Myanmar’s Tech Community Codes as Part of the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge -- Photo by Andrew Thornley
On November 8, 2015, millions in Myanmar went to the polls to cast their votes – many for the first or second time in their lives – for members of the Union Parliament as well as for the 14 state and region parliaments. After decades of military rule, this marked the country’s first election in which all political parties participated, and on March 15, the new Parliament elected the new president, Htin Kyaw.
While expectations for the elections were high, many voters lacked basic knowledge of electoral processes and the roles and functions of state institutions. A recent Asia Foundation survey, Myanmar 2014: Civic Knowledge and Values in a Changing Society, found that just 12 percent of respondents knew how the president is elected.
To bridge this crucial voter information gap, The Asia Foundation turned to Myanmar’s small but rapidly growing tech community. On September 12, just two months before elections, more than 130 developers and designers in 30 teams entered the MaePaySoh Hack Challenge, a competition to create mobile and web applications that are user-friendly, fun, and full of essential information for voters about the general elections.
For two weeks, teams of developers coded through the night at the offices of our local partner, Phandeeyar, to transform a curated trove of data on parliamentary candidates, political parties, voters’ frequently asked questions, incumbent MP performance, as well as images of ballots, maps, and polling procedures into user-friendly applications for Myanmar voters.
After teams submitted 31 web and mobile applications for consideration, members of the MaePaySoh organizing team shortlisted the top 10 teams. After intense deliberation, the judges awarded the top prize to Team PopStack, who developed an elegant, easy-to-use app called “mVoter2015” for Android and iOS platforms. The app allows voters to use their current location to determine the candidates running for the upper and lower houses of Myanmar’s Union Parliament, as well as those running for the state assembly. Winners received cash and other valuable prizes, including automatic membership in the Accelerate Track of Facebook’s FBStart program, which provides these burgeoning technology entrepreneurs with mentors and $80,000 worth of services.
Internet access in Myanmar is limited, but the country is actually in the midst of a connectivity revolution. The opening of the telecom sector has led to tremendous growth in data access via the cheaper smartphones that dominate the market. There are more than 32 million active SIM cards in Myanmar today, and more than half of them regularly access information from the internet. With initiatives like MaePaySoh, The Asia Foundation hopes to reach the public via this channel, while also engaging the young, tech-savvy generation in Myanmar’s nascent civic life.
Suzanne E. Siskel is Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer for The Asia Foundation.