U of L stu­dents win award for vir­tual vot­ing plat­form

Lethbridge Herald - - Hometown News | Southern Alberta - Sub­mit­ted by the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge Veras.ca.

The face of po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment, ev­ery­thing from how you vote to how you in­ter­act with public rep­re­sen­ta­tives, may soon un­dergo a mas­sive shift thanks to a new vir­tual plat­form cre­ated by Univer­sity of Leth­bridge stu­dents.

Veras Tech­nolo­gies Inc. is a blockchain-driven, se­cure vot­ing plat­form that al­lows users to sign in vir­tu­ally and cast bal­lots from any­where in the world. It re­duces the need for polling sta­tions, group gath­er­ings and man­ual ma­nip­u­la­tion of bal­lots, cre­at­ing ac­cess to the po­lit­i­cal process like never be­fore.

“We were sit­ting around try­ing to come up with a project for a blockchain hackathon and started talk­ing pol­i­tics,” says Veras chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer, Peter Hurd-Watler, a fourth-year stu­dent in the Dhillon School of Busi­ness. “Di­vine (Okonkwo, a free­lance graphic de­signer and Veras team mem­ber) tells me how much he doesn’t trust the elec­toral process in his na­tive Africa and how they still use flimsy pieces of pa­per. I told him it was the same thing here in Canada, ex­cept with fancier pieces of pa­per!

“That was kind of the light­bulb mo­ment and I thought blockchain could pos­si­bly be a so­lu­tion for this.”

The group be­gan work­ing on its idea in May 2019. Hurd-Watler did an ap­plied study course over the sum­mer fo­cus­ing on the value of blockchain in re­duc­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in Alberta’s cur­rent elec­tion sys­tem. By sum­mer 2020, with sup­port of the U of L’s Agility pro­gram, they were ready to test the con­cept at the 150Star­tups’ In­no­va­tion Rodeo stu­dent pitch com­pe­ti­tion. It won both the re­gional and fi­nal cham­pi­onships — as well as $10,000 and the op­por­tu­nity for Hurd-Watler to go to Draper Univer­sity in Sil­i­con Val­ley in June 2021 for a five-week en­tre­pre­neur­ial ac­cel­er­a­tor pro­gram.

“Agility was re­ally help­ful in that they had a frame­work built on how to test your idea be­fore putting a bunch of money into it,” says Hurd-Watler. “Their ad­vice and guid­ance over the past year has been re­ally im­por­tant in help­ing us move this along.”

Brandy Old (BA/BEd ’17) is the busi­ness ad­viser for Veras and the Agility pro­gram direc­tor. She says the blockchain ap­proach used by Veras was a great start­ing point for the ris­ing com­pany.

“When I first started work­ing with Peter, he had a bold idea that seemed im­pos­si­ble,” says Old. “His idea to in­tro­duce blockchain to solve an ageold prob­lem il­lus­trates how tech­nol­ogy can un­lock new and in­no­va­tive so­lu­tions.”

Hurd-Watler stud­ied at the U of L’s Leth­bridge cam­pus but moved back to Cal­gary due to classes be­ing moved on­line. With the help of his Sales & Op­er­a­tions Lead Trae Bursnell, who he met in Cal­gary, Veras has gar­nered the at­ten­tion of Cal­gary City Coun­cil. Coun­cil has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing dig­i­tal cit­i­zen­ship con­cepts and is in­ter­ested in us­ing Veras as a pi­lot project. Veras is now work­ing on de­vel­op­ing the fron­tend, back-end, and blockchain of their Blockchain Smart Vot­ing Sys­tem with the help of their new­est team mem­ber, soft­ware en­gi­neer Is­mail Lawal.

The Veras plat­form an­swers the ques­tion: if we can do our bank­ing se­curely through our smart­phones, why can’t we vote us­ing the same tech­nol­ogy? If adopted, it po­ten­tially blows open the po­lit­i­cal process, cre­at­ing eas­ier ac­cess to vot­ing for marginal­ized pop­u­la­tions such as the dis­abled com­mu­nity that might have dif­fi­culty ac­cess­ing polling sta­tions, or First Na­tions and ru­ral cit­i­zens who face long com­mutes to cast a bal­lot. In ad­di­tion, mil­i­tary per­son­nel sta­tioned over­seas could vote re­motely us­ing Veras.

“Some of the peo­ple we in­ter­viewed from marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties were hav­ing trou­ble get­ting their voice heard,” he says. “This is all about con­nect­ing the peo­ple to the gov­ern­ment and the gov­ern­ment to the peo­ple. It’s be­yond just vot­ing.”

The Veras group also in­ter­viewed elected of­fi­cials and dis­cov­ered they, too, strug­gled to find a way to en­gage with con­stituents.

“So­cial me­dia is bom­barded with fake ac­counts and trolls and it’s hard for them to dif­fer­en­ti­ate be­tween real and fake voices,” says Hurd-Watler. “With Veras, your iden­tity is linked to your ac­count, so you know it’s a real per­son you are in­ter­act­ing with. Rep­re­sen­ta­tives can talk to their con­stituents and know it’s a le­git­i­mate in­ter­ac­tion.”

Hurd-Watler is part of a youth de­mo­graphic, aged 18-24, that re­al­ized just a seven per cent voter turnout in the last Alberta elec­tion. Through

Veras, he hopes to see that change.

“We see Veras as a path to in­creas­ing voter turnout and ac­ces­si­bil­ity,” he says. “We think this can be a con­sol­i­dated hub for po­lit­i­cal voic­ing for both vot­ers and elected of­fi­cials that will re­ally shape how fu­ture gen­er­a­tions in­ter­act with their gov­ern­ment.”

To learn more about Veras, go to

Photo sub­mit­ted by the Univer­sity of Leth­bridge

Peter Hur­dWatler and his Veras Tech­nolo­gies Inc. group see blockchain as a so­lu­tion for en­hanc­ing po­lit­i­cal en­gage­ment.

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