Newspapers have traditionally played an important role in raising social debate and increasing the vitality of their local communities. With the development of the Internet, candidate candidate selection engines have become essential sources of political information.

The candidate selection engine is an Internet page, the purpose of which is to assist voters in finding a suitable candidate. To this end, both the candidate and the voter need to enter their replies to a series of questions focusing on political topics.

The candidate selection engine of Sanoma Corporation presents the parliamentary election candidates and their replies to 27 questions. A total of 1,631 – that is, four out of five – candidates have contributed to the engine. By replying to the same set of questions, users can find the candidates whose opinions come closest to their own – or are farthest from them. The overall purpose of this is to activate the Finnish voters.

"The selection engine is already commonplace for the readers of Helsingin Sanomat. In 2003 there were more than 300,000 users, and 400,000 might well be a realistic target for this election," says Marko Hamilo, science journalist and producer of the engine, who has been involved in the development of candidate selection engines since 2000.

Candidate selection engine is a joint project

Helsingin Sanomat, Ilta-Sanomat, Taloussanomat and Nelonen, all companies within the SanomaWSOY Group, have implemented the selection engine for the 2007 parliamentary elections for the first time as a joint project. With the help of the nation-wide media, the goal is to attract users from outside the election districts of Helsinki and Uusimaa – that is, outside the primary circulation area of Helsingin Sanomat; the presentation of the candidate selector in the service in particular seems to have steadily increased the number of users throughout the country.

Each of the partners has prepared a set of questions for the Sanoma candidate selection engine and has provided news coverage for the candidates' responses. The political editorial office of Helsingin Sanomat has assumed the main responsibility for preparing the questions. Questions sent by the users were also used as source material.

A graphical user interface displaying the candidates' position in the political map had already been introduced in the Sanoma selection engine for the 2004 European Parliament elections. This year the new features include pictures of the candidates as well as an opportunity for the candidates to add a link to their campaign videos.

Provoking social debate

The engine is useful for the candidates, voters and editorial staff alike. For the candidates, it provides free media presence and, for an extra charge, an aptly targeted online advertising channel, while for the voters it provides an easy way to find information on the candidates. The Sanoma candidate selection engine is increasingly serving editorial staff as well: the candidates' responses have been used as the source of many news stories.

The technology behind the engine is not complex; in fact, the technical solution has remained roughly the same since the 2000 municipal elections. Sanoma prepared its first candidate selection engine for the 1999 European Parliament elections. Whether the engine is of real use to the voters or merely gives the impression of a randomly drawn Top Ten list depends on the quality of the questions.

The answer alternatives in the Sanoma selection engine have been formulated in such a way that the candidates must give their opinion on each question. The 'don't know' option was not included. The question concerning the future political composition of the cabinet proved particularly challenging, but the candidates had to answer that question in order to be included.

"The basic idea is well-functioning. User interfaces can always be made better, but it is more important to understand politics and the logic of voting decisions," says Hamilo.

The objective of the Sanoma selection engine is to provide users with unbiased assistance in forming their political views. SanomaWSOY's operating principle is that a balanced development of society is possible when the media is independent and reliable. (in Finnish)