In Myanmar, young programmers launch first-ever election app

YANGON (Reuters) - Huddled in an open-plan office atop a tower block in Yangon’s scruffy downtown, a group of teenagers in jeans and T-shirts sifts through the list of candidates in Myanmar’s election and stares at their computer screens and mobile phones.

Meet Team Pop Stack, which has just launched Myanmar’s first ever election app, and is racing to spread the word. The coders who built the app, MVoter2015, are all younger than 20.

Now they are targeting millions of hyper-active Facebook users in Myanmar, where mobile telephones and the Internet have spread rapidly since the end of military rule in 2011, and social media have a critical role in the Nov. 8 election.

The southeast Asian country of 51 million people has more than 18 million SIM cards for mobile phones, up from about a million just three years ago, Reuters data show.

“Most of the people don’t know how to vote and they don’t know who are the candidates in their constituency,” said one of the team, Myat Min Soe, 19. “I think this app can help them.”

In the absence of televised debates or professional websites, it is on Facebook that parties exchange opinions, and sometimes, blows.

Both opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi and President Thein Sein posted video messages to voters on their Facebook pages. Radical Buddhist monks who have stoked religious tension used Facebook to spread photos from a large rally on Sunday.

Team Pop Stack worked around the clock for three weeks, said Myat Min Soe, juggling programming with studying for university exams, to win $4,000 in a contest for the best election app in Yangon, Myanmar’s biggest city.

The competition was organized by the non-profit Asia Foundation, partly financed by the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.

“I only know candidates who are popular on Facebook, but this app shows me other candidates,” said one user, Ei Myat Khin, 25. “It also includes information on voting and voter registration.”

The program helps voters sort through more than 6,000 candidates from more than 90 parties battling for seats in Myanmar’s national, state and regional assemblies.

The app brings welcome relief for Internet-savvy citizens, who say the election commission’s website does not offer the font most popular with users in Myanmar.

“They can’t check their names easily on the government website,” Myat Min Soe said. “We thought about how to solve this problem and now our users can use the Internet easily without thinking about the font.”

Myanmar election officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

Team Pop Stack says the app, although meant for everyone, is aimed especially at people such as themselves, Myanmar’s first generation to grow up with unfettered Internet access.

“There are many people voting for the first time in their lives, and many young people are interested in these elections,” said Phyo Min Thu, 18, a second year student at the University of Information Technology.

“I hope we can share information and give them the facts they need.”

Editing by Clarence Fernandez