For the People, By the Techies

As voters and politicians get tech-savvy, a generation of election-oriented startups steps in to inform and connect them online.

Updated: March 23, 2014 10:49:33 am

With weeks left for the general elections, Yogesh Upadhyay, an IIT-IIM alumnus and IT entrepreneur from Mumbai, wants to talk about coal. Nearly a fourth of Indians are not connected to the power grid, yet the discourse on access to electricity rarely moves beyond subsidies to the larger issue of power generation, he says. “Our power plants are not getting enough coal although India is sitting on some of the largest deposits in the world. What is the thinking of political parties on coal?” It is one of the questions Upadhyay,  43, founder of Ask How India, a new, election-oriented content website, wants to ask politicians.

As the educated Indian’s unease with politics melts away, making way for meaningful dialogue with candidates and elected representatives, several brand-new startups are positioning themselves in the space between citizenry and leadership. They occupy the intersection of political activism, outreach and data science to help voters make informed choices as well as connect with their leaders.

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With well-researched “capsules” on urban development, power and other issues, Upadhyay’s website is an attempt at improving the quality of public debate in India. Tired of the platitudes in party manifestos, he decided to help voters pose the right questions to their representatives. Upadhyay and his team —eight seasoned professionals in infrastructure, banking and management who moonlight as writers and data analysts for Ask How—spoke to over two dozen thought leaders, who agreed that “the question to ask is not if an elected leader will tackle inflation, corruption and job creation but how.”

Deepa Kumar, 23, started asking these questions early. A political science graduate and a former fellow of the Legislative Assistant to Member of Parliament (LAMP) programme run by PRS Legislative Research in Delhi, Kumar worked with Rajya Sabha MP Rajiv Chandrasekhar before founding GrassRoute India. This non-partisan startup aims at increasing interaction between political representatives and citizens, especially on online platforms, in June 2013. “The idea is to bridge the dialogue gap and improve the quality of discourse,” says Kumar, who has organised Google Hangouts and Twitter chats with Milind Deora (Congress), Somnath Bharti (AAP), Jayaprakash Narayan (Lok Satta), Baijayant Jay Panda (BJD) and Kavita Krishnan (CPI-ML), among others. Each of the 14 sessions addressed issues trending on or crowdsourced from social media — youth participation in politics, ensuring good governance, Section 377, voting rights for the armed forces, transparency in election funding, racism against people from the Northeast, etc —  and saw 45-50 citizens engage directly with a legislator and stakeholders like lawyers and civil society organisations. “Social media analytics tells us that we have been able to reach about 88 lakh people with a single, hour-long session,” says Kumar.

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GrassRoute facilitates these sessions for free, but, often, politicians with an eye on the polls want to reach a larger audience. “When they are looking to target X number of people, we charge for the service. In a way they are outsourcing the outreach to us,” says Kumar. Her team based in Mumbai can rustle up a session in a week.

“For young people, GrassRoute offers a different way to engage with the system. Politicians have been very encouraging. They want professional services, and after all, they cannot ignore the change in the wind,” says Kumar. The startup is an offbeat route to politics for her. But before she is ready to contest an election, she wants to perfect and promote mpConnect, an app by GrassRoute that has seen 1,500 downloads on Android and iOS.

“Through the app, voters can look up the contact details of the MP from their constituency — email, phone number, etc — and engage directly with him or her,” she says.

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Pune-based engineer Krushnaal Pai’s Android app, NetaG, is yet another effort to bridge the gap between voters and political leaders. Pai, 25, wanted citizens to be able to engage directly with their corporator or MLA about civic and other issues. “Most urban Indians own a smartphone. If they chance upon a pothole, over-flowing garbage bins, rabid dogs, or a water shortage issue, all they have to do is click a photograph, upload it on NetaG and fill in the details about the problem. The app tracks and ‘pins’ the location to help with the process,” says Pai, who is now promoting the free app among local politicians. “Even now, not every neta is tech-savvy,” he says.

But for many young voters, the conversation around elections has already moved online, says Nirbheek Chauhan, a Bangalore-based freelance software developer who launched an election information website called The Ballot last August along with graphic designer Pooja Saxena. The Ballot presents data in an easy, less-intimidating form. “Many young people don’t own a TV today, they consume all their information on the Web,” says the 24-year-old.

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As innovators try and blend online and offline worlds through the ubiquitous mobile phone, politicians are seeking data and analytics like never before, says Naman Pugalia, who co-manages Bangalore South’s Congress candidate Nandan Nilekani’s high-tech campaign. During his stint with Google — he recently resigned from the company — he helped coax Milind Deora, Shashi Tharoor, Sheila Dikshit, Narendra Modi, P Chidambaram and other leaders to communicate through Hangouts. “Our pitch to them would always work because of the monitoring that was possible. Governments are used to disseminating information but if they could see who was watching the videos and from where, that piques their interest,” he says. In one of the most watched battles in the impending Lok Sabha polls, Infosys co-founder and former Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI) chairman Nilekani is taking on five-time MP Ananth Kumar of the BJP with a massive, state-of-the-art campaign. Early on, Pugalia, 27, and his team decided to run the campaign like a startup. “We picked up best practices from the world and combined them with qualitative insight to build an end-to-end technology platform to manage the campaign, analyse data and post-elections, to monitor the constituency,” he says. The platform will be made open source after the elections so other contestants can benefit from it, says Pugalia.

Voterite, India’s first social network for voters and candidates, targets the problem of influencing the 100 million Indians on social media to vote. When Vikram Nalagampalli, the 34-year-old vice-president of Cinergy Technology, a US-and-India-based technology consulting company, moved back to Bangalore last year, he quickly realised that “for the first time, the educated urban populace could have a big say” in how the country will come to be governed. Even at a time when political campaigns on social media have reached fever pitch, the “likes” and the support that candidates garner will not necessarily translate into votes, says Nalagampalli. This is where the website, which went live in November 2013 and was used by Aam Aadmi Party candidates for the Delhi elections, comes into the picture. Essentially, Voterite is a peer-to-peer campaign platform that allows voters to endorse a candidate of their choice among their social media connections. “Voterite is built on the principle that we are influenced by our friends on social media. If two or three of them ask us to vote for a particular candidate and list out the reasons why, there is a fair chance that we will give it some thought,” says Nalagampalli. According to him, the network has about 30,000 registered users who in turn can potentially “influence” 3.8 crore voters.

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Voterite is working with 60 candidates to set up their profile pages embedded with pictures, curated videos and campaign messages. The self-funded venture aims to make money by selling analytics to politicians —demographics, trending issues, information on top campaigners — and will not run any political ads, says Nalagampalli.

Accountability is perhaps the deepest fault line in Indian politics, where poll-time promises often gather dust. I For India is an ambitious MP and MLA ratings website that wants to change this. Ankur Garg, 31, who worked in business intelligence for Microsoft till September 2012, and Tarun Jain, a business analyst, joined hands last year to launch the platform, where citizens can rate their political representatives on parameters categorised into basic needs (electricity, water, transport, education, healthcare), governance and administration (law and order, inflation, poverty), growth and progress (traffic, roads, jobs, tourism development) and reputation (scams, women’s empowerment, religious harmony). “The idea is to have at least one rating for every 50,000 people in the constituency,” says Garg. Three lakh people have visited I For India till date and 25,000 have registered by providing a valid mobile number. Only registered users are allowed to rate MPs and MLAs. In the years to come, startups, will play a major role in plugging gaps in democracy, says Garg. “Large corporates tend to shy away from politics. Startups have no such baggage.”

Both Voterite and I For India are looking to raise funds after the elections, but Garg says venture capital is not easy to come by in the newly-minted political technology space. Surabhi HR, the young woman behind Bangalore-based venture Political Quotient, a political internship programme and consultancy, agrees. The 23-year-old started out last year with Rs 20,000 and went on to raise Rs 2 lakh from her uncles. “You have to work with the system and not against it,” says Surabhi, who worked with several politicians including Krishna Byre Gowda (Congress), Ananth Kumar (BJP) and Captain Gopinath (AAP) before she went on to found her startup. “We (a team of five) are currently working with three legislators in Karnataka to help them connect better with their constituency. We take up short-term consulting contracts wherein we do field research, train their assistants in outreach and public relations, and develop technology solutions like a call centre that people can call to learn about government schemes,” she says.

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To take on other technological challenges ahead of the elections, Venturesity, a Bangalore company that works in online skill development, is organising a two-day hackathon on March 29-30 in partnership with Intel to “get the vote out, get the voice out”. “In a country where more people have reliable access to cellphones than electricity, can you build something to get the vote out? In a country where progress happens before the elections, can you build something that will enable people to get their voice heard every day? These are the specific challenges technologists will address,” says Prashant Koirala, founder of Venturesity. Techies from across India have expressed great interest, he says. “In two weeks, we have received over 120 applications,” says Koirala, 31. “We expect some of them to be quickly turned into products before the elections.”

With inputs from Prajakta Hebbar

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