The 2014 Toronto municipal election draws near, and within 30 days the city will find itself awarded (or, depending on your political views, saddled) with a new mayor. With publicity stunts, dramatic drop-outs and one very malignant tumour, the race for the next chief magistrate has taken turns at the bizarre, the ugly, and the just-plain-depressing. Voters are soundly buried in sound bites as the relentless network news cycle provokes and prods. (Who would have thought a Canadian civic election could catch the ire of Iron Mike?) Internationally, the city is poked and laughed at from afar. Though it looks like we may finally have arrived at some stability in the polls, the charts continue to look like the saddest rainbow in existence. This whole, months-long process just seems exhausting. Why even vote?
With the sheer overload of it all (and the comparative lack of substance), it is hard to blame would-be voters turning into would-nots. The race only has three major candidates left in John Tory, Olivia Chow, and Doug Ford, yet the plethora of debates and stump speeches have not done a good job in presenting voters a clear summation of platforms. According to a poll done by Nanos Research Group in early September, 17% of potential voters are still undecided. Are you one of them? Thankfully, we now have something that can cut through the haze, and show voters a crystal comparison of candidates. Bring in Pollenize.
A new idea that was born for this election, Pollenize is a website and app that breaks down each major candidate in an exciting and visual way. For Pollenize, the mission is to present voters how each candidate stands on each issue, and to make accessing that information as clean and organized as possible. Trevor Blades, Pollenize’s web developer, explains, “Pollenize has certain aspects that any voter can utilize, especially if you are an uninformed or a first-time voter.”
To wit, the landing page of Pollenize brings you to a candidate checkerboard, with each candidate having their own tile complete with their previous title (e.g. John Tory: “Businessman”; Olivia Chow: “Former Member of Parliament”) and a caricature-styled portrait courtesy of illustrator Shon Tanner. As Pollenize has been running since the start of the election, previously active mayoral candidates Rob Ford, David Soknacki and Karen Stintz are also there, albeit faded out with the words “CAMPAIGN CONCLUDED” emblazoned across.
Selecting any candidate’s tile brings you to a page with their history, education, and, most importantly, their platform; each candidate has their own page built and designed entirely by Pollenize. Featured quotes from the candidate, as well as graphics surrounding each issue of their platform, gives the page a very fresh and exciting look. Indeed, Pollenize just seems fun to use, which feels like a strange thing to say about something to do with municipal politics!
If Pollenize feels like it was constructed with the young voter in mind, then it would be no surprise to inform that the developer behind it, Really Awesome Doings, is a team mostly made up of young men that went to the same high school together. Though its members are now scattered all across Canada with people in the GTA and Vancouver alike, it hasn’t stopped the team from building web projects together from day one.
However, it wasn’t until last March when the idea of Pollenize was seeded. Blades and friend/teammate Miguel Barbosa (now Pollenize’s project manager) were on a FaceTime call when the topics of young people and politics came up. Blades recounts:
“The idea came up that the youth of today don’t have access to vast amounts of information that is required to become informed about elections; we are given piecemeal by the media while their agencies look for buzzwords. So, we thought we could tailor something to the app generation we are all a part of.”
Blades, Barbosa and the rest of the team decided to treat this idea seriously. As voters themselves, they wanted to have something that any voter can use while not feeling overwhelmed by the media and discouraged by the process. It is something that Blades himself can relate to. “I’m anxious about voting, personally,” he divulges, “So you want to make sure people are comfortable.” Hence, Pollenize’s easy digestible format that is easy on the eyes.
At the same time, however, Pollenize had to be taken seriously. One of the goals of Pollenize was to make it so that politicians would be willing to share it with voters. Social media has turned everyone into a fact-checker these days, and politics has always been one area that burns hotter than others. If Pollenize did not stack up, voters would not stick around. The right research had to be done to determinate not only what the most important issues were, but the correct positions from each candidate.
So, before Pollenize even designed anything, they enlisted the services of political analyst David Clement, and sat down and took a long hard look at the election. Based on media and voter attention, the team crafted a list of what they believed to be the most important issues facing Toronto voters, and prioritized them as such. Scroll down any candidate’s page on Pollenize, and the first issue you see will always be transportation. This was no arbitrary decision; based on their findings, Pollenize determined that was the number one area of concern, whether it related to the island airport or the LRT vs subway debate.
But it wasn’t enough just to decide what the most important issues were—there is also the difficulty in finding and sourcing each candidate’s position. Each piece of information, each blurb on each issue, has a source where a user can be directly linked.
However, this brings in another kind of problem—neutrality. It is one of the most important factors, if not the most, for Pollenize. They do not want to appear biased for any candidate, though naturally this is a hard thing to achieve—look at any media outlet or forum for long enough and you will eventually see which candidates are (dis)favoured. So how can you be objective as possible when even your sources are accused of subjectivity from all sides?
The answer involves a lot of reading and watching; that is, finding the common points across every form of media. Pollenize not only heavily scrutinize each source as much as they can, they try to use as many different, and different-viewed, sources as possible. This can be a difficult and time-consuming process, but it is not something the team is willing to take lightly. In fact, the search for accurate information is a huge part of the reason why Doug Ford’s page has yet to go live. “The graphic illustrations and design are in place; the only thing holding us back is sources,” states Blades. Though it may seem tempting to simply cut and paste the policies of one brother to the other, Pollenize wants each page held as its own. As Blades continues, “Regardless if [Doug Ford] says his campaign is exactly the same, we need a specific source for each issue.” However, the lack of real information from the Doug Ford campaign has made Pollenize consider putting up an interim page for the time being.
Nevertheless, accusations of bias will always run rampant. Much to the team’s amusement, Pollenize has indeed received scorn for being in the tank—for each candidate. “We’ve heard that we are biased for all candidates,” says Blades with a hint of laughter, “People wonder who is behind us. It is flattering to think that this is a work of a big company, when we’re really just a small team.” With these denunciations coming from all sides, Pollenize can only take the complaints as a sign they’re doing their job right.
Pollenize’s combination of design and fact-checking has resulted in a unique platform for voters to use, a primer for those who are not usually invested in the voting process. Someone who is more civic-minded, however, might find more substance in a platform akin to Vote Compass or the one CBC used for the 2014 New Brunswick provincial election. These take an inward-to-outward approach, querying potential voters directly on their feelings on issues, and then matching the answers with the politician or political party that resembles their values the closest. However, these kind of platforms can be intimidating and stressful for first-time voters, which makes Pollenize’s outward-to-inward approach (voters look at the candidates first, then figure out where you stand) more ideal. Of course, in an ideal, civically-minded world, voters would already be well-informed in every issue and enthusiastically look forward to the ballots, but alas that is not the world we live in.
Pollenize, then, represents a good start in engaging people that normally would not vote. Civic engagement in Toronto has historically been in the basement, to the point where voter turnout of more than half of the registered population is considered unusual. Hopefully, with the visual pop and attractive professionalism of Pollenize, Blades and co. has changed the minds of more than one person about participating in elections. According to Blades, the reception had indeed been very positive, with much of it praising the personality of Pollenize’s design. So then, once this election is over, what’s next?
Though Pollenize was started with the Toronto election in mind, it will not be finished once the winning candidate is making his or her victory speech. There are plans to take Pollenize beyond not just Toronto, but Canada as well. The Chicago mayoral election is the next target, and though voting will not take place until February, the team behind Pollenize aren’t planning on taking any breaks. “We have to prepare to ensure that the website [for Chicago] is up months before election,” Blades states, “We want to make sure that the information is out there right away.” Once again, a simple copy-and-paste won’t do. According to Blades, Chicago is a different city with different issues: “The complexion of the race is going to be quite different, so we’ll go back to the drawing board.”
As well, with new projects come new chances for improvement. From the user feedback that Pollenize has received on the Toronto election, one of the common complaints was the inability to compare directly candidates’ platforms on one page. Pollenize aims to fix that, along with improving some basic usability features. All this will be good preparation for the big one in 2015: the 42nd Canadian federal election. Though this level of politics will certainly call for daunting work, Blades opts for optimism, “Pollenize is going to be a permanent thing. We hope to be a fixture in the election for the future.” With this kind of positivity, it is not hard to see how Pollenize can work.