Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Hackers in programming meet to prepare for the vote

Hackers have again gathered for a marathon session of tech tinkering in Myanmar – and this time, they’re coding and programming for the vote.

On September 12, downtown innovation lab Phandeeyar played host to the start of the MaePaySoh hackathon, a tech contest that challenges participants to support voters ahead of the November 8 Election Day.

MaePaySoh – which means “let’s vote” – aims to ride the wave of Myanmar’s smartphone-heavy connectivity transformation, which has seen teledensity rates increase to more than 40 percent, according to the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology.

While Myanmar’s upcoming election is being closely watched, many people say they remain relatively in the dark on political parties and candidates contesting the race. A tiny minority of people say they have enough information on either, according to The Asia Foundation program and operations officer Ma Mi Ki Kyaw Myint, citing findings from the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES).

The November 8 polling will see many people voting for only the first or second time, said Phandeeyar founder David Madden.

“They don’t have all the information they need,” he said during opening remarks on September 12 to a room packed with hackers. “But the tech community has the skills to be able to build apps and websites and digital tools that’s going to put this information right there in people’s hands.”

Hackers will spread information available at the competition – such as candidate data and answers to common questions – through original tech tools evaluated on their usefulness, usability, execution and creativity.

“We had the support of the UEC [Union Election Commission] in providing us with information on candidates and this is really important,” said Kim Ninh, Myanmar representative for The Asia Foundation, which worked with UEC to digitise election data. “We were coming from a place in Myanmar where information used to be very difficult to access, and now for the first time, this is also available broadly – and you will be part of that process.”

Those at the marathon hacking session were tasked with informing Myanmar people of important information around voting through apps, websites and more.

The event urged hackers to help voters answer three questions: Am I registered to vote and, if so, where? Who can I vote for? and How do I vote?

Many tools have been made available to participants to help them hack, including two application program interfaces (API) that contain abundant information on voters and voting.

Inside the MaePaySoh API is data on candidates, parties, parliamentary performance and more. Meanwhile, hackers can also tap into the voter list database – currently at more than 31 million names long.

IFES collaborated with the UEC to turn piles of paper into an online database that voters can check for their names. The lists were on preliminary display earlier this year, with millions checking the data and submitting corrections. The UEC’s voter list website, which will receive rolling updates, will also soon have information on where users can go to vote.

Still, a lack of context persists on the ground around governmental processes. A 2014 survey from The Asia Foundation reported most participants did not know picking the president fell to the Pyidaungsu Hluttaw, while nearly half said they didn’t know what hluttaws do.

Hackathon attendee Ko Myo Chit Ko, who worked on UEC data entry, said that in the past he didn’t vote even though he was eligible.

“Previously, I didn’t know there were three houses [of parliament],” he said. “I learned more about the candidates, the election process, even the voting procedure.”

“As has been said, most people don’t know about how to vote, who they should vote for,” said Ma Pwint Phyu Kyaw of Hexcores, a local startup that worked on the MaePaySoh API. Her hackathon team is looking to showcase election statistics targeted at the media and other experts, she said.

“It would be helpful if we can give information to [people] via technology.”

Tools built at the hackathon must address at least one of the three crucial questions around voting – on registration, who can be elected, or how to cast a ballot. Entrants must stay non-partisan.

Demo day is September 27, giving hackers just over two weeks to get their tech together.