voXup

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voXup

London, United KingdomLondon, United Kingdom
Year Founded:
2013
Organization type: 
for profit
Project Stage:
Start-Up
Budget: 
$100,000 - $250,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

voXup helps information flow through communities in a way that's centred on local issues, not politicians, institutions or ideologies. Users give a 1-second opinion on each issue, and are notified when a representative responds to that issue. Representatives quickly see what matters to constituents.

WHAT IF - Inspiration: Write one sentence that describes a way that your project dares to ask, "WHAT IF?"

What if information flow within communities was frictionless so that decisions are made and justified from a position of understanding?
About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

Interacting with institutions such as councils or politicians is a pain, particularly when what you actually care about is a specific issue. If you do have your say, it takes time-poor representatives a long time to provide feedback to you. The consequence is that it's hard for representatives to get quick, real time feedback from decent sized samples, and it's hard for people to get an understanding of how they're being represented.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

Our solution is to put the issue at the centre of the conversation. We help you discover your community by showing you a list of tweet-length local issues (added by anyone) in our app, and reduce the barrier to engagement to almost zero. Each issue has an up/down button for if you agree, think the issue is a priority etc. We show the data to your local representatives (e.g. UK councillors) so that they get a wider sample of opinion. They see a real-time snapshot of their community in a web dashboard. For each issue they can post a short reply, explaining a decision or notifying you of some action. If you voted on the issue, you get a notification bringing you back to the app. The loop can be closed in minutes. Everyone is better informed.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

John is a 22-year-old grad who has just moved to a new city and rents a flat. In a short space of time he's left several different communities (clubs, university, his home town). He notices that when something changes in his local area it's usually geared towards the interests of people who have lived in the area a while, own homes and know the right people. Jane uses voXup in her area and shares a particular issue with John. He now sees a list of issues near him and discovers that there's loads going on. He has immediate reactions to a few of the issues, and closes the app. Two days later he's pinged with replies to issues he's voted on. He now feels his voice matters, and starts taking part in issue-centred discussions, using the app.

Impact: What is the impact of the work to date? Also describe the projected future impact for the coming years.

voXup is live in a single electoral ward (~10000 people, 3 councillors) in London and has 43 users and 2 councillors as active users. About 60% of our early users have never voted or contacted their representatives before. We've completed 7 iterations of the loop (including notifications), and about two thirds of users re-open the app and engage with another issue. After three weeks all of our users reported that they'd learned something new about the community, ~80% said they'd found the feedback from local councillors useful or very useful, both councillors reported that even at the small scale they felt they'd got good value for their investment of time. Having learned a lot from our initial trial we're about to move into a second ward, supported by the local council, for a larger trial having implemented what we learned in the first round. We hope to have similar impact nationwide
Sustainability

Financial Sustainability Plan: What is this solution’s plan to ensure financial sustainability?

We charge a subscription for access to the representatives' dashboard. This might be local/regional/national politicians, civil servants at council or national level, administrators of other communities (e.g. GP surgery patient groups, sports clubs etc.). Local businesses can sponsor issues (e.g. 'There should be more bike parking outside my shop'). We think that the idea could also be used in a corporate context, esp. with distributed workforces

Marketplace: Who else is addressing the problem outlined here? How does the proposed project differ from these approaches?

FixMyStreet (MySociety, also SeeClickFix) -- provide a feedback mechanism through getting stuff fixed, rather than purely information (which is cheaper and quicker). YouGov/polling -- expensive, non-continuous, aren't small-scale, not accessible to councillors. e.g. LocalSay (Westminster, other local approaches) -- complicated, focuses on broadcast from council. StickyWorld -- comments rather than binary voting, expensive to gain insight from unstructured data. Council consultations -- operate in cycles rather than continuously, often un-coordinated between departments, expensive.
Team

Founding Story

All three of us have had frustrating experiences engaging with decision makers in our communities. It's hard to get information about plans for our neighbourhoods. There are too many steps from finding the information to contacting local representatives. Local representatives are faced with a mass of uncoordinated information, and their only methods for providing targeted replies are massively time consuming. As scientists, we think that data/information could be flowing more freely within communities. The friction on the information distorts what members of the community and representatives hear, and we believe that we have a sound technical approach to this problem. Early trials are promising, and we hope to be able to grow our solution.
About You
Organization:
voXup
About You
First Name

Peter

Last Name

Lewis

LinkedIn URL
About Your Organization
Organization Name

voXup

Organization Country

, London

Country where this project is creating social impact

, London

Impact
Full Impact Potential: What are the main spread strategies moving forward? (Please consider geographic spread, policy reform, and independent replication/adoption of the idea or other mechanisms.)

Our main mechanism for growth is that users can share issues using their existing networks. We've built a URL shortner so that users can share particular issues in a way that deep-links their friends to our app. When the friends launch the app for the first time they see issues near them.

Also, our customers (e.g. councils) are incentivised to promote the use of voXup themselves.

Barriers: What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Our main barrier in the short term is finding precisely what the pain points are for each of the parties that will use voXup. We're currently gathering lots of information about how people currently engage in their communities, and the tools that councillors use so that we can adopt the best aspects of what works and check the assumptions that we've made.

Sustainability
Partnerships: Tell us about your partnerships.

We have fantastic support from the incubator that we're taking part in right now.
We have built good relationships with a London council, have contact with academic politics departments and thinktanks, and we're exceptionally proactive in forming new relationships.

Closing the Loop
How does your project primarily ensure that feedback delivers results?

Ensure that feedback is representative of the entire population.

Please elaborate on your answer to the above question.

We're making it really easy for people to discover and give their opinions on local issues, and providing a mechanism for them to get something back (responses from their representatives). The aim is that these two things combined make voXup the go-to way to give your opinions on local issues, meaning that the data we present to representatives is much more representative. We also want to make representatives' lives easier through the use of a clear, simple dashboard that quickly shows the mood of their community.

Languages: In what languages are you able to read and write fluently?

English.

2nd Round Questions
Thinking about your feedback loop; what information are you trying to get from whom, to whom, and to bring about what change?

voXup connects constituents, their local councillors and their local council. Our loop is driven by sentiment data generated by constituents and responses to important topics driven by their councillors. Both sides have an opportunity to find something out (what's going on, which topics matter most), and both parties can respond (with votes/comments and responses respectively).

At the same time, council officers providing services to constituents can use the data to improve council services. This can be either directly in response to a particular demand, or more subtly to be able to make decisions not based on just the views of the 'usual suspects' or just oppositional views. But aside from improvement in physical service provision, our first aim is to improve how informed both representatives and their constituents are about the other's position.

Our focus is on the flow of information and local dialogue, rather than on the more 'real life' actions, which are usually slower and more expensive to implement, and served by different programmes (cf. fixmystreet.com).

What is the purpose of your feedback loop?

Other

If other, please specify

So that citizens can discover what's up and have their say, and representatives can inform and explain their decisions.

What mediums or mechanisms do you use to collect feedback? (check all that apply)

Website.

If other, please specify
Could you briefly describe the way you collect the feedback?

Representatives view a web dashboard of constituents' feedback, use that to inform their decisions and then (from the same page) can reply to the issue (and consequently all those who voted on it).

Constituents view a map or list of local happenings sorted by 'activity' to discover what's going on, and give their feedback either through one-tap voting, or take a larger part in the discussion with per-issue comment streams, or (for consultations) provide more formal, longer feedback directly to the consulting group (e.g. council department). The idea is to capture feedback at various levels of motivation to take part from the citizen.

Significantly, constituents as well as representatives are able to add issues to the list for a community, though the emphasis is on the ease with which it is possible to add your voice to an issue that someone else has raised.

The issues are phrased briefly, and we aim to gather 'gut responses'. We are currently comparing data gathered in this way to data gathered through more labour intensive (on the part of the respondent) consultations. Our early results indicate that the gut reaction, by virtue of increasing the response rate, gives an equally good reflection of a community's mood. Nuance and grey areas are explored in the comments feed for each issue, allowing constituents to have a structured but nevertheless anonymous conversation (each comment is displayed with a random pattern similar to a 'gravatar' unique to each user). This allows users who are engaged but undecided on a high-level issue to explore their views with others, voting only when they feel it is appropriate.

What mechanisms are in place to protect people from retribution?

Other

If other, please specify

Citizens are anonymous, responses are named (e.g. Cllr J Smith (party) etc.)

What are the immediate benefits or incentives for people to provide feedback?

Other

If other, please specify

Increase the engagement 'score' of your community, possible gamification, 'unlock' sharing and other UX approaches

How do you ensure new and marginalized voices are heard?

Specific targeted outreach efforts

If other, please specify
What are the incentives for the intended recipient to act on the feedback?

Other

If other, please specify

User-facing comparison of relative engagement performance (to their colleagues)

How does the feedback mechanism close the loop with those who provided feedback in the first place?

Reports on collected information

If other, please specify
How is feedback published/transparent?

Other

If other, please specify

Through website / notification and digest e-mails

Give two concrete examples of how feedback loops have brought a program or policy more in line with citizens’ desires.

1) Basement extensions. A constituent added an issue to voXup mentioning her concern that the large number of basement extensions in progress on a road in Cantelowes was having a negative impact on the local area. A local councillor was able to see from the voting history not only the concern, but also the level of the concern among neighbours. Using voXup, he responded to the issue pointing out the requirements on current applications, as well as asking whether the regulations should be strengthened. Residents were able to express their opinions through comments on the issue, and say what they thought of the response using the :-) / :-( buttons.

2) Closure of a local GP surgery. The councillor was able to see from residents' voting patterns that there was a high level of concern about the availability of a nearby doctor. He posted a response to the issue echoing the votes, and saying that he would push for a new GP surgery to be included in the redevelopment of a nearby estate. All of this process was carried out through voXup.

In both cases it has been helpful that the original issue was phrased in a heavily biased way -- making it easy for users to decide on which side of the debate their views lie. Since users do not see the votes of other users, we avoid herding phenomena in the votes. The platform itself remains clearly neutral to users, and users report that they do not feel 'pressured' into voting one way or the other.

If there was one thing you could change to increase the impact of your feedback loop, what would it be?

The impact of the loop depends critically on the extent to which both constituents and their representatives make it a lively place for discussion (i.e. the speed with which the loop is driven). We've managed to get the interaction down to one tap on the constituent side, and a box with a send button on the representative side.

But we want to make it just as easy to hear about voXup. Our current approach is to 'piggy back' on existing planned consultations and particular 'big issues' that affect particular areas, but we continue to experiment which catalyst is most likely to be successful in 'spinning up' the feedback loop.

We're also exploring how voXup can be used by members and management at community centres, for example. Many such organisations have reporting requirements that need data on their users, and one approach of ours is to offer voXup to such groups as a means to increase engagement in their activities, as well as more broadly in the community.

What are your biggest challenges or barriers in “closing the feedback loop”?

Other

If other, please specify

An absence of local issues for people to 'flag up'

Are you aware of The Feedback Store?

Yes, but I don't think I would use it

What are the main uses you can envision for the Feedback Store?

It is a useful forum for people working on improving feedback loops to discover other efforts in this direction.

What is the one thing you would most like to see changed to improve the competition process?

Perhaps the ability to meet up in person with projects that are located close to each other?

What are you doing to make sure that feedback providers know that they are empowered by the information they can give and that they know exactly what the information they are providing?

(I don't quite understand the second part of the question...)
Since we are making an existing process -- that of democratic representation -- more efficient, rather than proposing something completely new, the empowerment comes from the same source: we promote dialogue in the decision making process. This means that representatives are able to explain or justify their decisions, based upon the data presented in the same view, directly to constituents who have explicitly indicated their interest. This part in particular engages representatives.

As well as this, we are actively encouraging community groups to use our 'custom community' feature to use voXup's information cycle for their own projects. Of the several groups that we are about to start trialling with, each puts different emphasis on the features that most interest them. But by building a system that's flexible enough to be used across different use cases, we're in a good position to find out which of our features are most useful in different situations.

Comments

Matt Kepple's picture

this is a smart idea. The technology sounds straightforward. I get the impression that the challenge is in getting local citizens to use the platform itself. In the trial there were 0.4% of residents who used the system. To what extent do you see Voxup replacing existing tools/mechanisms (online/offline) that engaged people already use to connect with local government, versus engaging a new audience of people in civic participation? And what kind of percentage of the population goals do you have? I come from a marketing background so am always excited by new products with big market potential such as yours.

Luta Valentina Morciano's picture

Great idea! Transparency and citizen participation in democracy are actual issues in many parts of Europe, even though I wonder if local representatives are really that willing to consciously and periodically contribute to the system.

Thanks :) one of the things we discovered quickly is that representatives are usually too busy to return to the site organically, but a useful service for them is if we remind them of the top topics that week (for example) in an e-mail. This makes the responses arrive semi-regularly.

Mari Kuraishi's picture

Really like this idea. I like that you've tested it in a ward, and you have somehow enrolled users who have never voted or contacted their representatives before. I like the idea that the representatives pay to get this information, and your ideas about having businesses sponsor polls/petitions like "Want more bike lock stands in front of our store?" In theory this is the kind of input Twitter is supposed to get a representative, but in practice it's hard for a representative to comb through the reams of info to be able to identify it as coming from his or her district. The biggest challenge it would seem is in signing people up for yet another platform. It would be a big win if it could somehow get integrated into a system people already use, to minimize the user acquisition challenge in a crowded space. I also don't know the competitive space well enough, although I'm familiar with the work of MySociety and SCF--to be able to say how your service is complementary to, or is competitive with other such services. It's very appealing as a tool to make local representative government work so much more transparently.

I've had a look at this and it's pretty hard to see how it would be useful for anything but vacuous comment on trivial local issues. It may be of interest to disgruntled home bodies wanting to have a moan at the council, but it's hardly going to reengage people with democracy in any sort of meaningful way.

By design it has absolutely no security to stop people faking votes and gaming the system. Any sort of effort to secure the system would immediately break the simplicity of interaction they've strived for and would make it useless as a tool for council based issues.

This is what I predict will happen. It will gain some traction, then it will be used by some council with their collective brain turned off to ask for opinion about a new multimillion pound development (or something that's actually important). The developers will rig the vote (they'd only need a handful of friends down the pub to do that), then a journalist will find out that a multimillion pound contract was awarded using rigged votes, and that will be the end of Voxup.

As a tool to re-engage people with democracy it's a fail, as a tool to bitch about trivial local issues, it's a clear winner.

It was important to us to start small and work out whether the feedback loop in its simplest form was something valuable to people with a diverse range of correspondence with their representatives in the past. Unfortunately in the UK it's not too hard to find people who have not engaged with their representatives before!

Our approach to pricing has changed slightly in the past couple of months: we now take the general approach to that any user putting information into voXup (constituents, councillors) do not pay for the service, whereas users who are primarily consumers (e.g. the council's consultation/engagement team) subscribe.

Your idea for onboarding new users through existing services is a good one -- we've recently been asking councillors to suggest their constituents use voXup through existing networks/local activists. This gives us both reach and also a mild endorsement.

While we're keen not to release voting data while a vote is taking place (to avoid herding), we think there are plenty of opportunities to use the data in voXup to report on how constituents view their councillors' responses, for example. Some such things we can do continuously, others we might have to wait for a topic to be 'resolved' before publishing -- an exciting future feature :)

Rajeev Kumar's picture

This project is good, is there any App available for this project.