This content has been published in Nightingale Magazine, Issue 2, Winter 2022
Who we are: a fusion of people hoping for a better society
Let me bring you back to late 2018, in Thailand, where I was working for an online news media company. Thanks to my job, I had the chance to meet some people who worked with data and technology and who shared a common interest in using those tools for social impact. At that time, there were no examples in our society of how data, tech, and media professionals could work together to do this. We wanted to figure it out, so we started a pilot project: a combination of data, design, tech, and media, for social good.
While we were discussing our project, Thailand’s general election was approaching, coming after five years under the military government and eight years after the last election. This election mattered to all Thais, and also to us. We all dreamed of a better democracy, a more participatory and transparent system, and we believed that one way to move closer to this dream was to make data and information more easily accessible, understandable, and meaningful. Then, we could encourage people to get involved more easily, discuss their opinions more constructively, and make decisions based on evidence. Thus, our pilot project ELECT (elect.in.th), which is now WeVis (wevis.info), was born.
Our team included data designers, developers, and data storytellers. We defined ourselves as a civic technology aiming to empower people to reclaim an active role in socio-political life through technology and open data.
After the election, we saw an opportunity to apply our practices to other social issues, like social justice, social welfare, the environment, and others. We established the data storytelling studio Punch Up (punchup.world) as an official organization to rethink social conversations with data, while continuing WeVis as a non-profit project.
Why we exist: to do what needs to be done
For over three years, WeVis and Punch Up have developed a range of projects that work toward our mission of making data and information more accessible, understandable, and meaningful. We chose to focus on open data because we believe that the right to information is a basic right for every democratic society. Thailand’s open data is still poor in terms of accessibility and quality and sometimes privileged for select groups of people, despite the existence of a right to information law.
Moreover, we noticed that our society had become more and more irrational and polarized. Some public policies and social conversations were derived from personal opinion, rather than data, leading to unconstructive debates. Could issues become clearer and more constructively debated if authorities made their—or our—data accessible and understandable to the public?
Investigative journalists and civil society organizations have struggled to push the open data issue for years. Our hope is that our team can reinforce this push by turning conceptual proposals into tangible projects. Once data is more accessible and made relevant to people’s lives, we believe it will be more likely to engage the public—and open data will, in turn, become more attractive to more people.
Our team strives to make the things happen in our society that we have always wanted but never had.
What we do: empower people with data
Our projects not only encourage open data, but also aim to enhance the value of democracy via civic engagement and participation. Specifically, we seek out projects that will address at least one of three goals: to disclose information, enable participation, or create collaboration. For example:
Civil Movement 2020 (elect.in.th/civil-movement-2020) is an example of a project aimed at disclosing data to explain a phenomenon. In 2020, there were hundreds of civil political movements around Thailand, held by different groups of people with different agendas. News of these movements was on social media every single day, but no one was able to see the big picture. Even activists themselves had no idea which other groups shared their agendas. We decided to create a database of civil movements from the data we collected throughout the year. We analyzed and visualized it to allow audiences to understand the relationships among the movements in terms of time period, agendas (e.g., call for justice, government protest, constitution amendment, monarchy reform), movements, characters, and also acts of violence happening during these movements. The project was intended to be a documentary record and to explain the current political situation to the public. We designed the dashboard as a blooming flower, recalling the Wild Lily Student Movement in Taiwan, to evoke a sense of the blooming democracy.
They Work for Us (theyworkforus.wevis.info) and Promise Tracker (promise tracker.wveis.info) are other projects we are proud of, as they set a new standard for Thai politics by providing data for more constructive discussion and rational decision making. Thai society has always debated the moral values of politicians and political parties, mostly depending on what individuals see on the news—which is opinion-based. Lacking an overarching picture, consolidated data, and information for judgment, those debates often became emotional arguments. Therefore, we decided to develop They Work for Us to let people keep track of the latest MPs, senators, and cabinet members: easily searching for politician profiles and their voting records. When we found the official data about members of the parliament and the cabinet, we realized that they haven’t been regularly updated. They were also not well-organized, were in paper format, and required a lot of effort to access. Together with volunteers, we gathered the messy data and made it easier for the public to monitor. For Promise Tracker, we gathered data on all political campaigns that each party promoted during the latest general election, and tracked what their members have done to realize their election promises. We strongly believe, and have seen a lot of evidence on social media, that people have adopted this information to debate politicians’ moral values, more rationally and constructively. This will help people consider who to vote for in the upcoming elections.
Cyberbullying is another issue where we have used data to encourage social debate. Cyberbullying has been a significant issue in our society, and the media has portrayed the issue the same way for several years. When we started this project, we had many questions: How big was this problem in our society? How and why do people cyberbully others? What exactly could we do about this issue that would be different from other approaches? We realized we could answer these questions with data, so we started Cyberbullying on Thai Social Media (thairath.co.th/spotlight/dtacstopcyberbullying) by using social listening tools to gather all cyberbullying-related posts on social media for one year. After analyzing over 21 million posts, we found significant insight into where and when cyberbullying happened and what it was about. We then worked with academics to explain the socio-cultural context. This project became the first and largest database on cyberbullying in our society, open for others to cite and use for further research and problem-solving.
The last project we want to talk about is Better Road, Better Life (better road.thailandfuture.org), where we used data for evidence-based public policy. For a long time, the media and public agencies have campaigned about dangerous and careless driving and how it causes road accidents, but casualty and mortality rates have not changed. Consequently, in collaboration with the policy platform Thailand Future, we dug into road accident data, analyzing casualty and mortality rates to find patterns in when, where, and why accidents had happened during the past 10 years. Our project communicated this research to the public in an interactive data story, and it became a bite-sized policy playbook for local administration to use. After launching the project, we received positive feedback from the public and policymakers. More conversations were started about road safety, such as the need for better infrastructure and stronger law enforcement. More local government officials also began to take action; we hope it leads to some real changes in our road safety in the long term.
In collaboration with the Thailand Institute of Justice, Let’s Get Together (tijrold.org/rold-in-action/letsgettogether) was developed as a platform for people across generations and points of view to see what others think on various social issues (e.g., what is right or wrong about conflict in an organization, or certain behaviors on social media). This platform aims to make every single voice heard and to encourage empathy, allowing others to recognize different opinions, especially as political views within Thai society have become increasingly polarized between generations. About 10,000 individuals from different generations and sociopolitical backgrounds joined this campaign, and the data has now been developed into an evidence-based playbook and workshops that explain the social situation and make suggestions on how to come together despite our differences. We think this could be the first level of participation: making people’s voices heard.
Another level of participation we have pushed for is to encourage people’s voices and decisions to inform the legal process. We started with our capital city’s public expense, and experimented with the idea of participatory budgeting in the project Bangkok Budgeting (bangkok budgeting.wevis.info). We developed an interactive platform visualizing Bangkok’s expenses for the past five years, that allows people to vote on the city’s development by rating, ranking, and commenting. Thousands of users joined this campaign and their opinions were submitted to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration (BMA). We also followed up with the BMA for updates, to see if any issues from the project were dealt with.
Following the public expense project, we are now collaborating with a civil platform to support the people’s right to initiative and to implement our latest Initiative Process Act. We are creating a campaign where eligible voters’ can easily subscribe their names to a petition for bills to be introduced, and for information to be easily gathered to make proposals to parliament. Our efforts in developing these projects reflect our belief that a hopeful society and democracy must be developed by the people, and are not a given.
Our final goal is to connect people and to bridge the gap between civil society and the government so that we can work together on building our dream democracy with data. Although none of our projects have reached this goal yet, we still aspire to help build the dream government that we would like to work with.
How we do it: for the people, by the people
Since we believe that society belongs to the people and is driven by information and participation, we routinely collaborate with others who share our goals. Many of our non-commercial projects were initiated by volunteers, partners, or contributors, and we have supported these projects with our team’s expertise. For other projects, our team has initiated the project but benefitted from our partners’ contributions. That is, I suppose, how democracy works: creating collaboratively by the people, for the people.
Punch Up and WeVis have inspired some individuals on our journey:
“I see Punch Up/WeVis as a collaborative space that uses collective civic hopes and abilities for social goods. I truly believe this kind of collaboration is required to tackle complex issues in society. This is what Punch Up/WeVis values, and it’s not just democracy as the outcome, but throughout the process we work on together.” – Withee Pooitasai, Technical Lead @ Punch Up/WeVis
“When you sense some unusual things happening around you, finding someone that can feel it too is a real blessing. Working with the WeVis group helps me in this way. You can share and support each other or at least laugh about those shitty things. The best is when they give you the courage to start doing something about it.” – Supawit Pipat, Product Designer & Product Manager & Contributor
“In our country, transparency in public sectors is lacking and seems just a word to target each other in debates. WeVis shows that when data becomes available, accessible, and easily understandable, transparency is far more powerful as a weapon for the general public to hold politicians and government officials accountable. Additionally, WeVis inspires individuals and collectives from any part of the political spectrum, to transform data to be more friendly and understandable to everyone.” – Narat Suchartsunthorn, Software Engineer & Contributor
“I am one of the users of the projects and have collaborated with the team in promoting civic tech development. As a non-profit organization working on various projects promoting transparency and accountability in the Thai government, it is the reason why Punch Up/WeVis should exist and keep inspiring Thai developers to contribute the code for the public in the future.” – Natthaphong Ruengpanyawut, Member of Parliament
Our future hope for data and democracy in Thailand
We are still dreaming of a better democracy here in Thailand. We still believe that making more data accessible and understandable will lead to more constructive conversations, rational decisions, and effective participation.
Even though Punch Up and WeVis have not made a huge change in our society, we have received feedback that our projects have been an inspiration and provided hope for many people. Our practices have set new standards for socio-political conversations. I trust that, if we continue what we are doing and keep believing, we will eventually realize our dream society.