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 »
There is an election in a week, you want to poll the citizenry before the election, and your financial resources are limited. What should you do? Should you (A.) Give up because it is simply not possible to get a full-fledged poll out in the field. (B.) Beg your donor to give you a last minute cash infusion to bring on more staff and a polling company. (C.) Join the 21st Century and leverage technology to generate a fully randomized national telephone poll using a platform like Voto Mobile. Voto Mobile's goal is to make interacting with an audience via mobile phones - either one-way via broadcast or two-way in an interactive fashion -- easy and inexpensive.
Over the last few weeks I have had the opportunity to sit down twice with developers and staff from the socially conscious start-up Voto Mobile. Based out of Kumasi, Ghana, Voto Mobile has the straight-forward goal of “Mobile Engagement, Simplified.” The company is leveraging the ubiquity of mobile phones around the world to enable both research and social engagement that offers CSOs, NGOs, Political Parties and other organizations new capabilities. READ MORE »
Kenya's iHub recently released its research on crowdsourced information in the highly contested 2013 Kenya Presidential elections. The study sought to clarify the value of information collected from citizens about political incidents from online media, and to answer whether 1) “passive crowdsourcing” is viable in the Kenyan context - passive crowdsourcing being defined as monitoring social media such as Twitter 2) determine what unique information Twitter posts provided about the election, and 3) determine the conditions in which crowdsourced information is a viable news source. As part of the report, iHub provided a useful set of recommendations and a decision-making framework for practitioners who are considering similar methodologies.
The report provides great detail about the research methodology and data sources (Twitter, online traditional media, targeted crowdsourcing platforms like Uchaguzi, and fieldwork). Particularly impressive are the mechanisms described for capture, storage and classification of tweets and the detailed approaches to filtering for newsworthy tweets. The glossary is helpful in clarifying terminology such as that of "passive", "active" and "targeted" crowdsourcing of information from citizens. (NDI prefers the term "citizen reporting" over crowdsourcing for citizen-generated incidents data.) READ MORE »
Over the past several years, a significant body of research has examined how communication technologies are transforming social, political, and economic dynamics in societies around the world. Much of this work has observed the positive effects of these technologies on improving civic engagement, increasing transparency, supporting free and fair elections, fostering economic development, and preventing violent conflict. We at NDI have developed numerous programs using communication technologies to improve democracy and good governance across borders and issue areas.
The authors Jan H. Pierskalla and Florian M. Hollenbach chart new territory for this research in exploring the relationship between the expansion of cell phone coverage in Africa and higher levels of political violence. They write,
We contend that, in contrast to mass media, access to individual communication technology like cell phones can undermine the effects of government propaganda and, more importantly, play an integral part in overcoming other specific collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence.
According to the authors’ analysis, when cell phone coverage is present, the probability of conflict occurrence rises significantly. As they argue, private communication technologies such as cell phones can play an integral role in overcoming collective action and coordination problems inherent in insurgent violence. In Africa, the benefits of improved communication technologies are particularly substantial for insurgent groups. The cheap availability of cell phones improves and increases communication among group members and allows for the tightening of networks. These improvements are crucial for insurgents who are often spread out across vast geographical distances and who need an efficient means to coordinate actions and gather material support. The authors hypothesize that enhanced communication facilitates in-group trust and information sharing, which are key to collective action.
In the past 18 months, images have re-become the hottest thing online. Pinterest has nearly 10 million unique visitors per month, becoming one of the top ten most trafficked social outlets at the end of 2011. In 2012, Facebook saw some serious value in the mobile photo filtering app Instagram, picking the company up for a cool $1 billion. And everyone has pretty maps. In short, beautiful pictures, infographics, and visual data on the web are hotter than ever.
Enter the Kenyan 2013 presidential elections. The Elections Observation Group (ELOG), NDI's partner, increased its impact by plotting out a way to share the valuable and complex data collected from its massive election observers in a simple way online.
ELOG used an advanced Election Day monitoring methodology, also called a parallel vote tabulation, and explained what that is with a GIF and videos.
In 2010 ELOG systematically monitored the Kenyan Constitutional Referendum by deploying observers to a random sample of polling stations across the country. The observers rapidly reported their data via SMS back to a central data center so ELOG could evaluate how the election was going in near real-time.
That effort was the trial run for what ELOG would do and collect on election day 2013 - a day much anticipated and worried about after the very violent election debacle in 2008. ELOG analyzed the data following the 2010 poll and created simple sharable infographics that could be uploaded to Facebook and Twitter. The goal of these graphics was to demonstrate that ELOG had--and would be collecting--valuable data and key analysis about the quality of the process. The infographics were mainly targeting political parties and the election commission, but ended up also appealing to a keenly involved Kenyan political digerati.
Given my instinctive cringe whenever I hear the term "innovation" these days, the word may a wee bit overused. However, it the concept remains as important as ever - if organizations aren't trying new things, they're stagnating.
As a global organization working with partners in a lot of different country contexts, though, I sometimes have to check myself and remember that innovation lives in local contexts. NDI's supported scores of sophisticated election monitoring missions across the world using the Partial Vote Tabulation system, including most recently in Kenya. The methodology's a tried and true one - I'll write it up soon - and has been used for over a decade. From a global perspective, it ain't new.
Given their shiny new democracy and the fact they've only had one real fair election in generations, any form of election monitoring is new. Moving to one that requires thousands of citizens across the country to work in concert with an extraordinary degree of accuracy is a big deal. 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 »
The polling stations are slowly closing in Kenya in a so-far largely peaceful day. This is a critical election in one of the most technically-advanced countries in sub-Saharan Africa with many monitoring efforts underway as #kenyadecides (to use the Twitter hashtag of choice). While many predict that is going to be a run-off election, we wanted to give a 'rundown' of all the cool tech used that we are watching:
1. The IEBC, the Kenyan Election Commission, put up (with some help from Google) an interactive map and SMS service for people to find their voter registration stations, registration status, and polling station on election day. It also includes a candidate finder. While the map has some usability issues, it's become a very useful resource for citizens that only can be improved upon. It's a model for other independent election commissions that is commendable. IEBC's Facebook Page is also worth watching. Incidentally, by all accounts, the IEBC so far has done a great job providing security and ballots; it's also been very responsive to incident reports from both systematic election monitoring organizations and citizen reporting efforts. No small feat given the enormous voter turnout.
Most interestingly, IEBC promises to report election results in close-to real time using its API. UPDATE: The API from the IEBC with real-time election results data as the vote is counted is working fabulously and media houses in Kenya are pulling the data and transmitting it live on television. Unprecedented for Kenya. READ MORE »
There are two projects in Mali that caught our eyes - or should we say, our ears? Al Jazeera, in partnership with mobile vendor Souktel, conducted a mobile survey in Mali, asking citizens' opinions via SMS about whether France's military intervention in the country was legitimate. Al Jazeera then translated, tagged, and displayed responses on a color-coded map as part of its Mali Speaks project. It is not entirely clear how many responses were recorded but the map is illuminating and well designed, illustrating how some sgment of the population feels about France's military intervention (Hint: Overwhelmingly positive). Of course, such citizen polls are not representative and tend to skew towards more literate, more urban, male, and wealthier resondents. Nonetheless, if combined with more systematic and stringent polling methodologies, they can provide a sense of the sentiment of citizens and can be conducted inexpensively in close-to real time. Combined with compelling visualizations, they can also be used by citizen groups as a tool for advocacy and by policy makers as a barometer of public opinion.
Al Jazeera has conducted other Speaks projects in Somalia, Uganda, and Libya. Souktel, earlier this year, also worked in Kenya where local youth leaders used the service to conduct and participate in live polls and votes via SMS to elect a board of directors, choose a name for their network, and determine an organizing structure for their regional youth movement. READ MORE »
Last week was Internet Freedom Day - a year after a bill attempting to restrict content online, the so-called SOPA/PIPA bill, was defeated in the United States Congress. We here at NDItech are people of the Internet. We believe, as described in the Declaration on Internet Freedom, that
a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.
But, we are worried. As an organization that supports and works for democratic principles and practices, empowered communities, and responsive and accountable governments under the rule of law, and, as a unit within this organization that believes and works on the effective and innovative use of technology in this work, we see troubling trends.
These are trends not happening on the Internet as we typically define it per se, though even there is plenty to worry about. What we are seeing is in the land of mobile phones - the devices and networks where most of the world communicates today. There is actually very little information on 'internet freedom' issues in telecommunications - there is no 'state of mobile freedom' report, and there is precious little data on mobile censorship, SMS tracking, surveillance, etc. Much of it is anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or both. READ MORE »
I started my day yesterday (deplorably early) at a (very engaging) discussion on the role of technology hubs in international development. It was the most recent Tech Salon sponsored by Inveneo.
I’m a big fanboi of these tech hubs (as you alreadyknow) so was happy to join the conversation. While the discussion had a habit of wandering away into a thicket of mobile apps monetization challenges, it did clarify some thinking on my part.
Namely, ICT4D (tech for development for the uninitiated) sustainability can be a red herring.
Of course in the development biz I believe successful projects are the ones that continue on through lo the many years. However, if one is too doctrinaire on this point, incredibly valuable ideas may never see the light of day. iHub Nairobi came into being on the back of a bunch of Ushahidi money, and served very usefully as a home for projects dedicated to social good without being able to cover their costs for years.
The perfect example is iLab Liberia. That organization has the second fastest internet connection in Monrovia (number 1: NDI field office) and they have to pay through the nose for it, to the tune of tens of thousands of dollars a month. The need to cover those costs - let alone staff, computers, space, electricity - would condemn the project to failure. It’s completely unimaginable that profits from developed applications or user fees could cover those costs for years. They do a good job bringing in additional money via consulting (NDI’s a satisfied customer) but that can only go so far. READ MORE »
IIn Ghana's recent election NDItech partnered with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), an independent Ghanaian NGO focused on election accountability. Our goal was to increase information to citizens about the election. CODEO ran a large monitoring program where 3999 citizen observers transmitted incidence and election results data via SMS to a central data center - a standard systematic election observation.
CODEO also used social media as part of a citizen communication campaign to voters via a Facebook page where political issues facung the country were actively debated, and a call-in service for radio stations to broadast voter information (listen to the audio below this post).
We spoke with NDItech's Program Officer Chris Doten about this innovative mobile audio-to-radio project.
Ghana has a robust technology infrastructure and a great NDI partner that was willing to try some new campaigns for this election and invited us to work with them. There also was a little bit of funding in place to do new media voter outreach, and we were able to run with it on a short time frame. Additionally, CODEO has a very good reputation in the country and we worked with them before in several previous election. The staff there is exceptional and was a pleasure to work with.
NDI works with the best citizen election monitoring teams in the world. As we've described in the past our partners are really good at getting the information in quickly. The question then becomes what you do with it - and traditional methods need to change here, too. I'm currently working in Ghana with CODEO, the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers on just such a project.
These days, standard press conferences are not enough. Getting excellent data quickly is useless if you can't also turn it around and share it with the people equally rapidly. It's the tree-falling-in-the-forest problem: if your organization has the best information in the world but no one knows has heard it, what's it all for?
NDI's election observation partners often know better what's taking place on the big day than the electoral authorities themselves. There's an irony there: at the very moment when the eyes of a country and the world are focused on a particular election these partner organizations know exactly what's going on - and have traditionally had no ability to share it.
Well, that's now changing.
The most important information and analysis requires the complete picture to draw the most wide-ranging and significant conclusions possible, and that ain't happening until all the data is in. But the individual snippets of information still have value. READ MORE »
Liberia has one of the least-developed communication infrastructures in the world. Literacy is at roughly 60%. The nation is still recovering from one of the most brutal civil wars in recent history. All in all, not perhaps where one would expect to find a burgeoning group of tech innovators and wanna-be geeks. However, walk in the door of iLab Liberia and you'll find just that.
Kate Cummings, iLab's executive director, came to NDI last week to share some of her experiences working in Liberia. iLab is one of the tech hubs that have sprung up across Africa following on the model from granddaddy iHub Nairobi, epicenter of Kenya's digital development. One of the most exciting concepts I've seen in the world of development in recent years, these tech hubs provide a supportive environment for the experienced to teach the novice, for ideas to percolate, for business ideas to bloom, and for new tools to be shared. iHub, however, has an unfair advantage - they have an in-space coffee shop with amazing Kenyan coffee. READ MORE »
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."
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 »
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 »
This semester I am taking a course on "Prediciting the Futures". While I am no expert in the techniques that futurists use, I thought it might be fun to look at some predictions that have been made for 2012 and see how they apply to our field.
A few predictions that stood out and are bound to have an effect on our work are:
The shift from feature phone to smart phone and tablets. This prediction caught my attention because it builds on the findings of a report that was released by Center for International Assistance and the National Endowment for Democracy. As we mentioned a few weeks back, this report finds that by end of the decade virtually all cell phones sold will be smart phones. This shift is bound to impact our work. Take, for example, citizen journalism. With smart phones, citizens can report on issues by sending in a text, or a picture, or a video. Citizens can use their smart phones to capture stories through various mediums and thus bring to light stories that are missed by the mainstream media. This presents an opportunity for us to work with civil society groups and activists in new and exciting ways. Of course, it is not all rosy and it is imperative that we also address the challenges that come with switching to smart phones.
We brought through a group of University of Zambia students together to select our team of data clerks for the election. There's always a lot of info that needs to get shoveled into the database from phone calls or paper sheets. College kids make a good pool to draw from for that rather tedious but indispensible task; they're smart, literate, and more likely to be experienced with computers. They're also easier to keep at work until 4 AM since it's a well-known fact that students do not actually sleep.
About 80 University of Zambia (UNZA, delightfully pronounced "ooonzah") students showed up to take a chance at working with the Civil Society Elections Coalition on the project. While there's a bit of money involved, for them there's a big draw in having this group on their CV and getting a certificate of participation from a well-regarded NGO.
The students were greeted by an intoductory speech with a stirring exhortation on the importance of elections and independent monitors. Most seemed pretty enthusiastic. After a bit of training, the test started. For the most part, though, it wasn't the students under the microscope - it was our data-management system. READ MORE »
(PVT=parallel vote tabulation, or a statistical projection of results. ECZ=Election Commission of Zambia)
Zambia's a wrap. You've seen a lot of posts from me on this one already, but I'll test your patience with one more sharing the happy ending.
Things were getting tense late last week as the results began to come in. The whole country was clamoring for news in what was an info black hole to the point that riots began breaking out and a handful of people were tragically killed. No one, including the major parties, knew what had transpired, and pressure was building on the elections commission to speed the release of resuts as suspicions mounted that they were dragging out the counting process. While Zambians are renouned for being chill, peaceful people the grim shadows of Cote D'Ivoire or Libya definitely loomed over us all. In the end, the Election Commission of Zambia did the right thing and recognized the will of the voters in the election of Michael Sata with a surprising (to me) margin of 44%-36% over the incumbant. It's the first time there's been a transfer of power between parties in the country for 20 years, and is a real accomplishment. READ MORE »
I'll be liveblogging the Zambian elections from the Civil Society Elections Coalition (CSEC)'s base at the Taj Pamodzi from my own perspective. If you want to read chronologically, start at the bottom - I'll insert new content up top as I go. I apologize for any typos, etc - it's gonna be a long day.
Signing off for the night. Ballots are being counted across Zambia; the process is wrapping up in many places but still has hours to go in others. Our doughty data clerks are taking the calls coming in. For the last while I've been staked out at our front entrance. It's critical to keep these spaces secure; everyone in here must have a badge, and visitors must be escorted. Too much important information to let random people wander about.
In a late-night triumph I found a "Bitter Lemon" soda, which is a refreshing change from the endless cups of chicory Nescafe. I've only had these in Africa; they're a bit like a tonic water with a shot of lemon concentrate. Probably don't need any coffee at this point. #twitch Now I'm going to head home and crash for a few hours; my colleagues tag in until 8 AM, and so on.
Thanks for following, folks. If you have questions or comments, don't hesitate to hit me on Twitter as @cdoten. Tomorrow will be a big day for Zambia - keep your fingers crossed that all goes well.
Zambia's got a big election coming up. All of the highly partisan local papers are in agreement: it's going to be a blowout for their guy. (The former poll was allegedly released under the ausipices of a fictitious university.)
The lack of any objective facts means that there is little trust in the process - and therefore the outcomes. Everyone's primed to believe that when their guy loses it's because the other side cheated. I'm here assisting our the Civil Society Elections Coalition, a group that will be monitoring the vote to provide an independent check on the Elections Commission of Zambia (local flavor: they always use "zed" when spelling things out, so that group would be the ee-cee-zed.)
If there's shenanigans we hope to spot and call it out, but monitoring is really important when the race is basically clean as well. An independant voice confirming the results can make the bitter pill of defeat a bit easier to swallow. There's definitely some risk of violence in Zambia; I'm told folks are stocking up on goods "you know, in case." READ MORE »
The referendum asked citizens to cast their votes on four constitutional amendments. As Liberians voted on these propositions under the watchful eye of the ECC, NDI’s partner observer group, the NDItech team rolled out a free, easy new way of gathering monitor reports: Google Forms.
One of our goals is always to find technology that’s sustainable. While that word is an overused bit of development jargon, the concept is key - the people with whom you’re working should be able to manage the systems you create in case your whole organization gets eaten by sharktopi or, more likely, your program comes to an end. The big components of this are cost (can the users afford to keep it running?) and capability (do they understand how to fix, tweak, and administer it?) Google is great on both counts. READ MORE »