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The Vote Leave campaign wasn’t as clever as it thinks it was

I tried to use Brexit wizard Dominic Cummings’ magic voter database, and it wasn’t all that.

A crack team of physicists, led by a divisive but brilliant former government adviser gone rogue, create an incredible computer programme to singlehandedly defeat the sinister forces of the establishment – reality or the storyline of my rejected screenplay, NCIS: Nuneaton?

Dominic Cummings, director of the Vote Leave campaign, has written a blogpost about how his campaign hired physicists to use data and build software, giving them the edge over the competition, or in his own words: “The campaign had to do things in the field of data that have never been done before.”

He also made available the system they used to do this – the “Voter Intention Collection System”, or VICS, which I decided to take a closer look at.

What was VICS really? At its simplest, it was a website for Vote Leave volunteers. They could use it to print off lists of voters, so they could knock on doors and ask how they were planning to vote. They then entered that information back onto the website. Yep, that’s it.

If that sounds a little underwhelming, then you’re not wrong. Indeed, evidence in the code suggests that VICS was built by a Leeds digital agency with no physicists on staff at all. So what sets it apart from what the Stronger In campaign were doing? Or from what the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems did during the general election? Erm, nothing at all, unfortunately. This kind of software has been about in one form or another since the late Eighties.

Where’s the much vaunted secret sauce? The modelling, the big data, the digital ad wizardry? We can piece some of it together from Cummings’ blog, comments in the media and on Twitter, and VICS itself.

On modelling, Cummings says: “Data models helped us target the ground campaign resources and in turn data from the ground campaign helped test and refine the models”. This is where your data scientists (and, presumably, their knowledge of quantum mechanics) come in.

Reading between the lines, they did some polling and used it to predict how likely each voter in the country was to vote Leave, which they then tested with what they were hearing on the doorstep. Just like the Stronger In campaign, the major parties, and many large companies have been doing for the last few years. Next.

Targeted digital advertising is another little-understood but much-hyped campaign technique. Cummings reports that using their models and Facebook, “We ran many different versions of ads, tested them, dropped the less effective and reinforced the most effective in a constant iterative process.”

Now I agree, this does sound pretty tricky. Luckily for us, Facebook’s ad software does it automatically for you.

Most interesting, however, is some of the data left in VICS after its hasty publication, which includes a file describing how many electors the campaign spoke to in each constituency. I can’t vouch for its veracity as it may well be an earlier snapshot or otherwise incomplete, but based on my experience working with this kind of data, it looks like a plausible set of numbers, and it’s pretty sobering.

It suggests that the Vote Leave campaign contacted 120,621 voters over the course of a year, less than 0.3 per cent of the electorate. According to the data available in VICS, in key Leave regions across the north of England – which accounted for nearly a quarter of the Leave vote – there were 8,880 conversations in total, and the median across all constituencies was just 31. (By comparison, the major parties would hope to see at least 1,000 conversations per week in a competitive battleground seat approaching a general election.)

These figures cast doubt on the campaign’s claims of having over 12,000 activists out canvassing every week in the last ten weeks of the campaign. Finally, looking across the country at all the voters the campaign spoke to, just four in ten were Leave supporters, a figure that raises questions about the final quality of the campaign’s targeting efforts.

None of this is to diminish VICS itself, or the volunteers who dedicated their free time to the campaign. I’m sure their efforts had an impact. The campaign was undoubtedly well-run, but it wasn’t nuts and bolts-like data or direct mail that did it – doing these things only makes a difference on the margins, which can be cancelled out if the other side is equally savvy.

The real power of Vote Leave’s campaign was that it tapped into the British public’s discontent with the status quo, and crafted a message that resonated with people from Carlisle to Penzance. But it’s crucial that we properly scrutinise claims made by campaigns about how clever they are, even if they do win.

Joshua Carrington is a former Labour staffer. You can follow his tweet-by-tweet trial of VICS on his Twitter timeline, @jshmrtncrrngtn.

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Is Google Maps discriminating against people with disabilities?

Its walking routes are not access-friendly.

“I ended up having to be pushed through a main road in London, which was really scary.” Three weeks ago, Mary Bradley went to London to visit her daughter Belinda, who is just finishing her first year at university there. Her other daughter joined them on the trip.

But what was supposed to be an enjoyable weekend with her two children turned into a frustrating ordeal. The apps they were using to find their way around kept sending them on routes that are not wheelchair-friendly, leading to time-consuming and sometimes frightening consequences.

Bradley has been using a wheelchair – when having to go longer distances without a vehicle – for over a year, due to a 45-degree curve in her spine, severe joint facet deterioration in her back, and other conditions.

She lives in Weston-super-Mare in Somerset, and has made the trip up to London to visit her daughter a handful of times. Each visit, they use Google Maps and the transport app Citymapper to find their way around, as neither of them know London particularly well.

Belinda and Mary Bradley. Photo: Belinda Bradley

“It was just horrible,” says Bradley of her most recent trip to the capital. “We’re following the maps, and we go along, then find we are faced with a footbridge, and realise there was no way I was going to get over it, so we had to go back the way we’d come. At one point, we were faced with a strip of narrow pavement the wheelchair couldn’t go down. That was something we found all weekend.”

While Google Maps did highlight accessible Tube stations, they found that once they had alighted to do the rest of the journey to their destination on foot, “it took us three times as long, because the route that it takes us just wasn’t passable”.

They ended up having to try different routes “having no real idea of where were going”.

“It meant that it took so much longer, the girls ended up having to push me for longer, I got more and more embarrassed and frustrated and upset about the whole thing,” Bradley tells me.

At one point, her daughters had to take her down a main road. “Being pushed on a road, especially in London, is scary,” she says. “It was scary for me, it was scary for the girls.”

When they returned home, Belinda, who is a 19-year-old Writing and Theatre student at the University of Roehampton, was so furious at the situation that she started a petition for Google Maps to include wheelchair-friendly routes. It hit over 100,000 signatures in a fortnight. At the time of writing, it has 110,601 petitioners.

Belinda's petition.

Belinda was surprised that Google Maps didn’t have accessible routes. “I know Google Maps so well, [Google]’s such a big company, it has the satellite pictures and everything,” she says. “So I was really surprised because there’s loads of disabled people who must have such an issue.”

The aim of her petition is for Google Maps to generate routes that people using wheelchairs, crutches, walking sticks, or pushing prams will be able to use. “It just says that they’re a little bit ignorant,” is Belinda’s view of the service’s omission. “To me, just to ignore any issues that big needs to be solved; it needs to be addressed almost immediately.”

But she also wants to raise awareness to “make life better in general” for people with disabilities using navigation apps.

Belinda has not received a response from Google or Citymapper, but I understand that Google is aware of the petition and the issue it raises. Google declined to comment and I have contacted Citymapper but have not received a response.

Google Maps does provide information about how accessible its locations are, and also allows users to fill in accessibility features themselves via an amenities checklist for places that are missing that information. But it doesn’t provide accessible walking routes.

“There’s no reason that they couldn’t take it that bit further and include wheelchair accessible routes,” says Matt McCann, the founder of Access Earth, an online service and app that aims to be the Google Maps for people with disabilities. “When I first started Access Earth, I always thought this is something Google should be doing, and I was always surprised they haven’t done it. And that’s the next logical step.”

McCann began crowdsourcing information for Access Earth in 2013, when he booked a hotel in London that was supposed to be wheelchair-friendly – but turned out not to be accessible for his rollator, which he uses due to having cerebral palsy.

Based in Dublin, McCann says Google Maps has often sent him on pedestrian routes down cobbled streets, which are unsuitable for his rollator. “That’s another level of detail; to know whether the footpaths are pedestrian-friendly, but also if they’re wheelchair-friendly as well in terms of the surface,” he notes. “And that was the main problem that I had in my experience [of using walking routes].”

Access Earth, which includes bespoke accessibility information for locations around the world, aims to introduce accessible routes once the project has received enough funding. “The goal is to encompass all aspects of a route and trip,” he says. Other services such as Wheelmap and Euan's Guide also crowdsource information to provide access-friendly maps.

So how long will it take for more established tech companies like Google to clear the obstacles stopping Mary Bradley and millions like her using everyday services to get around?

“You can use them for public transport, to drive, you can use them if you’re an able-bodied person on foot,” she says. “But there are loads of us who are completely excluded now.”

Sign Belinda Bradley’s “Create Wheelchair Friendly Routes on Google Maps" here.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.