South Africa’s fourth democratic elections will be the first where social media plays a role not just in terms of political parties using the platforms to sway hearts and minds, but also as a tool for media to keep the public engaged and informed – and for the public to generate their own content that will then be used by the media to offer real life perspectives.
Technology has always been an important part of elections, says Jannie Momberg, editor in chief of News24. “The biggest difference between the 2009 and 2014 elections is the rise of social media. Facebook was around five years ago, but its growth locally has been phenomenal. Add in the rise of Twitter and the way political parties and people generally communicate has fundamentally changed,” he says.
Another game changer is the massive growth of mobile. Many South Africans lack access to broadband via laptops or personal computers, but cellphones are ubiquitous, and an important means of communication to a large number of people.
Momberg says this “represents a fundamental shift for us as well”. “As a publisher we can support our users with information via their mobile phone in a far more meaningful way than ever before. The news value of a national election presents the perfect intersection for news, data and mobility.”
Which is why 24.com has developed a free elections app designed to provide users with all the authoritative information and results from the 2014 national elections.
“We built both our iOs and Android apps internally at 24.com. We started planning the apps about a year ago,” Momberg says. “We looked specifically at voter registration dates to deploy the apps into the market and have major updates planned in the coming months.”
Cathryn Reece, head of product at 24.com, says the company’s engineers underwent “an exciting learning curve around data visualisations with the assistance of the IEC”. She says they focused time and attention on digitising election information for future use. “Our biggest challenge is to bring international election results reporting to mobile screens in a way that makes sense to the South African consumer and accurately represents the nuances of the South African political process.”
This consumer, says Momberg, is “Any South African with an iOs/Android device interested in the elections”.
“We have built into the apps the functionality where you can personalise your own content feed dedicated party news as well as general information around the process, party information and so on,” he says. “Our mobile browser offering has been designed specifically to cater for additional mobile platforms and we are going to great lengths to mirror functionality between apps and mobile web wherever possible.”
With data playing an increasingly important role in newsrooms, Reece says News24 is “constantly looking for ways to enhance our ability to use certain tools to present data. This is not just necessary for the elections – presenting complex facts in a form that users find palatable is a key function of journalists, and particularly in the online space”.
She says the biggest challenge will be in rolling out live updates from the editorial team on election day which is why the engineering team has been brought to the forefront of the product development process “to ensure infrastructure is stable.
While News24 will publish content from partners such as City Press and The Witness, most of the content will be “generated internally and also from feeds and our audience”, Reece says.
She says because of the “easy access to social media, blogs (such as our Voices platform) and other means of expression, users will have access to a broad spectrum of opinion on the elections, the parties and the issues. We are very cognisant of the need to facilitate this ongoing participation and conversation”.
The app focuses on breaking news, multi-media visuals, user generated content (especially on voting day), mechanisms to check whether you’re registered, registration and voting information, daily polls, party information and ongoing opinion and in depth analysis. The app will also offer the live results map that News24 had huge success with during recent elections (including a previous results overlay showing results in comparison with the live streams for 2014).
“The news around a national election changes minute by minute. News24 focuses on breaking news but with this election we wanted to take it one step further and offer a dedicated application to voting savvy users which would ensure that this momentous election was covered in as much detail and as effectively as possible,” Momberg says.
News24 will also be offering extensive election coverage through their dedicated election pages at http://www.news24.com/Elections