The Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Awards are held to accredit the brightest new ideas in Ireland each year, and the Elevator Award is set up to help these start-ups advance and reach the next level. The Elevator award winners this year included SmartVote, Blossom Ireland, Sugru, Care Leavers’ Network, which provides support to care leavers through mentoring and training, and The Mojo Programme which advocates a cost-effective response to develop men’s mental well-being. SmartVote is a voting assistance application set up to connect young people and politics and was born out of the UCD Innovation Academy. The College Tribune meets up to talk to its founder – Keith Moore.
So firstly, what is SmartVote and how did you envision the idea for it?
“So basically we started SmartVote because I saw a problem myself in the last local election because there were 28 candidates in my constituency and I didn’t know who to vote for. And I didn’t want to vote for a person just because they had a nice poster, so for the first time in my life I ended up not voting at all. And I thought there has to be a better way to make an informed voting decision. So then last summer I did a postgrad in UCD Innovation Academy, and I used that time to come up with some possible solutions. I did a huge amount of research initially to see what kind of problems voters were having and what problems candidates were having as well. I spoke to about 500 students in the initial stage to see what problems they were having, why they weren’t voting or engaging in elections. I found that the major problem for the students and the voter is that there was a lack of trust in politics and a dislike of poster and flyers. For the candidate it was hard to reach the constituents, it was time consuming and they were getting a lot of abuse on the doorsteps. So I imagined there was an easier way to compare all the candidates in a fast and unbiased way – to help increase voter engagement and turnout, to increase transparency and trust in elections, and to allow candidates to reach their constituents easier. Basically SmartVote is about breaking down the barriers and opening up a new communication channel.”
“We ask the candidates to give their opinion on 30 issues; the user gives their opinion on the same issues. And we match the user with the candidate that best shares their views. We tested it in UCD, we had about 2000 users and 22% said they weren’t going to vote before using SmartVote, 63% said they discovered new candidates, then 65% said it affected who they voted for. So it was a good first pilot. We got about 4000 users for the [Carlow-Kilkenny] by-election, and 72% discovered new issues, 57% discovered new candidates, 56% said it affected who they voted for, and 98% said they would use it for a general election. We were outside Carlow and Kilkenny city halls for a week, just showing people the app and how to use it. There was a girl about 18 or 19 and it was her first or second time going to vote, and she said ‘I only vote whatever my father votes’, so I said give it a go, and she actually had an opinion on every question and at the end of it she was empowered to make her own choice which was brilliant.”
How has the company gone forward and evolved from those initial successes?
“So since then we’ve been shortlisted on the Dot.ie Awards category “Best Use of Technology for Social Good” and we’ve won a Social Entrepreneurs Ireland Elevator Award. Basically we feel there’s a unique opportunity at the moment because of the Water Charges movement and the Marriage Equality referendum for the youth of Ireland to get engaged more. The challenge is that the Marriage Equality referendum was about one clear issue; the General Election is about a range of issues, that’s why SmartVote is really important to engage students in a simple ten-minute quiz. We have a lot of partners for the coming General Election, USI, SpunOut.ie, the Journal.ie, Future Voice Ireland, Trinity College Dublin, Straight Up For Equality, UCD, Women for Election, and Rock the Vote. So we’ll get as much help as we can to reach our target audience, which is 18 to 25 year olds.”
What was your experience claiming an Elevator Award, and what will it mean for SmartVote going forward?
“Well from start to finish it was an excellent experience. There were fifty social entrepreneurs and we had to pitch our ideas to different panels. During the bootcamp stage there was such energy in the room, because all these good ideas were [looking at] doing good for Ireland. Then we had an interview stage and after second interview panel we were awarded a final award. There were six Elevator Awards, and every one of them was brilliant – it was great to share the stage with these guys doing fantastic things. They had the philosophy that ‘we’re not going to wait for things to happen, were going to make a change and do what needs to be done’.”
“You get 20,000 in cash funding and 10,000 worth of workshops and pro-bono work. So it’ll mean we can bring SmartVote to every constituency in Ireland, and we’ll be able to advertise it a bit as well. We’ve come up with the questions and we’ve sent the questions to the parties. So the parties are going to answer the questions they have party positions on, and any question they don’t have a position on the candidate will answer. We’ve met with the election offices in all the major parties and they’re just working through the question now. There’s a lot of work ahead and we have to reach out to all the candidates, but once we get the parties on board it’ll be in their interest to join it then. We’re looking forward to it.”
SmartVote, it seems, continues to grow and move from success to success, and in the lead-up to the spring General Election any undecided or inquisitive voters will we able to take their test at www.smartvote.ie.
– Jack Power, Politics & Innovation Editor