If you are one of a third of voters yet to choose who to cast your ballot for in two weeks time, chances are you might turn to the internet to help pick a party.

That’s Vote for Policies hope anyway.

Vote for Policies has redesigned its site from scratch for the 2015 election © Vote for Policies/Crowdfunder
Vote for Policies has redesigned its site from scratch for the 2015 election © Vote for Policies/Crowdfunder

It is the UK’s most popular election decision-making app, according to Alexa traffic statistics, and one of a growing number of websites that allows people to assess which political party matches their views most closely. There are now thought to be seven in total, compared to two for the last election in 2010.

Vote for Policies wants one million citizens to have filled in its survey when the UK goes to the polls on 7 May, double the number who used the tool before the last election. 502,000 people have already completed the survey versus 158,000 this time in April 2010.

Before the 2010 election, founder Matt Chocqueel-Mangan built the website with “a couple of mates”, he tells Techworld.

He runs the project on a voluntary basis while working as an agile delivery manager at the Home Office.

For the 2015 election, Chocqueel-Mangan had a bit more money at his disposal: £23,500 crowd-funded from over 900 individuals then matched by the Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust.

So he employed web development agency UVD to redesign the site from scratch to handle a big uptick in interest.

Mobile most important

About 60 percent of the expected one million users will access the site on their mobile, according to Chocqueel-Mangan.

“To say mobile is as important as desktop is inaccurate now. It’s more important. I can’t emphasise that enough,” he says.

A significant challenge is the scalability of the app. It has been set up to handle huge, sometimes unpredictable spikes in traffic, UVD’s founder Kirsten Minshall explains.

“Last time we had as many surveys done in the last 48 hours as in the entire period up to that. We’re talking potentially 10,000 to 20,000 doing the survey every hour in the last 24 hours…in the leaders debate [on 2 April] we went from a couple of hundred doing the survey to 12,000,” he says.

The team redesigned the technology behind the app from scratch, creating prototypes, testing different versions of the site on users and refining the process of selecting policies.

Now, the site uses elastic load balancing from Amazon Web Services so an extra server can be added whenever it is required. It was load tested with Locust.io to ensure it can handle 5,000 users at any one time and 25,000 completed surveys in an hour.

“For the tech stack, at the very lowest level is a MySQL database, then a result cache which is very highly optimised for the number of users using it. Then we have load balanced two servers up to 10 with a PHP application surveying the frontend. We use Angular JSon the front end but it's been progressively enhanced so it will work without JavaScript,” Minshall explains.

User experience

Another problem for the team to solve was the amount of content people have to read and absorb before making a decision on which policy they prefer, he says. 

“A benefit of Vote for Policies over other services is that policies are completely unabridged. It means it can't be accused of bias, but it is a lot of information to absorb and make a decision on. It's a big UX [user experience] challenge,” Minshall says.

To make the site more mobile friendly, instead of presenting all policies next to each other in one long web page, UVD decided to present one policy per page which can be dismissed or added to a shortlist.

“I’m really confident that the site won’t go down. I’m 100 percent confident in UVD. If it does it’s because we’ve had a phenomenal level of traffic, which would be a good problem to have,” Chocqueel-Mangan says.

Most of the website’s traffic comes through Twitter or Facebook, which jointly provide “at least 50 percent of traffic at any one time”, he adds. The app does not collect any demographic data.

Post-election plans

So what happens after the election?

Choqueel-Mangan plans to set up a policy tracking service “integrated with Vote for Policies”.

It would let people track policies and see how many get implemented in government, either via manifestos or a post-election coalition agreement.

“We can see what all the parties pledged, their stance against others and whether they confirm to that stance once elected. We could track the performance of the government and provide regular updates. We’d say to politicians: policies matter. That’s how we’ll judge your performance,” he says.

“It’s a vital missing piece of the democratic puzzle…people can engage and it matters. It’s not just about filling in a survey at election time. It’s about getting people to engage with democracy.”