Is Tech a Postive for Democracy?

There is a lot to say about the role technology plays in democracy and democratic development. The US State Department's focus on internet freedom and the wider 21st Century Statecraft initiative that Secretary Clinton announced in January 2010, among other factors, has certainly increased attention to this field - which is a very good development.

One important aspect of this derives from how attention on tech in democracy and internet freedom sometimes leads to framing the issue and debate into "optimists" and "pessimists" that focus on closed, non-democratic countries at the expense of analyzing the important role technology plays in transitional or young democracies. It's important to remember that the conversation about the role of technology in democracy needs to include democracies. READ MORE »

HTML: The Universal Language

The ancient citadel at the heart of Erbil.

Just back from a trip to Erbil, Iraq. NDI is working with the Iraqi parliament on a new project, and one of my main roles was finding local coding wizards to build the software.

I was impressed with the local talent. I've spent some time as a developer myself, and these guys were very professional and entirely competent. Some of the graphic design work was a bit mid-nineties, but animated gifs never really went out of style, right?

The NDItech team could code up programming projects like this ourselves or hire well established firms in the US and probably get the job done a lot faster and cleaner - but the extra trouble is worth it.

Like all development groups, NDI's goal is to make the world a slightly better place. If we can provide a bit of seed capitol and credibility and serve as a support to such new software firms that will get them that much further as successful entrepreneurs in their local community.

Leadership on the Lake – Macedonians Win with Tech Cooperation

Macedonia Leadership at the Conference

When introducing IT initiatives into legislatures or about any other organization, the importance of good leadership and "buy-in" from the top is widely recognized as a key to successful adoption. It certainly was a recurring theme by several of the presenters at last week's eDemocracy Conference in Ohrid, Macedonia - myself included.

The refreshing thing about this conference was that the leadership wasn't just rhetorical bullet points on a PowerPoint slide (but believe me there were plenty of those). There was fantastic leadership demonstrated in the conference itself from the two leading political parties in Macedonia – the VMRO-DPMNE and SDSM, and by Jani Makraduli – a member of the SDSM and Vice President of Parliament. READ MORE »

The Challenges of High Tech, e.g. Bikes

Bike mechanics. From whiteafrican's Flickr photostream.

Nicholas Kristoff wrote a good story in the Grey Lady on the power of bikes to transform lives in Africa.

It's a nice Kristoff-style human interest piece. What really intrigued me was his comment on the bikes they chose and the methods of maintaining them:

[The donor's] plan was to ship used bicycles from the United States, but after visits to the field he decided that they would break down. ... After consulting with local people and looking at the spare parts available in remote areas, Mr. Day’s engineering staff designed a 55-pound one-speed bicycle that needed little pampering. One notorious problem with aid groups is that they introduce new technologies that can’t always be sustained; the developing world is full of expensive wells that don’t work because the pumps have broken and there is no one to repair them.

So World Bicycle Relief trains one mechanic — equipped with basic spare parts and tools — for every 50 bicycles distributed, thus nurturing small businesses as well.

Broadcast is Technology Too

Sudanese citizens gather around an NDI-distributed radio in the village of Leer to listen to NDI's Let’s Talk radio program.

When we talk about technology for development, older technologies tend to get lost in the shuffle. Radio and television just aren’t sexy the way that mobile and mapping are – we know them too well to get exercised about the possibilities. Too blunt, too broad, too familiar.

And too bad – because radio and television have lost none of their potency in many parts of the world. In fact, in some places audiences for both mediums are growing as a result of rising household income, falling consumer goods prices, and improved access to the electrical grid that powers our digital lives.

Charles Kenny, an economist with the World Bank, calls television the ‘kudzu of consumer durables’, and notes that ‘By 2007, there was more than one television set for every four people on the planet, and 1.1 billion households had one.  Another 150 million-plus households will be tuned in by 2013.’ READ MORE »

Moments of Opportunity: 2008 Zimbabwe Elections

Tsvangirai Campaign Poster - From FrontLineBlogger's Flickr Photostream

A good example of combining good use of technology with well-organized political activity by strong organizations to increase political space in an authoritarian or closed society was Zimbabwe’s 2008 election.

In that country the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was well organized and in position to make political gains based on the findings of a non-partisan election monitoring group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network - ZESN. ZESN organized and trained thousands of courageous election observers dispatched across the nation on election day.

The moment of opportunity for a political breakthrough was created through the use of a well-established election monitoring methodology and a set of mobile communication and database technologies that enabled observers to quickly report polling station results to the capitol city, and ZESN to project an accurate election result based on a national statistical random sample of polling stations declaring Morgan Tsvangirai the winner.

This process disrupted the government’s attempt to falsify the results and steal the election as they had traditionally done. Instead, the ZANU-PF government took 5 weeks to acknowledge the result - which necessitated a run-off election that the MDC chose to boycott. Negotiations followed and because the MDC was well organized and had laid the groundwork to be in a position to negotiate a political agreement that gave Tsvangirai the Prime Minister position and the MDC several cabinet ministries in a government of national unity (GNU). READ MORE »

Democratic Development? There's an App for That.


Innovative ideas coming out of the State Department these days.

The Apps4Africa contest is designed to encourage and support African mobile app developers to dream up and build tools that make a difference in the places they’re most needed. Here at ICT Central Control we spend a lot of time thinking about appropriate technology – what is it that the people on the ground actually need and can really use. What seems useful in the US can prove useless or worse in the field.

When you empower people to build their own tech themselves not only are they the ones who know what they need, but it’s the ultimate in sustainability: these new developers will then be able to go off and continue making useful code contributions long after the cash rewards from Apps4Africa have been awarded.

The same idea has taken root in a very different environment at the Pentagon, where a recent apps development contest bypassed overpriced and cumbersome procurement plans and netted enterprising GI Geeks $3K each. READ MORE »

Opening Afghanistan's Elections


In the run-up to this weekend's parliamentary (Wolesi Jirga or WJ) vote in Afghanistan, NDI has just launched our latest election data site - We've added results data from the 2004 Presidential and 2005 Wolesi Jirga to the 2009 data set that we built last year in partnership with Development Seed.

We also greatly improved the maps, including adding Dari base layers, and introduced a new 'Open' section that provides all the election and map data in one place for easy download.

The data and visualization tools we've developed can be a huge asset to NDI staff in Kabul, Afghan civic groups, political parties, media, and international organizations working on the balloting. Using past election data enables groups to plan and target their monitoring, support and other activities - for the upcoming election and beyond. READ MORE »

Job Post: We're Recruiting a Drupal Developer

Drupal Logo

We're looking for a Drupal developer to join our team here in Washington, DC.

The job would require you to build and manage NDI's public websites (including this blog!) as well as new tools for our international development projects. We provide tools for democracy programs around the world in areas like human rights or election monitoring, helping connect citizens to their legislatures, political organizing for civic groups or membership management for political parties. If you've got multilingual Drupal experience that would be a big plus - and an interest in politics or international affairs would be useful too!

We need an energetic, innovative engineer to build interesting Drupal web applications incorporating advanced visualization tools such as maps, capturing and managing data from mobile phones (SMS) and dealing with large data sets.

At NDI we've got a small engineering team so you'd be the lead Drupal developer, and work closely with NDI staff and partners around the world – sometimes in high stress situations.

Here are examples of NDI Drupal projects you'd build and manage as part of our team: READ MORE »

Field Trip

Tea in Erbil

I'm currently in Erbil, Iraq in the Kurdistan region, doing an assessment of an upcoming project with the Iraqi Parliament.

It's hot.

The NDItech team travels a good deal for this kind of assessment. When one of NDI's regional teams is going to be running a program that has a significant technology component, we'll get involved to make sure that the best technology given the local conditions is put into place and implemented well.

There are a lot of questions to consider when getting a technology and development project up and running. READ MORE »

Security Blanket Statements

A security blanket

People sometimes come to ICT to ask “How can I make my computer and network secure?”

To which I will respond: “Well, what do you mean by secure?”

This makes me very popular.

The first problem is that there is no big red on/off switch that toggles between secure and insecure; it’s a spectrum of possibilities where you trade off  complexity, expense, time and training against safety. Even similar setups in, say, NDI’s different regional field offices need to find their own balance. There is no blanket statement that handles everyone's situation.

The second problem that makes security hard is that it is a process, not a product. We’ll go into that in Part II.

The art in computer and network security is knowing what you need to protect and from whom you need to protect it. If you have to save your data from the NSA or the PLA, well, good luck with that. Large nation-states are going to be able to get your data from you, whatever you do. READ MORE »

High-Tech Doesn’t Equal Democracy

Greece had a democracy without much in the way of computer technology.

One of the challenges of technology related development assistance is always employing solutions that are appropriate for the environment into which they are being introduced.  In democracy assistance we're often faced with a similiar challenge - designing technology approaches that gain administrative or bureaucratic efficiencies at the possible expense of tech for democracy.

This is particularly true in our work supporting parliaments around the world.  The tension between efficiency and inclusiveness, or more generally modernization vs. democratization, will be a running thread and one of the key messages I’ll take to the eDemocracy conference in Macedonia next week as we discuss the important role of technology in a legislature - the main focus of this conference.

One point I’ll try to reiterate will be that tech projects should not only make the legislature more modern and efficient, but also more democratic. READ MORE »

What Does Radio Sound Like in Sudan?

A suggestion box at Liberty FM in Juba allows listeners without mobile phones to make their voices heard.

What does radio sound like in Sudan? A cacophony, in the best possible way. The many competing stations on the Juba FM dial are a sort of cacophony of democracy, where everyone has a voice and an opinion and wants to share it with the world.

It seems promising that my first trip with NDI would be to Sudan, one of the Institute’s larger country programs and one of the world’s more opaque nations. I went to Sudan to understand the opportunities for radio in Africa’s largest country, characterized by vast distances and miles of impassable terrain.

Conversation about Sudan generally starts with a direction – the South or the North? While the two parts of the country have their commonalities (a discussion best left to far more fluent commentators) they are often known through their differences, made manifest in the semi-autonomous region known simply as Southern Sudan.

Southern Sudan has its own capital, Juba, government (the Government of Southern Sudan, or GOSS) and militia-cum-military, the SPLM. Southern Sudan speaks English as an official language, in addition to the Arabic used by the North. A person can even travel in and out of Southern Sudan without a Sudanese visa on an invitation issued by the GOSS.  READ MORE »

Kenyan Citizens Monitor with Mobile aka “A4B2G1H1”*

ELOG Center

Detailed information about Election Day can be collected from thousands of observers in many ways given the need for accuracy, speed, minimized costs, and taking into account the particular communications infrastructure and organizational capacity.  (Chris Spence wrote previously on this methodology.)

For the Constitutional Referendum in Kenya, the Kenya Election Observation Group (ELOG) built a system which relied on observers using mobile phones and text messages to pass the data on their observation forms to a center multiple times throughout the day.   Ahead of Referendum Day, I was lucky enough to travel and assist ELOG in their use of technology, with a focus on supporting their efforts in collecting observer data.  READ MORE »

Moments of Opportunity: Tech in Closed Societies

Networks behind bars

In recent years, partly in response to the US State Department’s focus on internet freedom, we have seen increased interest in applying technology to closed societies to create more political space and opportunities for democratic progress. In these challenging environments democracy and human rights activists and civic groups have demonstrated a remarkable ability to adapt new technologies and when combined with established organizing principles can create moments of opportunity for democratic gains and enhanced channels for political engagement in authoritarian countries.

The key is not only to employ effective technologies, but to pair the technologies with strategies and approaches that are developed for the political environment where the technologies are being used. This approach can help activists get out ahead of authoritarian regimes and make relative and even potentially “game-changing” democratic gains when periods are identified where such innovations can rapidly be put to use. While regimes may quickly catch up, or clamp down, by employing technologies and other techniques to bolster their regimes, gains made during the gap created between early adoption and governmental response can have long term positive consequences for democratic activists.

Crisis Mapping for the Masses

A crisis map from Haiti.

Crowdsourcing is a really useful methodology for lowering the barrier to participation in reporting on events in real time, even though it isn’t a silver bullet, as I’ve commented.

Unfortunately there’s always been a bit of an irony in the problem that while the barrier to participating in a crowdsourcing project using the highly successful and influential Ushahidi platform was low, the barrier to set up the IT server infrastructure to host it was high.

The clever folks there have taken care of this problem with the launch of Crowdmap, a hosted service that lets one serve up a deliciously fresh and tasty mapping platform with a few simple clicks of the mouse.

It is now harder to create a Facebook account than to get a crisis mapping system rolling.

This isn’t the end of the work required in getting a solid crowdsourcing project rolling; as Patrick Meier (personal friend as well as dev-tech innovator) has said, getting the instance set up is only the beginning of a successful crowdsourcing project. However, it’s a significant technical barrier – now interested crowdsourcerers don’t need to know UNIX from eunuchs to get rolling. READ MORE »

The Wisdom of Crowds, or Why Justin Bieber is Off to North Korea

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea

Crowdsourcing is hot. Empowering everyday citizens to take small steps and have powerful impact through collective action is one of the most fascinating revolutions permitted by the Internet. The barrier to participation has dropped. Now anyone become an activist! Hooray!

But there's still one thing needed: motivation. Even when the bar is low, the vast majority of people will not participate in any given activity.

Take voting. It's free. It's your civic duty. You even get a sticker. And yet it's considered a good day when we hit 55% participation.

In party primaries important decisions are made by far fewer; most people just don't care enough to vote. Even if you could cast your ballot from your couch, there'd still people who would not participate.

So anything with crowdsourcing requires motivation. Making sure that a country has fair elections, or that earthquake victims are not buried in rubble are strong altruistic motivations. READ MORE »

Circumvention Tools: Not a Democratic Transition Strategy

There tends to be a lot of focus on the role of circumvention, mobile and social media tools in democratic struggles taking place in closed societies that tend to overstate their potential and impact in many cases. While these tools and technologies can be helpful in these environments, they are only on part of the equation and alone will not bring about significant political reform.

The first point should go without saying: introducing new technologies into closed societies can contribute to the struggle for democratic rights if done well, but can come at great risk to the activists and citizens of those countries. Therefore, it places a big responsibility on organizations involved and should not be taken lightly.

The political and technology environments in authoritarian states vary greatly. They range from highly sophisticated states that use the latest technologies to support their repressive policies, to less technologically advanced countries that rely on a wide range of more direct measures to monitor citizens, control information and suppress human rights. READ MORE »

Citizen Election Monitoring: Demonstrated Accountability

Ukraine Election Mobile center

NDI’s work with citizen election monitoring groups provides an illustrative example of combining new technologies, effective methodologies and strong organizations to create positive political outcomes. A common approach to citizen election monitoring (details here) involves deploying trained election observers with their mobile phones to a representative sample of polling stations around a country on Election Day trained to identify election irregularities or record observations and results.

The observers transfer information from paper reporting forms to a centralized national database using SMS or voice messages. The information is aggregated and analyzed by organization leaders to evaluate the overall quality of the process or accuracy of the election result and shared with the public. READ MORE »

Creating an Environment for Political Reform

An important component of success for activists struggling for democratic reform in closed societies involves the political environment in which they live and conduct their work. The challenges faced by activists in autocratic nations are immense, and international actors have a role to play in trying to provide a more enabling environment.

Authoritarian regimes typically put in place legal mechanisms such as laws that not only limit the activities of international and domestic NGOs and parties; but also subversion and libel laws against citizens who try to express their views and opinions publicly or online; laws against “intermediaries” of communication such as Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and telecommunications providers; legalized surveillance of citizens including their online activity; and a wide range of technologies to enforce these legal tools including the Internet filtering and surveillance technologies being discussed today. READ MORE »

Technology and the Struggle for Democracy in Closed Societies

So who has the upper hand when it comes to using technology to further their goals in authoritarian countries, the good guys or the bad guys? It is often said that in the early days of the Internet that many believed the technology alone will lead to democratic change in closed societies. Our team at NDI was born in the mid-90s (1996 to be precise) and honestly, we’ve never held this view (see how we feel about this in this post about how tech is only effective in bringing about political change when combined with good organization and strong organizations). READ MORE »

ICT at Work: Afghanistan Election Mapping and Uganda Citizen Hotline


Recent NDI programs demonstrate the important role technology can play in supporting fragile democracies.

Afghanistan Elections

In the aftermath of last summer’s flawed Afghanistan presidential election we created a tool for analyzing election results data in order to pinpoint fraud. The tool enables us to illustrate the widespread fraud using advanced visualization data filtering, and mapping tools; the intent is to compel the regime to hold a better parliamentary election this September, and provide information to assist parties and election monitoring groups as they prepare to oversee the process. We are in the process of extending this platform with additional data sets. This approach is closely tied to the “open data” movement, a push to encourage governments and other organizations to make their data not only available, as the Afghan election commission did in the 2500 page PDF document, but accessible, so that anyone, including civil society groups pushing for more transparent and accountable government, can use the data for their own analysis. READ MORE »

The Integration of Technology into Democratic Development - a Shift is Underway

We’re in the midst of a pivotal moment in technology and politics in the international development field, which started in early 2009 and still seems to be gaining steam, where the linkages between politics, technology, democracy and foreign policy are becoming much more widely recognized. This process is dramatically expanding the use of technology in democratic development around the world and creating exciting new opportunities for organizations like NDI and our partners - and will ultimately be a significant net positive for democracy in general. We’ve observed that a considerable number of NDI political partners from around the world, international democracy groups, international development funders, tech companies and others are recognizing that politics and technology are becoming increasingly intertwined. READ MORE »

A New Approach: ICT Blogging at NDI

(Promoted to top from August 17)

For my first post on the new NDI blog I thought I’d share thoughts on how we came to the decision to start blogging and what we hope to accomplish.

This NDI blog represents a new way of communicating for the Institute. NDI provides technical assistance to democracy partners around the world including political parties, legislatures, civic groups, other organizations and individuals in more than 70 countries. The reason we exist is to help these groups strengthen democratic institutions, safeguard elections, advance citizen engagement, and promote open and accountable government in their countries. As such, our Institutional public communication, managed by our excellent Public Affairs team, conveys who we are, what we do, where we work and information about the breadth and depth of our programs around the world. The majority of this happens through our official website at READ MORE »

Welcome to NDItech: Blogging on ICT in Development and Democracy


The "demos" of the word democracy is the people - the masses, the rabble, the hoi polloi, the plebes, the great unwashed. One of the most powerful transformations of the past 10 years has been spread of tech to the demos.

In 2000 we were very concerned about the "Digital Divide;" today in one form or another technology has penetrated many of the most distant corners of the world, making some of the world's poorest people into tech experts. This is an astonishing change from the days when Thomas Watson, head of IBM, saw a worldwide market for, oh, a couple dozen computers or so.

The tech explosion is a sea change for international development in general, but it’s radically disruptive for those of us in democracy development. This revolution is the focus of this blog.

NDI has been working in this field for 25 years; we don’t have all the answers, but we do have a lot of ideas and experience.

Those of us in international development are here because of that idealistic dream of saving the world. We hope that by sharing some of our ideas and experiences we can help everyone get a bit closer to that goal.

If you’re here, you’ve probably got great ideas and innovative experiences, too. We at NDI hope to open a conversation among all the people working on this intersection of technology and democracy - development pros in DC, techies from IT firms, academics pondering in their ivory towers, implementers on the ground, app developers in Nairobi. READ MORE »

Syndicate content