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APIs, Big Data, and the Indonesian election

The world’s largest ever single-day election took place just a few weeks ago in Indonesia. An incredible 187 million people, across 17,000 islands and three time zones cast their ballots in a period of just 24 hours. Of those, 22 million had never voted before, and there were 320,000 candidates to choose from. Maintaining an open, transparent flow information under such conditions is clearly challenging. But it’s not impossible.

Technology can play a huge role in helping to promote transparency, innovation and people-centric systems in fundamental aspects of life, such as politics.

For example, in the past it’s been a struggle just to find simple information on Indonesia’s election candidates. Data has usually been sprawled across scanned documents and not easily accessible, so voters have had to rely on bits and pieces of information to decide whom to support. Political jockeying is intense, and often includes lavish parties during election time (sometimes involving elaborate costumes, dancers, and live animals).

This year, an Indonesian NGO called Perludem set out to make information on the candidates more accessible to voters. They released an open API for the election database, enabling anyone with coding skills to try to build a website or mobile app that could make sense of the data containing candidate CVs, photos and geographic information.

Coders competed at a ‘Hackathon’ in March to build the best platform and interface for election information. The process paid off, and this year voters had multiple channels to learn about candidates and make informed decisions.

This is a technique that has been used to great effect by successful brands like Twitter, which released its API before it even had a mobile platform and then built on the prototypes coders had made. Now even mainstream brands like Netflix, Best Buy, and The North Face use APIs to provide consumers easy access to data.

In general, APIs do a lot of good for both brands and consumers. They promote transparency, crowd-source innovation and empower talented people to help make sure consumers get the most out of what the brand offers.

But it’s exciting to see such technology being used to help bring transparency to opaque political systems. If the election in Indonesia is any indication of the future, we may continue to see innovations that make common practices more people-centric. And if consumer-centric brands are able to deliver a better experience, will a people-centric world be better for us all?

Mark Bosse is an associate strategist at Wolff Olins New York.