How Thailand’s Boonmee Lab uses impact-led design to drive election insights.

The startup brought data, design, and a collaborative community together to create an interactive digital platform.

Thiti Luang, one of three co-founders of Bangkok’s Boonmee Lab, will be the first to tell you that he didn’t start the company in 2014 to make money.

“The goal of this company is actually very simple: it’s to make a meaningful impact,” he says. “So it doesn’t matter if it makes a profit or doesn’t. If it makes an impact, we [take on] the project.”

It’s a sentiment that is easier said than done, but the work from the past year alone is a testament to his claim.

Boonmee Lab's co-founder Thiti Luang.
“The goal of this company is actually very simple: it’s to make a meaningful impact," says Boonmee Lab's co-founder Thiti Luang. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Data science meets design

What began as a start-up in a garage focusing on music, Boonmee Lab has morphed to bring together tech, human-centered design, API development, and data science in a way that Thiti feels can create impact for society.

“After we started we got a more clear focus about what we really care about and what we really want to do, so we redesigned ourselves,” Thiti says.

“It’s difficult to summarize, but I would say what we do [now] is data, design and technology done in a meaningful style,” he says.

Their long, window-filled office in the heart of one of Bangkok’s red-light districts is a representation of that, with about twenty people sitting in their respective working groups, occasionally interacting over ideas. “It took a while to get these different kinds of people together and working on something,” Thiti says, gesturing to the tech, design, data and admin employees in the room. “But when they do they can do a lot, and they can make a big impact.”

With the help of volunteers, Boonmee Lab created ELECT, a platform to keep Thais informed about the election. Photo by Victoria Milko.
With the help of volunteers, Boonmee Lab created ELECT, a platform to keep Thais informed about the election. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Election insights

Thiti says ELECT, one of Boonmee Lab’s biggest projects, is an example of what collective brainpower and collaboration can create.

In early 2019, Thailand announced that it would be holding general elections for the first time since the 2014 Thai coup d’état that installed coup leader General Prayut Chan-o-cha as prime minister.

Boonmee Lab recognized that there was a lack of information available, so it teamed up with online publisher The MATTER and online platform Minimore to put its skills and ethos to use.

“We knew each other and want to start a project together in 2018,” Thiti says. “At some point we nailed down the idea of data journalism and visualization for Thai election in 2019.”

With the help of volunteers, Boonmee Lab set out to create a way to provide information to citizens across Thailand about the upcoming election in an interesting and user-friendly way.

What was born was an interactive digital platform that allowed audiences to learn about Thailand’s political history, compare key details and policies of each party, explain election rules and times in an easy-to-understand way. ELECT also offered a searchable database of candidates in each constituency, as well as interactive graphics, games, and quizzes. The ELECT team even developed a tangible aspect, taking their online Thai political history game and turning it into a card game.

One component of ELECT was made physical -- a card game that tests players on their Thai political history. Photo by Victoria Milko.
One component of ELECT was made physical -- a card game that tests players on their Thai political history. Photo by Victoria Milko.

Grassroots support

On election day, Boonmee Lab reported real-time results using an API developed by another media company to distribute data to other media outlets, as well as open source software, making it possible for volunteer designers and developers to contribute to the effort. ELECT’s audience could then see results of each party and of the entire country as the results came in.

“[The volunteers] did everything basically,” Thiti says. “From research, to storytelling, to social media, to data visualization and web development.”

Thanisara Ruangdej, CEO and co-founder of data storytelling and consulting studio Punch Up, who also worked on the ELECT project, says the project received positive feedback, especially from first-time voters.

“Young voters or people who were never able to vote before can sometimes ignore the conventional way to tell stories or news about Thai politics,” says Thanisara. “So we used tools like data visualization and graphics to attract them. And we could see it was very popular and shared many times.”

But even with the election over, she says, the ELECT project is far from done.

“Even after the election, the political mechanism and democracy needs to continue in this country, so we will still be working on this [project] for a while,” she says.

Thanisara Ruangdej (in the pink shirt) and others work in the Boonmee Lab office in Bangkok. Photo by Victoria Milko.
Thanisara Ruangdej (in the pink shirt) and others work in the Boonmee Lab office in Bangkok. Photo by Victoria Milko.

ELECT has caught the attention of others in the tech industry, too.

Saijai Liangpunsakul, who is originally from Thailand and works as the Senior Tech for Change Manager at Yangon-based tech innovation lab Phandeeyar, says she was really impressed with what she saw.

She says something like ELECT could be useful for Myanmar’s 2020 general elections to bring together various groups in Myanmar that aim for greater access to information and a better informed public.

“I think what made the movement so powerful in Thailand was that different groups came together with the goal of channeling info to public,” Saijai says.

“In Myanmar, a lot of people feel that way. They want to help you with hacking. The journalists want to report what happens. Civil society wants to share information or data. I feel we have the sense that [everyone] wants to do something with the upcoming election. We just need to come together and actually make something happen. So I want to bring together tech, media, civil society, hackers and more.”

For Thiti, the success, impact and reach of ELECT continues to serve as an example of what drives his ideology for Boonmee Lab’s work.

“We do what we think is right, and do what we think society needs to see and needs to know, without caring much about how we are going to make money,” Thiti says. “That’s when people get to know you and they want you to do something for them.”

Victoria Milko is a multimedia editor at Frontier Myanmar based in Yangon. She is a member of the Women Photojournalists of Washington and the National Press Photographers Association. Follow Victoria Milko on Twitter.

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