Behind the scenes with On The Fence

On The Fence is an online interactive tool that aims to boost voter participation – especially among students – in the upcoming general elections. The now renowned programme was developed by Massey University’s The Design+Democracy Project. Massive Magazine’s Natasha Tziakis sat down to chat with Research Officer for The Design+Democracy Project Kate Baxter ahead of this year’s general elections.

So, what exactly is On The Fence and why should students care?

So, On the Fence is an online tool, to show users which parties their values align with. How it works is that we asked the political parties to respond to a series of challenges, and the users do the same. we’ve had all of the parties respond to a set of questions and then the users respond to the same set of questions. And then we match them up.

What initially prompted you to want to create this and what were the general feelings towards government at that time?

On the Fence is made by The Design+Democracy Project which was formed in 2013 in response to the Electoral Commission calling upon research and academic communities to respond to declining voter participation. On the Fence originally started as a student project in 2014.

You have more than 1000 followers on On The Fence’s Facebook page, to what extent has your social media presence helped engage students in kiwi politics?

It’s amazing how engaged the people on Facebook actually are, like are constantly messaging us all the time and we try our best to chat to people through the page and respond to every message. And it’s great having the Facebook page just as a tool to be able to talk to people.

Baz the Sheep is a cutie on the homepage, who’s idea was it to bring him to life?

Well we had a sheep for the first On The Fence, he was our mascot. And Baz, this time around, is actually named after our last research officer, Tom Le Bass. Tom worked on Vote Local which is our tool for the local elections, and so he gets the sheep named after him. So, the next one will be named after me. It’s a cute little tradition.

So, it’s like a legacy?

Yes, well, it’s quite cool having Baz to talk for us sometimes. Some people will message the Facebook page and address it to Baz and I like coming up with sheep puns.

How easy is it for people to use On The Fence and what are the benefits of using it ahead of the upcoming election?

We have designed On The Fence primarily for usability, so it can be the easiest tool for people to use out there. There’s no barrier from entry, you don’t have to know very much at all about politics and that’s the whole idea; it’s entry level. It’s the first stop for people who don’t know anything about the election. The benefits are to just start a conversation, that’s what it’s for. We just want people to start talking and make people aware that the election is even happening.

The Design + Democracy Project is one of the main units behind this project, does it have any other socially minded initiatives that students could participate in?

So, The Design+Democracy Project created Vote Local, for the local elections. There was Flag Post for the flag referendum. We had Ask Away and On The Fence for the last election and we are always working on stuff. So, if anyone is interested, then we are more than happy for you to approach us. We love having students involved. And they have actually been involved in nearly every step of the process this time around, from writing the questions to user testing.

What would be your advice to students wanting to become more educated in how the New Zealand government works?

I would start probably by talking to people. Because it’s really confusing just starting on your own. So use the resources around you and the most important thing is people. I came onto this project knowing very very little about politics. And over the past couple of months, I’ve learnt heaps just by being amongst it. And I’ve really noticed that this year, this election, my friends are talking about it more. It’s that whole ‘youthquake’ happening. Makes me hopeful.

What do you think has been the most rewarding moment for you on this journey of creating and developing On The Fence?

I don’t think I can pinpoint one specific moment but I’ve gained invaluable experiences from this whole process. From being encouraged to push myself into new scary spaces. I had to go on the radio last week and I did a piece for the news and for someone who is not comfortable with presentations or being in front of a camera or anything is terrifying. It’s been amazing.

Were you interested in politics when you were at school/university? If not, what changed that for you?

No, not at all. So, I studied Design here at Massey and then I got this job. I had no understanding, well I had an interest in that I knew who I was going to vote for, but it wasn’t something that I actively participated in.


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