Voting advice applications (VAAs), or election compasses, are outstanding tools for assisting with candidate choice. In the last 25 years, they’ve become a staple of democracy in Finland and other, mainly European countries. Over two thirds of the electorate make use of them here, and young voters in particular rely on them. For parties and candidates they offer visibility centered on political issues and not constrained by campaign budgets.
For each national election, the largest media outlets publish VAAs that reach millions of electors. In addition to these, some smaller orgnasations release their own VAAs focused on specific viewpoints. All of these applications are, however, strikingly similar both to each other and from one election to the next. Their operational logic has remained mostly unchanged for at least a decade. Have voting advice applications thus reached the apex of their development?
We believe otherwise. Due to their vast popularity, VAAs have much potential to advance democracy even further: Their functionality and usability could be much improved. There could be greater variety in them, offering diverse user experiences and political perspectives. Most importantly, they could be more transparent; all Finnish VAAs, as well as most of those abroad, are closed systems with no insight to their matching algorithms, for example.
Our solution to this challenge is the creation of an open-source framework for VAAs. Thus, we can enable the publishing of VAAs to a much wider spectrum of organisations than now. Furthermore, when the basic foundations are freely available, VAA publishers can concentrate their resources on improving them if they so choose. Nor is the scope of the VAA framework limited to Finland or national elections only. We ensure its compatibility with different electoral systems and languages from the onset, vastly expanding its possible applications to, for example, internal elections of non-governmental organisations.
Due to the great influence of VAAs, it’s very important that the framework along with the VAAs built using it function reliably and do not repeat errors made in the past. To this end, we also compose a methodological guide based on existing research literature and that conducted as part of the project. The guide is integrally tied to the framework and, naturally, open-sourced as well. It will cover the whole process of VAA creation from formulation of the questionnaire statements to the choice of matching algorithm.
The three-year OpenVAA project started in 2023. The first VAAs created using it will be published for the European Parliament elections in April 2024. The project is funded by Sitra – the Finnish innovation fund. Abreast with it, a separate research project called YouthVAA is conducted at the Helsinki University, which is tasked with building a VAA for young, first-time voters. YouthVAA is in turn funded by Kone Foundation.
The projects are coordinated by designer Kalle Järvenpää and VAA researcher Veikko Isotalo. Veikko has expansively explored the design of VAAs and theoretical issues associated with them. Kalle has focussed on the user experience of VAAs and published an innovative VAA prototype for the 2021 Finnish municipal elections.
The vision statement for the project is:
A widely used and openly developing framework. Diverse VAAs built with it help connect various voters with candidates and improve understanding about different views and values present in the society.