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Myanmar Elections Hack Challenge: Let’s Vote!

September 23, 2015

By Kim N. B. Ninh, Mi Ki Kyaw Myint, Susan Lee

When 32 million Myanmar voters go to the polls on November 8 to choose their representatives in national, state, and regional parliaments, many will be voting for just the first or second time in their lives. After decades of military rule, this will be Myanmar’s first election in which all political parties will participate, with 91 parties fielding 6,074 candidates. While expectations for the elections are high, many voters lack basic knowledge of electoral processes and the roles and functions of state institutions. Given this situation, The Asia Foundation and its local partners have reached out to Myanmar’s rapidly growing tech community to bring the power of information technology to voter education with the MaePaySoh (Let’s Vote) Hack Challenge.

Myanmar Elections 9-23-15

Participants at the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge.

Urgent Need for Voter Education

As Myanmar prepares for this historic election, voters’ familiarity with the organs of state, the electoral process, the political parties, and the candidates is exceptionally low. A recent Asia Foundation survey, Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society, found that just 12 percent of respondents knew how the president is elected. In a nationwide survey completed in June 2015 by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, eligible voters reported feeling substantially uninformed about many aspects of the upcoming elections, including basic mechanics of voting such as how to mark the ballot and where and when to vote. Respondents also reported feeling least informed about the participating parliamentary candidates and political parties.

Engaging Technology to Inform Voters

To bridge this yawning voter information gap, The Asia Foundation, along with other election-related and civil society organizations, turned to Myanmar’s small but rapidly growing tech community. On September 12, more than 130 developers and designers in 30 teams entered the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge, a competition to create mobile and web applications that are fun, user-friendly, and full of essential information for voters about the general elections.

The teams are making use of an extensive library of election-related data provided in digital format by The Asia Foundation and its partners. Working closely with the Union Election Commission, the Foundation has digitized essential biographical information on all 6,074 candidates, including age, gender, ethnicity, religion, education, occupation, and party affiliation. For candidates who served as members of parliament at the national level between 2011 and 2015, the Foundation collaborated with the local research organization Open Myanmar Initiative to provide data about their parliamentary records, including the subjects of questions they raised and motions they submitted.

A voter FAQ data set, developed by the local voter education organization Charity Oriented Myanmar and The Asia Foundation in consultations with communities around the country, addresses voters’ frequently asked questions. The content of the voter FAQ ranges from the functions of state institutions to the electoral system and the mechanics of voting in 2015. Details about each of the 91 political parties, including party leadership, logos, platforms, and contact information, are also included in the database. The Myanmar Information Management Unit, a project of the United Nations and the NGO and donor communities in Myanmar, created constituency maps showing the borders of national parliamentary districts. Pulling together all these data sets, the Foundation has made them available to the competing teams of developers through the open-source MaePaySoh Application Programming Interface, or API.

MaePaySoh and the Connectivity Revolution

Internet access in Myanmar has been estimated at just two to four percent, but the country is actually in the midst of a connectivity revolution. The opening of the telecom sector has led to tremendous growth in data access via the cheaper smartphones that dominate the market. There are more than 32 million active SIM cards in Myanmar today, and more than half of them regularly access information from the Internet. With MaePaySoh, the Foundation hopes to reach the public via this channel, while also engaging the young, tech-savvy generation in Myanmar’s nascent civic life. The Foundation has partnered with Phandeeyar, the leading center for civic tech and social innovation in Yangon, and with the local developer groups Myanmar Geek Girls and Google Developer Group Yangon, to reach out to the tech community to participate in MaePaySoh.

Who Will Build the Best Voter App?

The teams of developers have been hard at work since September 12. The MaePaySoh Hack Challenge ends on September 27, when the teams will display the results of their work to the judges. Winners will receive cash and other valuable prizes, including automatic membership in the Accelerate Track of Facebook’s FBStart program, which provides mentors and $80,000 worth of services to technology entrepreneurs. Join us for live updates as winners are announced on September 27, 2015, at www.facebook.com/maepaysoh.

Kim N. B. Ninh is country representative, Susan Lee is program manager, and Mi Ki Kyaw Myint is program and operations officer for The Asia Foundation in Myanmar. They can be reached at kim.ninh@asiafoundation.org, susan.lee@asiafoundation.org, and miki.myint@asiafoundation.org, respectively. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Myanmar
Related programs: Elections, Technology & Development
Related topics: Myanmar Elections

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