,” she continues.
By expanding beyond its native land, Voxe.org now has the potential to become a vital tool for voters in countries where access to information is more limited.
The comparative system is now active in 15 different countries, including several on the African continent, including Equatorial Guinea, the Ivory Coast and Benin. “In these particular countries, where there are no real press outlets, four of our volunteers can have an enormous impact,” explains a member of the Voxe.org team.
The students and youngsters comprising the team of volunteers must be trained before they can be put to work. First, they need to be able to identify and collect the information, primarily by scouring through the official candidate manifestos, as well as their output on social networks. In countries like the Ivory Coast, where there are no political manifestos, the volunteers have no other choice but to improvise, sending each of the candidates a questionnaire to complete.
The next step is data entry, using an online platform provided for the volunteers. With the data in an open source format, they can then readily access and reuse it. The final step is communicating and disseminating the work, which is done mainly through media partnerships formed within the country where Voxe.org is operating.
Thanks to these agreements, the Voxe widget has been listed on the websites of many major newspapers around the world, attracting the majority of its visitors. The Voxe site now has around 3.7 million users worldwide.
Voxe’s latest election project arguably deals with the biggest one on the planet – the United States, where the primary campaigns are coming to a close, to be followed by the presidential election in November.
To break into the highly competitive U.S. civic-tech market, the French Voxe team partnered with Laila Alawa, a young blogger of Syrian origin who’s now in charge of a Washington-based team of volunteers.
As well as the comparative system, the team has developed a visually engaging election guide – complete with videos and fact sheets showing the key issues – to help the public better understand the presidential election.
“The feedback has been good so far,” says De Roquefeuil, who traveled to Washington with the volunteers to help form agreements with U.S. media outlets. “It’s an important challenge for us, because it’s an excellent opportunity to cement our international credibility,” she adds.
Engaging young voters
Despite its international ambitions, Voxe has not forgotten its French roots. “The current political climate in France as we approach the presidential election is very favorable to our line of work,” says De Roquefeuil, “with the establishment of movements like Nuit debout” (the French equivalent of Occupy Wall Street).
In France, Voxe is also looking to increase the political engagement of the younger generation, which is, generally speaking, turned off by politics.
As well as overhauling the design of the comparative system ready for next year’s French presidential election, Voxe.org has a few other projects up its sleeve.
First, it plans to launch a political newsletter, Newswatch, with up-to-date information on what certain associations are doing, and what demonstrations, petitions and current topics readers might be interested in.
There will also be a second newsletter, working title Happy Democracy, which will be devoted to the most recent updates and news from the civic-tech industry.
The final target, which it aims to launch in the next year or so, is the Voxe Academy – a university dedicated to courses in digital and physical civics, which will teach students “to become active citizens.”
With the world at its feet, Voxe.org has the opportunity to tailor its services for a variety of needs, with the aim of disseminating information as far and as wide as possible for the general public.
This article first appeared in French daily Le Figaro.