political

Exclusive: Lib Dems boost voter engagement with new tech from Canada and Japan

Computer code

Close observers of the official Liberal Democrat social media feeds will have noticed recently a major shift away from predominantly broadcast messages towards a much higher level of interaction with voters.

On the surface, this is just a matter of good social media practice, treating the medium as a conversational one. But behind the scenes it is the first, least controversial, step in a three part plan to import technology from the Canadian Liberals.

A sister party of the Liberal Democrats, the Canadian Liberals also use the same election database software as us. It runs under a different name but under the hood is the same NGPVAN technology as deployed by the Obama campaigns and labelled ‘Connect’ by the Liberal Democrats.

Step one of the technological import is a set of machine learning algorithms, built in conjunction with the academic team who recently built a system that was claimed (not without controversy) to have passed the ‘Turing test’ to show it was indistinguishable from a human being. This code is similar to the technology I’ve blogged about before which is already being used in parts of the media to automate the writing up of short sports reports and also simple business news stories about financial results from firms.

For the Liberal Democrats, it is being used to automate ‘personal’ replies on social media, allowing the party to scale up its individual responses, despite not having large numbers of people to staff its social media accounts 24/7. The system also automatically extract keys information, such as voting intention or area of policy interest, saving it into the party’s Connect database and making it immediately available to grassroots campaigners.

Such automation is a logical progression of existing tools that help manage social media accounts, and the automated replies I received after creating a few test accounts to interact with the official ones were impressively personal looking. If it hadn’t been for the tip off from a Canadian friend, I wouldn’t have known the replies about my local candidate, STV and land value tax were automated.

Step two of the plan has only just started after extensive legal advice to ensure it is watertight: the use of similar artificial intelligence technology for making phone calls to voters. A step up from the standard ‘robocalls’ where a pre-recorded message is played, the ActivSpeak system responds to what voters say.

“In some ways it is even better than having a human call you, because volunteer canvassers aren’t experts on all areas of policy. With ActivSpeak the voter gets an expert reply regardless of what issue they ask about from Syria through to the Barnett formula,” one Great George Street staffer told me on condition of anonymity. And the answer will always be on message, the staffer didn’t add but I’m pretty sure was thinking.

It is hoped this will take the party’s micro-target of voters based on different policy interests to a whole new level with calls using Connect data and Mosaic-based modelling to predict for each voter which topic it is best to open the phone call with.

More controversially, ActivSpeak can be programmed with a range of different voices, and initial trials in low key parish council by-elections have found that the voices of some of the party’s frontline MPs are much more successful than others. In line with the party’s polling, Nick Clegg’s voice works very well with core Liberal Democrat voters, but with many 2010 supporters the party is trying to win back, the voices of Vince Cable or Tim Farron are more successful, I hear from the agent in one of those trial by-elections.

A strict order has gone out from Chief Executive Tim Gordon to all party staff not to reveal any statistics about which voices work best due to fears that MPs with an eye on future leadership contests could seek to derail the system if their voice is shown to be less effective than that of the frontrunner in any putative future contest, Tim Farron.

That, however, is a matter of internal controversy. The real public controversy is likely to flow from the third step of the plan, building on what the Canadian Liberals have already done and marrying it up with technology from the Japanese Liberal Democrats. Despite the similarity in name, they are of a very different political persuasion but this has not stopped the party signing a deal to trial in selected rural Scottish constituencies merging the ActivSpeak technology with the latest in Japanese robotics.

Voters across the Highlands are about to find their doorbells being run by fully automated, autonomous robots, able to hold canvassing conversations with them thanks to ActivSpeak and with holographic faces that can don the visage of the Lib Dem figure most likely to be influential on them.

“It’s the only way to get enough doorstep canvassing done in some of those mountainous rural areas,” explained party spokesperson Loof Lirpa.