Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times
Photo: Sonu Mehta/Hindustan Times

Civic technology apps are giving voters a voice

Some of these civic tech apps are also working on technology to enrol people onto the voter list through their apps

New Delhi: As the 2019 elections draw near, civic technology apps in India such as Neta, Next Election and Civis. Vote are gaining traction with users as they give citizens a voice in the country’s decision-making process.

The Neta app currently has more than 100,000 downloads on Google Play, though its founder, Pratham Mittal, claims the actual number of users are more. That’s because Mittal has been promoting the app as Indian states go to polls, getting users to sideload (downloading an app from sources other than Google Play) the app on their phones.

The app, currently available only on Android, allows users to rate politicians on different issues and the work they have done. The app then comes up with an aggregate rating for each politician. There’s also a leaderboard for politicians based on users’ votes for them on the app.

Mittal started Neta about six months ago and has since promoted it in states such as Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Telangana, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. Mittal, who aims to get 90 million users before the 2019 elections, says his app is already making an impact. “A lot of new leaders have started using the app for campaigning," he says.

Mittal says he has had conversations with political parties and found that they are actively following the app to choose the right leaders as their representatives. He cited the example of south Delhi Member of Parliament Ramesh Bidhuri, who is campaigning on the app and has garnered 3,000 votes on it.

Next Election, another platform launched this year, works similarly. It operates through a website now but founder Amit Bansal says an Android app is in the works. “Everything gets reviewed and rated, but that’s not happening in politics," he says.

Next Elections allows users to write posts, create polls and more. The company works with policy groups such as Madhyam to bring citizens’ issues to the government’s notice. It also partners with non government organizations, lawyer collectives and trusts. As it is in the beta phase right now, the platform currently has only about 1,000 members, but Bansal plans a proper launch in December.

Bansal also plans to give unique accounts to politicians and parties through which they can campaign and interact with citizens.

Both Mittal and Bansal have plans to eventually monetize the platforms. They say the data from the platform can be valuable to researchers, publishers and media. According to Mittal, such apps can eventually compete with services such as CVoter that usually provide election-related information to media and other organizations.

As the user feedback here is public, it’s more transparent, Mittal says. Neta is also working on technology to enrol people onto the voter list through the app.

Besides involving users in the political conversation, civic technology apps are also helping get citizens’ feedback into policymaking. Civis.Vote, a non-profit organization, works with government officials and legislators to get user insights for consultation papers and policy decisions.

Hardly a year old, Civis also functions through a web platform but plans to launch an app soon. The platform’s founder, Antaraa Vasudev, says they plan to focus on policy and consultations, instead of elections and politicians.

However, Civis doesn’t allow conversation between users. While you can see your own responses, you can’t see what others are saying. This has been done to avoid herd mentality.

Vasudev has already worked with I Change My City (perhaps the oldest civic tech platform in the country which also serves as the technology back-end for the Swachh Bharat app), to submit citizen feedback to the Bangalore Development Authority and the Gurugram Metropolitan Development Authority. You can also access I Change My City independently to post grievances and issues through its Android and iOS apps or the web platform.

As Civis is a new platform, getting citizen feedback requires some legwork at the moment, but Vasudev hopes the platform alone will suffice in future, once the user base grows.

However, like all early-stage start-ups, these companies face challenges. A November 2017 report by the Knight Foundation highlighted funding, lack of success stories and growth paths as some of the hurdles. Neta’s Mittal, though, says he has already received interest from multiple big-name media firms who want to make equity investments in his app. Next Election’s Bansal says that like any social platform, advertising is a viable option for him as well, alongside the rich data his platform will eventually generate. Civis, on the other hand, plans to depend on grants for sustaining itself in future. All three companies are bootstrapped (have invested their own money) at the moment.

Another good news is that investment firm Omidyar Network has partnered with venture capital company Village Capital to support civic tech start-ups. Other investments firms will likely follow suit.

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