Recent news out of Malawi has focused on the President dissolving her cabinet in the wake of arrests of several officials on suspicion of stealing state funds. The “cashgate” corruption scandal highlights the importance of accountability, and suggests an opportunity for citizens to play a key role. In this tense environment, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) plans to evaluate the conduct of the elections by the Malawi Election Commission (MEC). MESN is a network of civil society organizations working on democratic governance and elections.
An important component of that evaluation is the attention that MESN will pay to data collection and observer management. We’ve discussed many times the importance of high quality data in election monitoring, here.
Successful implementation of a common methodology includes preparing materials, staff, and tools. In order to keep costs low, and quality high, MESN has taken a simple and effective approach to communicating with their observers, and collecting and digitizing their data. Addressing key questions of cost (can users afford to keep the system running?) and capacity (does the organization understand how to administer and fix the system?) MESN is utilizing two tools in tandem: an SMS gateway called Telerivet, and Google Docs.READ MORE »
How do people under authoritarian regimes become politically aware? Does social media influence political awareness? And does social media really help to undermine authoritarian regimes? These are the questions raised in an article in the British Journal of Political Science. Authors Ora John Reuter and David Szankonyi examine the role of social media and political awareness under authoritarian regimes and provide some fascinating analysis.
The authors led a survey of 1,600 adults conducted following the 2011 Russian parliamentary elections. Their study is particularly interesting because although social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter are growing in ubiquity around the world, some non-democratic regimes such as Russia and China have heavily state influenced social media platforms such as vKontakte and Odnoklassniki in Russia.
The authors reviewed the relevant literature across political science on the influence of social media on political awareness, noting an unsurprising muddle of contradictions. Much of the “disharmony” in the literature draws form the inability for any causal relationships between the use of social or “new media” and political change. READ MORE »
We talk repeatedly about transparency and civic engagement in our work, and often emphasize that it’s only when governments have the will and capacity to respond to citizen' demands that signficant social change takes place. Improving citizen action and government responsiveness always lies at the nexus of political institutions, local incentives, and power dynamics. Add to this the use of digital technoloy - ubiquitously by citizens, less so by institutions, and you see the need for very smart project design that takes all these factors into consideration. However, projects are often influenced by donors who not always understand how these systems work together. In a positive sign, a new funding mechanism requires strategic design and evidence of government and civil society collaboration up front.
Our friends in the Opening Parliament community have been busy this Fall, and are anticipating the Open Government Partnership (OGP) annual conference at the end of the month. We’ve been impressed by several projects that mashup accountability mechanisms with strong data visualizations, and are highlighting them below. For a full review of parliamentary monitoring accomplishments, find more news crossposted on the Opening Parliament blog.
In the Czech Republic, a Czech and Slovak parliamentary monitoring organization, KohoVolit.eu, has worked to visualize complex parliamentary information through social network analysis. Their visualizations demonstrate how often individual MPs sponsor bills and the collaboration relationship with other MPs (image at right).
NDItech was recently at an event on Our Digital Future: Ideas for Internet Research hosted by The George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. A diverse panel of experts in the field were invited to the discussion: Matthew Reisman, a Senior Manager at Microsoft, Milton Mueller, Professor at the Syracuse University of Information Studies, Brian Bieron, Senior director with eBay, and Carolina Rossini who serves as Project Director for the Latin American Resource Center.
Panelists made a number of interesting observations about the status and power of the internet in today’s global society. Matthew Reisman pointed out that Microsoft, in particular, is interested in studies of how government regulatory policies are affecting the ability of entrepreneurs to conduct business online - which would be most easily measured by conducting econometric research on internet policies enacted around the world. As trade and services burgeon online, governments are creating barriers that complicate the ease of doing international business. It is important for those researching the modern impact of the internet to consider just how these barriers are affecting businesses, economies, and people, especially in a world where eCommerce has grown to encompass over 6 percent of the global retail sector over a period of ten years. Milton Mueller further asserted that developing an understanding of intimate relations between technology and social relations is essential, including how [we] are going to govern newly implemented technologies, and what the global impact of this governance will be.
The internet is global and as such has particular impact on the economic possibilities for developing countries. We hope to see tangible data from conversations such as this that makes the point wht the internet - in economic and political terms - is a vital resource for countries worldwide.
Every year the United States gives out around $50 billion in aid to developing countries around the world. This means the United States gives out twice as much in foreign aid as the next four counties on the list of major international donors (UK, Japan, France, and Germany).
So, where is this money going? The U.S. Department of State and USAID have developed a new tool to help in answering that question. In late 2011 the U.S. signed the International Aid Transparency Initiative, a voluntary multi-national strategy to make information about foreign aid more transparent, accessible, and understandable. Launched in 2013, the U.S. Foreign Assistance Dashboard provides a way to view U.S. foreign assistance funds in a standard, easy to understand, format.
The dashoard enables a wide spectrum of stakeholders in the U.S. aid process to examine, research, and track U.S. funding. It presents data in two ways: First, the website presents data in user friendly graphics in specific categories such as funding received by a particular country, sector, or agency. Information can also be accessed in machine-readable form, allowing users to execute manual queries and download data sets.
Critics of the program note that while the Dashboard is a step forward for transparency, agencies have been lagging in posting information to the Dashboard. They have also noted that data on the Dashboard is not presented in a clear format, or that information is incomplete.
In an effort to increase transparency and citizen oversight of government spending, a new online project was developed to track government as well as corporate financial transactions throughout the world. Operated by the Open Knowledge Foundation (OKFN) and funded by organizations such as the Knight Foundation, Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation and 4IP, Openspending.org “maps money” by collecting information about government spending across the globe, and presents results in an accessible and engaging manner.
A community-driven organization, OKFN uses technology to promote open knowledge and data, making it easier for citizens to observe how their taxes are being spent by government. Members of the OKFN’s Openspending.org community work together to build tools and online communities that encourage collaboration in the use and production of digital information. As mentioned on the site, the Openspending.org team is comprised of staff and volunteers who constantly discuss and develop new and innovative ways “to monitor and explain budgets and government spending through the use of technology.”
According to the OKFN team, Openspending came about because, as they note "there is no 'global atlas' of spending, no integrated, searchable database which would be a valuable resource for policy-makers and civil society alike. We want anyone to be able to go to their local council or national government, request the data, upload, understand and visualise it and contribute to this 'spending commons', which anyone can benefit from.” READ MORE »
I’m recently back from Electech Afghanistan, an NDI-hosted elections and technology conference in Kabul. The event brought together senior officials from government, civil society, the private sector, and the international community to discuss applications of digital technologies to enhance transparency and participation in the election process.
Ahead of the Presidential elections in April 2014, the Afghan public lacks confidence in the government’s ability to run a credible election and this is diminishing participation and prospects for stability and democratic development. Afganistan is, of course, a supremely insecure environment with low rates of literacy throughout the population.
Participants identified ways that technology could improve participation and confidence by helping election authorities in administration, improving how political parties compete, increasing citizen’s participation, and enabling civil society organizations to observe more effectively, all while allowing journalists such as Pajhwok News to publicly share results and analysis. Discussion focused on the changing nature of political participation mediated by technology.
I’ve recently been digging into the useful resource Election Passport - it’s a compilation of constituency-level official election results for over 80 countries around the world.
Having this basic information can be a great asset, particularly as we try and find new ways to provide context for citizens by visualizing and mapping electoral environments. One of the best ways to understand a country can be via a classic political red/blue-state style map as has been routine for elections in the United States. I prefer more shades than just red and blue, of course, to show party preference and intensity of that preference, and it’s certainly more complicated to visualize party preference or election results for multi-party democracies. But such historical data can provide useful context for countries where election law violation incidents might be taking place. READ MORE »
We know that corruption grows and spreads in areas where public accountability is low. The question is how can technology facilitate public accountability and better governance? Over the last few weeks I started collecting data on corruption and comparing it to various attributes of countries within a single year, 2012.
For a very preliminary look at the role of technology in influencing democracy I have examined how social networks, principally Facebook, influence the perception of corruption within countries. What I have found hints at something important in the Tech4Dem space. I developed a basic model based on the premise that societies with higher usage of social networks are inherently more engaged and therefore are more likely to have lower perceptions of corruption. READ MORE »
A new report published in the UK examines the role that technology plays in providing citizens access to information and events related to Parliament. The report: “#FutureNews - The Communications of Parliamentary Democracy in a Digital World,” provides an interesting look at a strategic approach of the UK to increasing the openness of White Hall. It's long been evident that technology is diversifying the media through which citizens consume news and entertainment. It's also clear that it is incumbent upon governments to keep up with citizens to maintain transparency and accountability in democratic processes. Using new technologies and media strategies, the report argues, Parliament must insert itself in to the public debate and add substantive value to the the political conversation.
Following are key findings from the report and a brief discussion on how these takeaways are applicable in the developing world from an NDI Tech4Dem perspective. READ MORE »
We have been reading a new report from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy “Diplomacy, Security and Development in the Information Age”. Edited by Shanthi Kalathil, the collection of papers relates directly to organizations using tech in international development activities. We are particularly impressed with Joseph Siegle’s article: “Managing Volatility with the Expanded Access to Information in Fragile States.”
Siegle addresses a range of issues ranging from civic participation to the potential marginalization and radicalization of individuals in fragile states - all of interest to us. Siegle interestingly notes that information is a central aspect affecting the stability of fragile states. He finds explicitly that information and communications technologies can serve as both an opportunity and a threat to societies in such states. He notes that channels by which information is conveyed are essentially value neutral, and rightly illustrates that it information itself and the context are the critical factors to investigate.
Siegle’s insight is important for all implementers of tech in development as they initiate projects around the world. Information can increase transparency and oversight if it is accurate and unbiased and contextulalized by actors experienced in political organizing. Similarly, platforms for open democracy can shine light on corruption and political abuse if advanced by groups (such as media or citizen organizations) with credibility.
Among the tactics Siegle highlights is parallel vote counting. Siegle states: “Election monitoring groups are able to conduct parallel vote counts (Parallel Vote Tabulation, PVT) at each local polling station and report these results back to a central headquarters,enabling real-time projections that challenge dubious official results.” Much of the data collection and reporting of election data is done via SMS and sophisticated back-end parsing and analytical engines to ensure credible analysis by monitoring organizations. NDI recently assisted in a PVT with our local partner ELOG in Kenya. READ MORE »
Kenya's election is over and was largely peaceful, even as there are ongoing court challenges. We @NDITech assisted the Kenyan civil society organization, ELOG, in it's election observation effort on Election day so had an inside view of this much-anticipated and closely-watched election. NDI specifically supported ELOG's data collection effort where observers gathered process and incident data at polling stations around the country as well as vote share data to verify the results publicized by Kenya's electoral commission, IEBC. As the IEBC found out the hard way, it’s not easy to collect electronic data from tens of thousands of polling stations around the country. ELOG’s observers were trained by master trainers to collect relevant data and then send coded text messages for processing to a central database. READ MORE »
So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »
NDI is presenting a number of papers at a Stanford University conference entitled: “Right to Information and Transparency in the Digital Age: Policy, Tools and Practices”. The conference “seeks to bring together people engaged in law, policy, social movements, administration, technology, design and the use of technology for accessing information.” Two papers by Chris Doten and Lauren Kunis from NDI looked at information access and political participation in West Africa.
Chris Doten’s paper, “Transparent Trees Falling in Empty Forests: Civil Society as Open Data Analysts and Communications Gateways,” specifically focuses on access to and analysis of election data. NDI worked with Coalition for Democracy and Development in Ghana (CDD) in the recent Ghana election. In the context of election data, in particular, Doten suggests there is a need for solid and publicly available analysis of available data and promotion of that analysis through various media, including publishing of raw data. Without analysis and public distribution through a variey of channels, election data is like the proverbial tree that falls in the woods with no one hearing it. By providing access and analysis Doten suggest that there is the potential for a better informed citizenry. READ MORE »
NDItech mourns the death of Aaron Swartz who killed himself on November 11, 2013. Aaron was a fiercely brilliant programmer, a passionate advocate for an open and free Internet that supports and promotes freedom of information, and a true democracy activists in the very essence of that word. Aaron Swartz was 26.
The projects Aaron worked on impact our lives here at NDI every day: Open data feeds using RSS, news and opinions on Reddit, a simple way to write via Markdown, secure web browsing in Chrome via HTTPS Everywhere, a way to share and reuse content using Creative Commons, and a more free Internet thanks to Demand Progress that used his technological savvy, money and passion to leverage victories in huge public policy fights, to name just a few of his astounding accomplishments.
Changing the world to be better, more true, and more free animated Aaron. Wired.com editor Kevin Poulsen said it well, articulating the loss of Aaron to the world:
“Worthy important causes will surface without a champion equal to their measure. Technological problems will go unsolved, or be solved a little less brilliantly than they might have been. And that’s just what we know. The world is robbed of a half-century of all the things we can’t even imagine Aaron would have accomplished with the remainder of his life.”
We are deeply saddened by his death. In this tribute we are posting his inspired speech to the Freedom to Connect conference last year, describing how he and Demand Progress fought against SOPA/PIPA, the online censorship act that was ultimately defeated. Here he describes what drove him to become involved in this fight for a more free, open, and equitable Internet and ultimately, world.
Our deep condolences go to his his family, his partner, and his friends in our Internet tribe.
People experience political change and electoral competition not as a series of numbers and results but as an experiences and narrative in building a democracy. When collecting massive amounts of data as part of a systematic observation process, it’s important for election monitoring organizations to be able to tell a good story, often simplifying the conclusions to a few takeaways. These conclusions still need to be evidence-based and representative requiring an honest accounting and analysis. But in our experience, a systematic analysis told in a compelling way is something few election monitoring organizations are able to do effectively. Often, the story of an election is outsourced to journalists or political actors. Simple data-visualization can help - together with a smart and sound strategy on how to deply them. READ MORE »
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 RowREAD MORE »
The latter, policy development, is central to the conference series, and we discussed ways that smart applications of technology can improve the outcomes of policy development.
As we’ve witnessed in the last few years, the “internet public” reflects the changed nature of human beings as social and civic individuals. As part of this phenomenon, new connections are increasingly important, and pertinent information gets shared rapidly. One driver of these tools for political use has been the perception that political bodies are self-interested, dysfunctional, and don’t represent citizen interests. We’ve seen citizens rebelling against this order in ongoing Arab Spring uprisings, the Occupy Movement, and newly founded political parties and organizations. READ MORE »
“What is the internet that we hope to create?” That question, posed by Ben Wagner, was answered by a multitude of voices from government, business, academia, and civil society: an internet that is open and maintains the principles of human rights. At the Freedom Online conference (or iFreedom) held in the Netherlands, several representatives from these sectors were present to discuss what governments can do to protect human rights online, how to support bloggers and cyber dissidents, and how companies ensure freedom online. Below are some of the key highlights from this event.
The event started with a welcome by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. The Netherlands’ Minister of Foreign Affairs Uri Rosenthal opened the conference, stating that freedom online is an extra dimension of freedom of speech, a fundamental freedom in democracy. Rosenthal points out that old censorship techniques are still continuing in many countries, and “we should not make their life easier by providing them with filter technology.” He points out that “tight control on the internet impinges on our freedom of speech, association and assembly. And it means that violations of other human rights are kept away from us.” Secretary Clinton’s keynote speech followed, and echoed many of the themes addressed in her earlier speeches on internet freedom. She states that all human are entitled to freedom of speech “whether they choose to exercise them in a city square or an internet chat room” and that we must “protect the internet itself from plans that would undermine its fundamental characteristics”, as fragmenting the global internet would change the landscape of cyberspace by creating “digital bubbles” instead of meaningful connections between internet users. READ MORE »
Ahead of the intense effort and coordination involved with PVT-type data collection on an Election Day, organizations choose to simulate the reporting and data management processes which will be required in a tense political environment.
In massive data collection exercises, “stress” or “load” tests can assess the training and commitment of the observers, the effectiveness of the communications system and the training (video!) of staff in the center.
Last week, ahead of the first round of elections in Nigeria (National Assembly Elections), Project Swift Count (PSC ) undertook the first of three simulation exercises, wherein all 798 LGA Supervisors and 7,114 Observers were to send in a sample text message. As with most simulations, this one revealed problems and potential threats, thereby initiating immediate fixes as well as longer term back-up measures.
Some of the technology and communications threats included: READ MORE »
Elections cannot be separated from the broader political context of a country, and efforts to protect electoral integrity must examine how pre-election or post-election developments uphold or negate the democratic nature of an election. i.e. “Elections are a process, not a one-day event.”
ICT in the service of “peace” often refers to a broad range of activities encompassing conflict prevention and management, peace operations, humanitarian relief and disaster assistance, and post-conflict peace building and reconstruction.
For example, the ICT4Peace Foundation is committed to effective communication in “crisis management, humanitarian aid and peace building”. A recent USIP collaboration, Blogs & Bullets examines how new media can change the politics of unrest, revolution, violence, and civil war. Their work emphasizes five levels of analysis: individual transformation, intergroup relations, collective action, regime policies, and external attention.
NDI’s approach to ICT & Peace has focused on how key tools can help communities and stakeholders improve communication, facilitate negotiations, increase transparency, and build trust.
Democracy assistance is often seen as falling in the range of activities associated with peace building and conflict resolution, as democratic institutions help maintain peace by providing mechanisms for managing or resolving conflicts without resort to violence. READ MORE »