Twitter: Expanding Voice and Space for Political Discourse In Highly Restricted Countries?

Twitter Revolt

A recent article in the New York Times argues that Twitter is used by citizens in Saudi Arabia to increase the political space for public discourse that did not exist before:  "Open criticism of this country’s royal family, once unheard-of, has become commonplace in recent months. Prominent judges and lawyers issue fierce public broadsides about large-scale government corruption and social neglect. Women deride the clerics who limit their freedoms. Even the king has come under attack. All this dissent is taking place on the same forum: Twitter."

The NY Times staff writer Robert Worth, an often-astute chronicler of the MIddle East, argues that "Unlike other media, Twitter has allowed Saudis to cross social boundaries and address delicate subjects collectively and in real time, via shared subject headings like “Saudi Corruption” and “Political Prisoners,” known in Twitter as hashtags."

Is Twitter becoming "like a parliament, but not the kind of parliament that exists in this region,” as Faisal Abdullah, a 31-year-old lawyer, is quoted in the story -  even a "true parliament, where people from all political sides meet and speak freely?"

Or is allowing citizen to express themselves publicly via social media  a clever tactic by rulers in  highly restricted to allow citizens to let off steam while violently quelling real reforms and street protests?  Is Twitter really expanding 'political voice' and 'space' - the ability of citizens to have the capacities and articulate their interests and needs and engage in democratic processes to claim their rights and  identify appropriate avenues to address their issue  concerns?   READ MORE »

Rules of (Tech) Engagement

"Mr. Watson--come here--I want to see you" was the first conversation via phone. How engaging (source: Library of Congress)
If nothing else, technology provides us with a great platform for discussion. Ever since the first phone call, technology has connected us with one another, though the quality of discussion varies (and sometimes suffers) greatly. According to a new report by the Knight Foundation, technology can also help communities "shape their own futures" by improving the ways we engage with each other and with leaders in government. Today's Monday Round Up features other examples of technology and engagement:

Can I Ask You a Question? Tech for Engagement in Somalia

Gathering information, increasing knowledge

Want to know what Americans think about the status of the US economy? There's a poll for that. What about if people in the UK would rather be brainy or beautiful? There's a poll for that, too.  Pollsters in the United States gather information through all sorts of channels, be it mobile phones, websites, Facebook, and utilize lots of demographic proprietary databases to reach respondents.  

But polling is not just for rich countries. Asking citizens for their opinions can result in powerful insights into new topics in lower-resource environments as well. 

Voice of America, in partnership with Google Ideas, surveyed 3000 Somali citizens earlier this year. Asking questions about the constitutional review process in the country, Voice of America gathered information from Somalis using an open source platform. As Google Ideas notes on its blog,

"As the draft constitution has undergone revisions in recent months, Google Ideas developed a pilot project with the Somali service, Africa Division of Voice of America (VOA) to help Somalis register their opinions. Starting in April, with just a few clicks, VOA pollsters could call and survey Somalis for their thoughts on a new constitution, asking questions such as: Should there be a strong central government? Should Sharia law be the basis of the constitution? And should there be a requirement that women be included as elected officials? Over three rounds of polling, VOA used the internal site to collect the survey results."

Speak Your Mind: Citizen Participation

Taking action to make changes

Have you ever watched local access channels and saw a glimpse of a budget participatory meeting? Let's be honest: you probably didn't watch too long (unless you're watching Parks and Rec). Yet meetings like those determine where millions of dollars are spent and where taxpayer money goes. The 21st century has presented us with interesting alternatives to the old gavels and chairs formats. For today's Monday Round-Up, we'll be looking at other examples of citizen participation using ICT: 

It's Election Day in Georgia - Live Data Combined in New Ways

Georgia Election Portal

It's election day in a Georgia where a critical parliamentary election is under way.  Dubbed as "a litmus test of the way democracy works in Georgia" by NATO Secretary General Rasmussen, it is a also a test for election-related real-time data of incidents and results.  NDI has worked with three civil society partners in Georgia on an impressive election portal that records incidents at the polls, showcases historical data from prior elections dating back to 2008, and will be streaming live election data released by the Georgia election commission as soon as it is released.  

The Elections Portal is a joint initiative of non-governmental organizations and NDI, namely the International Society for Fair Elections and Democracy (ISFED), Georgian Young Lawyers' Association (GYLA) and Transparency International - Georgia (TI-Georgia).   Citizens can submit electronic reports about any electoral incident they experience via text messages or on the web, while ISFED is also deploying 1271 accredited and trained observers at precinct, district and central election commission levels who are reporting back to a data headquarters sample-based systematic observations. READ MORE »

Tech for Elections: Improving Data from the Crowd

Russia's Yandex smartphone app for reporting vote fraud (

Collecting election-related data provides information about the conduct and integrity of elections - critical events in emerging democracies. This data is collected from both trained observers deployed in a systematic manner and from empowered citizens contributing their witness reports to provide a lense on the election. Collecting such data in an election allows civil society groups and citizens assess and evaluate the process, mitigate the potential for violence, reform the legal frameworks for elections, and engage citizens in menaginful ways. 

As I noted before, decisions on what tools and techniques to deploy for data collections in an election need to be driven by the intended goals.

NDI and our partners in many countries have pioneered and over the years greatly improved election-related data collection through trained and organized observers. Still still involves moving paper but also call-in centers, and, of course, highly efficient and systematic SMS-based reporting.  Citizen reporting efforts with the goal of engaging them meaningfully have, of course, proliferated.  Unfortunately, they also have often been plagued with the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem that has made it difficult to tell a cogent story about an election or come to any definitive conclusions. That said, we believe that citizen reporting can be useful especially in the period before election day to flag and highlight potential issues with voter registration and other preparations for election day. 

We are exploring a number of tools and methods in our work to intelligenty combine both systematic election observation and citizen reports both prior to- and during an election.  Some of these tools underused right now are: 

1)      Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

IVR systems (ex. Freedom Fone) enable automated, interactive, audio-based data collection and communication through mobile phone networks. They can be set to respond with prerecorded or dynamically generated audio to further direct reporters through a series of simple interactions. Their importance has been highlighted for reaching offline or illiterate constituencies, bridging language barriers, and allowing users to move past the 160 character limitation of an SMS. READ MORE »

Digital Connections in the Favelas of Brazil

Participatory Budgeting Mobile Voting Station. Photo from Tiago Peixoto.

So you wanna reach hundreds of thousands of people in the favelas of Brazil to join in a public process. to determine budget priorities.  How to do it?

We’re talking about folks who may not have touched a data-connected mobile device nor a computer. You’d probably say that an internet-only strategy of capturing input would be doomed to failure and would disenfranchise the poor. Well, at least I would have.

The town of Belo Horizonte and the state of Rio Grande do Sul, both in Brazil, proved me wrong.

In NDI’s second Tech4Democracy brown-bag discussion, Tiago Peixoto of the ICT4Gov Program of the World Bank shared the tale of these communities and other participatory budgeting case studies. (For more information on the concept, check out an introductory blog post from Tiago.) During an engaging hour-long presentation, Tiago spun the story. READ MORE »

In Hong Kong, Does "Change Begin with a Single Step"?


This is a guest post from David Caragliano, NDI's Senior Program Officer on the Asia team in D.C. You can follow up with David on Twitter.

Citizen participation in Hong Kong is on the rise, but the results of the September 9 legislative council (LegCo) election and the March 25 chief executive election do not fully capture the nature of citizen participation. Voter turnout on September 9 stood at 53 percent – just two percentage points under the historical record in 2004. Public outrage at the candidacy of Chief Executive C.Y. Leung and his push to require Moral and National Education (MNE) courses in Hong Kong schools has been difficult to ignore. However, under Hong Kong’s complex electoral system, political parties have tended to be unresponsive. Civil society has driven political messaging and mobilization, increasingly through online tools.

The candidacy of C.Y. Leung in chief executive election generated frustration among Hong Kong’s voters. His victory only reaffirmed the reality that fifteen years after the Handover a small circle of elites continue to monopolize the chief executive selection process.  What if the Hong Kong people could directly elect their chief executive? READ MORE »

Where There's Organizational Will There's a Way: Liberian Legislative Tech Modernization II

The Liberian Senate, now with voting machines

Like any large organizations, the Liberian Legislature is a complex minefield of relationships. I'm lucky that I have my coworkers here; I may be a dilettante that pops in and out of countries, but my colleagues have spent years working with Liberia's political institutions and building relationships with the elected members and staff. This combination is one of NDI's great strengths, and it's incredibly useful when thinking how to shepherd development projects through an organization. Particularly when you're talking tech, a fly-in-fly-out engagement is almost doomed to failure, as institutional change is really the name of the game, not air-dropping shiny new tools.

With the 53rd Legislature's priorities coming into focus from our various meetings of the last week and elements of a workplan falling into place, we on the tech modernization team began crafting a new strategy on how to move forward. The biggest gap, we saw, was finding the right internal champions. In the 52nd Legislature we had a number of excellent partners to work with who had a vision for how the legislature could be stronger in the future; however, as I explained last time, there's been a lot of turnover and those left have been playing musical chairs. READ MORE »

Gather 'round, see the latest and greatest in election technology!

This gentleman exercising his right to vote

Elections remain an integral part of a good democracy, as well as an opportunity for transitioning countries to demonstrate their openness and ability to manage the process. Civil society organizations use tech for domestic monitoring and citizen reporting projects and governments increasingly put election results online and use tech to help citizens with the voting process. In today's Monday Round Up, we look at examples of both: 

Are Hashtags Enough?

Stop 114A and Jordan Web Blackout

The twitterverse is no stranger to hashtag-calls-for-action, spanning from #free an arrested activist to #stop a particular piece of legislation from moving forward. The most well-known example of a hashtag campaign was the one to stop SOPA and PIPA legislations in the United States. Despite the lack of coverage of these proposed laws on traditional media, mobilization spurred through social media was effective to build a full-on campaign that ended up stopping the passage of this legislation. Recently, NGOs and other civil society actors have been trying to capitalize on this success to try and stop the passage of other internet-restrictive laws, such as in Malaysia (#Stop114A) and in Jordan (#BlackoutJo).

While the revisions to section 114a in Malaysia’s Evidence Act and the proposed amendment to the Press and Publication Law in Jordan are alive and well, the online mobilizations to stop them can still teach us some valuable lessons in use of social media in the campaigns. READ MORE »

Open Parliaments, the World Over

Opening Parliaments!

The Open Government movement that has been groundbreaking in getting governments to open up their vast data sets on the delivery of services, is seeing a new frontier: Parliaments.   Opening Parliament, a project led by NDI, the Sunlight Foundation, and the Latin American Network for Legislative Transparency released its groundbreaking Declaration on Parliamentary Openness, a set of principles that has been signed by more than 80 organizations that are monitoring parliaments.  Parliaments and their data on bills, amendments, and proceedings are on of the big frontiers for open government advocates that are now beginning to see traction of their work to open up legislative bodies the world over. 

We took a look at some of the exemplary parliamentary monitoring organizations and how they are presenting parliamentary information to get a sense of the state of affairs in parliamentary openness.  While we have a long way to go to present legislative data in compelling ways that tell effective stories about key issues, legislation, and legislative processes, there are some interesting examples of groups all over the world that are worth highlighting. from the Netherlands features a great timeline of media coverage of specific bills, mixing different data sets to create context to legislative data that gives a viewer a sense of how a specific bill fits into the current social context. Adding additional, contextual data such as news coverage makes parliamentary data far more useful. See for instance this dossier.


The best-laid IT modernization plans o' mice an' men...

Low-tech, high-impact bill tracking at the Liberian Legislature

The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men
Gang aft agley

Someone will have to get back to me on what an agley is, but I'm pretty sure the basic idea holds true for development.

I've returned to Monrovia to pick up the threads of a technology modernization plan for the Legislature of Liberia. I spent two months there last year doing an assessment and creating a workplan for how the organization could leapfrog into the 21st century. At the time we went through the standard best practices in quality developmental program design to arrive at a plan that was a joint vision of NDI and the legislative leadership, and launched initial implementation. The basic framwork was a new joint legislative technology center staffed with crack geeks; cabling the building for network access; a wide-ranging training program; a legislative website; and introduction of open-source software. Plan in place, I headed back to the US and turned to other programs.

Then something happened to the program. Er, more accurately, nothing happened with the program. READ MORE »

Tech for Elections: Grounded Processes and Smart Tools

Get 'em in a row.

Often discussions of technology for (fill in the blank here) get confused about tools, techniques and processes.  This is especially true when the discussion turns to crowdsourcing, a technique where a group of individuals voluntarily undertake a task. In an electoral context, crowdsourcing often emphasizes participation over systematic evaluation. The use of online maps (a tool) emphasizes analysis and story-telling based on geographically relevant conclusions, at the expense of other analytical frameworks. 

Instead of tools and techniques driving strategic decision-making, it’s important to identify intended outcomes and the processes supporting those outcomes. 

In a recent NDI "ElecTech" workshop in Nairobi, we posed that any use of tech in elections should have as the primary outcome the ability to assess and evaluate the electoral process. We think it is helpful to think about four specific processes, a series of actions taken to achieve an end, where technology can significant impact the achievement of these outcomes.

These include: Organizational Structures, Data Collection, Telling a Story and Outreach. Let's focus on organizational structures first. 

Organizational Structures: Having Your Ducks in a Row READ MORE »

From Bieber to Dylan: Mapping the (Crowd)Maps

Source: David Ramsey

Internews' Crowdglobe Project recently published a report on Ushahidi and Crowdmap. Crowdglobe surveyed the (at the time) 12,795 publicly hosted users of Crowdmap, the hosted Ushahidi platform, to get a better quantitiative picture of what is being mapped. The report found, noticeably, that the "long tail" distribution was indeed long indeed with "93% of the 12,000+ Crowdmaps analyzed...containing fewer than 10 reports." A few highlights from the report: 

  • 93% of Crowdmaps had fewer than 10 reports.
  • 61% of Crowdmaps had absolutely no customization at all, i.e., they still had the four default categories and the default report.
  • 89% of Crowdmaps had four categories, including those with the four default categories.
  • 13% of Crowdmaps had 5-10 categories.
  • 94% of Crowdmaps had only one user.

Technology in Political Campaigns, Anno 2012

President Obama's working on his AMA (via Reddit)

Now that both of the US political conventions and their associated weather systems have passed, the campaigns will be running on high gear through the US Presidential elections in November. Technology, of course, plays a key role in providing direct access to candidates and parties, ways to raise money, build list, and even have some fun.. In today's Round-Up, we look at the way technology has affected the 2012 campaign:

NDItech at the Democratic National Convention International Leaders Forum

2012 International Leaders Forum

NDItech is on the ground in Charlotte, North Caroline for our International Leaders Forum at the Democratic National Convention, the quadrennial political extravaganza for the Democratic Party. NDI has been bringing international visitors to these showpieces of American democracy since 1984. This year we have 300+ guests from over one hundred countries who will observe and learn from the big show.

The NDITech team is on the ground tweeting (@NDItech) and liveblogging.  Here are some recaps of panels and sessions:

ILF has now concluded, but you can follow the Twitter conversations on #ILFNDI and read the recaps above linked through We will be posting the full video of the events as soon as possible.


Democracy Spotlight: Ginny Hunt on the Internet and Democracy

Ginny Hunt at ILF

Cross-posted from NDI's ILF live updates.

We know the Internet has been a tremendous tool for growing economies, but how can it strengthen civil society and democratic governance? Ginny Hunt, global civic innovation manager at Google, addressed this question to the audience during the ILF "Democracy Spotlight."

A free and transparent Internet is transforming the interactions between government and citizens. Already, more than 6 billion devices connect people to the Internet, a number which is expected to triple in four years. Innovators continue to make networks faster and citizens increasingly have access to information in real time. The shear quantity of information is also growing. “Every minute, 72 hours of video footage is uploaded to YouTube,” she said.

Fast new ways of communicating and vast quantities of information online can be intimidating to governments, which are used to controlling information or at least using familiar information channels. Some governments have responded by filtering, monitoring and censoring what people read and share. According to Hunt, one-third of Internet users live in countries where the Internet is heavily filtered. READ MORE »

Golos, Intrepid and Tech-Savvy Russian NDI Partner, Wins Sakharov Prize of the Norwegian Helsinki Committee

Golos' Interactive Map of Election Violations

Golos, a long-time partner of NDI in Russia, was awarded the prestigious Sakharov Prize of the Norwegian Helsinki Commission today. The Commission especially lauded Golos for its innovative work during the recent Russian legislative and presidential elections.  Golos, Russian for "The Voice", is the only independent election monitoring organization in Russia.  It has worked for over a decade on independent domestic election monitoring but became extremely popular during the recent Duma and then Presidential elections for its interactive map that allowed citizens to report violations during the election period and on election day.  These elections were marked by the savvy use of Russians of social media and camera phones to record and report election violations on YouTube and on Golos' map. 

The map became one of the 25 most-visited sites in Russa at the time, noted the Commission.  Shortly after launch, the site was removed from where it had been published, Golos director was detained, and the organization was fined multiple times.  Golos was accused of collaborating with Western agents and a slander campaign was launched against the organization on state media.   


Marietje Schaake on the new "Internet Public" - from the DNC International Leaders Forum

Marietje Schaake at ILF 2012

Cross-posted from the NDI ILF blog.

“How can we foster democracy in a hyper-connected world?” asked Dutch Member of the European Parliament, Marietje Schaake. During a TED-style talk she focused on the implications of the rise of the “Internet public,” global citizens connected by new communications technology. Schaake discussed new opportunities for empowering the "Internet public", while warning of weakening governments and strengthening corporations.  While the Internet has created openness, regimes and groups who fear giving up power are also using it to repress citizens.

Schaake was inspired by the example of Neda Agha-Soltan, killed in Iran during post-election protests in 2009. Because the world saw that Iranians could fight their fear, others came to believe anything was possible. Since then, Iran has decided the only way to control their citizens is to create a “halal” intranet, separate from the rest of the world. She listed Syria, China, Iran and Tunisia prior to the ouster of President Ben Ali as authoritarian regimes that also use online tools to repress and control, but noted that such problems are not exclusive to autocratic governments — democracies have also created their own repressive laws. READ MORE »

Hiring Friday! #tech4dem Jobs Galore!

There is no democracy unless we all sing

It's Hiring Friday in the #tech4dem field! Here is a line-up of jobs and internships of interest to those working on tech-for-democracy projects.

  • Making democracy work and working for democracy with tech - here at NDI. @NDITech has openings for software developers and interns. Intern position information is here - the deadline is approaching!  We also have several software engineering positions open.  All involve working with dynamic project teams to conceptualize, design and implement technology into NDI’s democracy assistance programs around the world. International travel may be required.  Go to --> Technology to see the current openings.
  • Human Rights First is looking for a full-time web developer to help maintain and extend Drupal website, maintain the existing Wordpress website and deploy digital advocacy products through Salsa. The salary and benefits for this position are competitive, the team is collaborative and creative, and the position is located in the NY office. Details here
  • New America Foundation - The Open Internet Tools Project (OpenITP) seeks a well-organized, persistent researcher with investigative skills for a part-time consulting contract lasting approximately 4 months, to research and report on the state of circumvention technology usage in Asia, concentrating on mainland China. Pay will be based on experience. The research will likely involve travel to Asia, with expenses reimbursed. More information here. 
  • The Citizen Lab in Toronto is seeking a Software Developer to engage in software development to support a range of research projects at the intersection of information communications technologies, global security, and human rights. You will work with the Citizen Lab team to develop existing and new projects, assisting with all phases of software development from requirements gathering and implementation to testing and deployment. Full details here. 

So Long, Farewell

auf Wiedersehen, adieu!

It’s an exciting time to be involved in the ICT4D space, as any technologically-inclined activist can tell you. People around the world are using tech to educate their friends on digital security, international leaders are starting to take tech seriously, and YouTube now offers automatic face blurring on videos.

During the last six months, I’ve learned more about Information and Communications Technology than I realized was out there: how our work can impact individuals, cool tools like Tor and Tails, and that a huge community of people are passionate about #tech4dem and are excited about creating solutions together. I learned about digital security practices, risk assessment, and that passphrases will always be better than passwords. READ MORE »

Unique Opportunity to Focus International Leaders on Tech4Dem

2012 International Leaders Forum

Every four years NDI hosts hundreds of political and civil society leaders along with diplomats from more than 100 countries to observe the US nominating process at the Democratic National Convention - which starts next Tuesday. Our guests include legislators, cabinet ministers, leaders of civic organizations and over 100 ambassadors from the diplomatic corps based in Washington. NDI puts together an entire daytime program of interesting panels and events for our international guests that complement the official evening convention speeches and activities.

This year NDI's International Leaders Forum (ILF) program has a tech4dem thread running through it that provides a unique opportunity for tech leaders to introduce key themes and issues to the global group of political leaders. We've partnered with Google to host a series of three "Democracy Spotlights" that will highlight important trends and ideas in technology and politics, and a panel discussion - called 21st Century Campaigns - that will feature digital strategists from the Obama, Romney and successful online issue-based campaigns.  READ MORE »

Telecoms, Government, and Privacy, Oh My!

Toto, I've a feeling we're not using dial up internet anymore

Technology moves and grows at exponential rates; policy, on the other hand, does not. This combination leads to a potential conflict in the relationship between governments, private industry, and citizens. Huawei, the giant Chinese telecommunications company, is currently struggling with this very issue, as it balances large growth in the private sector with concerns over the state's relationship with the company. India, China's neighbor to the south, is also attempting to address this issue: the government received criticism for shutting down websites and restricting texts in response to ethnic violence. This week's Monday Round-Up inlcudes stories about mobile, advice about your passwords, and donkey powered WiFi.

Tech Innovation for Democracy (and FTW!)

Ghana elections 2008 sms

I am excited to announce that I am joining NDI to work on tech innovations.  NDI is a leader in using tech for building democratic people and institutions, and an organization that I have known of and worked with ever since I started (way back in 2005). In fact, my now-boss Chris Spence was part of the inaugural meeting that we convened on 'mobile tech in social change' in 2005 that eventually led to NDI being the undisputed expert organization in using SMS in systematic domestic election observation, work that I have written much about.  

I will be working with the pioneers at NDItech, and the creative program staff in the NDI offices that are using tech in innovative ways to support representative democracy in areas such as citizen participation, elections, open parliaments, strong parties, and accountable and transparent institutions.  Democracy and governance, as the field is affectionately known by those inside it, is where I started more than 20 years ago, and I am thrilled to return to it, throwing into the mix creative uses of online technologies, new media, and mobile (of course).  And while 'innovation' is a much-(over)used term these days, I'm hoping to put our own imprint and interpretation on it as a part of the growing #tech4dem field.


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