Sub-Saharan Africa

Back to Basics

Flash. AJAX Slideshows. Rich Media. Web 2.0. All these buzzwords in website development can make it easy to get caught up in building fancy features on a new site. My experience with web development projects this week highlighted the importance of focusing on the basics of building a web platform. Are the resources to create and skills to manage extravagant sites available? Can the target audience even download it?

Working on a pair of projects this week with NDItech partners we focused on the importance of iterative development. While we expect the groups with which we're working are going to get more sophisticated websites down the road it doesn’t have to be in the first iteration; after all, like Rome, good websites are not built in a day.

Example: NDI is working with the Liberian Legislature on a tech modernization project, one aspect of which is a web communications platform; they have nothing currently. Our end goal is to have a website that provides information to citizens about their representatives, the legislative process, modernization plans, votes, news, calendars, audio of sessions and more. In time the website will have all of these components, but to bring it live we are taking it step by step. READ MORE »

iHeart iHub

Today I visited Nairobi's iHub. To my mind it's the poster-child for everything encouraging about tech for development in the global South.

You've got:

  • Savvy local developers, some novices and some with loads of experience.
  • International techies with a development background and comparative experience around the world.
  • A welcoming, open space that encourages collaboration.
  • Events that pull together the tech community with development groups and venture capitalists.
  • WiFi.
  • A coffee shop.
  • With delicious, delicious Kenyan coffee.

Seriously, what else do you need?

iHub is only about a year old; it's the brainchild of a group of local technologists including Erik Hersman. I was shown around by Tosh Juma, iHub's extremely welcoming community manager. The initial impetus for the creation of the space came from the Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS projects; both needed space to work and came up with this great way to do so with a funding lift from the forward-looking Omidyar Network. READ MORE »

Hunting (Developers) in Kenya

Digital Kenya

I'm currently in Kenya working with NDI's Somalia program* spinning up a communications platform to better link Somalis split between various regions of their country, living as refugees in Kenya, or having traveled to join the diaspora around the world.** Being so fragmented creates a huge problem with silos; while Somalis are an incredibly communicative group with a very oral culture, they have few places where they can talk together or even see the same information. We hope to mitigate that a bit.

It's very exciting to be here in Nairobi, hub of Africa's tech revolution - if someone hasn't yet coined the term Silicon Rift Valley, I'm trademarking it. I've spent the last few days working closely the NDI Somalia program officer behind this concept; one of the strengths of NDI is that you can pair one person who has deep knowledge of the local context together with another with deep knowledge of technology for development. (Unfortunately, she wasn't available, so they sent me instead.) READ MORE »

High Tech Voting in a Low-Tech Country

INEC Chairman Jega

Professor Attahiru Jega, chairman of the Independent Nigerian Election Commission, spoke at SAIS on Nigeria's largely successful elections last month. It was a great conversation and well-deserved victory lap in which a number of NDI staff participated. (The elections were covered ad nauseum previously by your faithful NDItechies.)

There were some great lines in there - "What we had was not a credible election - it was an *in*credible election!" - but the most fascinating parts to me were the ways in which INEC used both high tech sophisticated systems and some of the most basic concepts possible to get the least corrupt election in Nigerian history. READ MORE »

#NigeriaDecides 3.0: The Gubers

Morning planning at Project 2011 Swift Count

Morning all. I'm going to do a bit of liveblogging of today's Gubernatorial elections from Project 2011 Swift Count's secret lair again.

6:30 PM

Most of the labor-intensive work is done with the project now. The texts are in or the observers have been relentlessly hounded on the phone until they gave over the information, and the database is as up to date as it is going to get. You can never expect 100% in this kind of endeavor - with 8000 monitors, some people will have quit, gotten sick, lost their phone, or perhaps never existed in the first place. With all those caveats, the fact that we got well over 95% of our data is a real feat.

The data clerks have wrapped up and are heading home. They'll be back again to take care of some accounting and claim their prize: a certificate. Certificates of participation and commendation from well-regarded organizations like NDI are highly valued in a society where resumes ain't always trustworthy.

From the tech perspective, the Gods of IT were apparently appeased today; all of the computers and networks behaved beautifully. READ MORE »

Calm Before the Vote Storm

Francis in the Server Room

Tomorrow's the next big election for Nigeria - the Gubernatorial races*. Well, most of them. Two states had their polls pushed back until Thursday due to security concerns.

Tomorrow is why we've been terming this election the #BiggestPVTEver - NDI's partner, Project 2011 Swift Count, has observers deployed to 6 different states doing statistical analysis. If all goes well, the numbers will enable us to independently verify the results of these races. The priority states were chosen due to the likelihood of a close finish, political volatility, a history of violence or election chicanery, or all of the above. Also, since the governors tend to have more tight control of their districts than a far-away president, they may have more opportunity to try and warp the outcome. READ MORE »

#NigeriaDecides 2.0: The Presidential

Victor's opening speech

I will be liveblogging Nigeria's presidential election from inside the headquarters of Project Swift Count 2011, NDI's local election monitoring partner. At least, whenever firefighting permits.

7:45 PM Well folks, that's it. We've hit our targets for the presidential; as a statistically based sample, it is critical that we get a certain amount of complete, accurate information. However, once you've got that, in some ways anything else is overkill. At 7 we got well beyond what we needed for our distribution, and an astonishingly high 95% or so of all our core observers got us confirmed data. The data clerks whooped and gave a big round of applause. I imagine they were pretty enthusiastic to learn that they would not have to spend the next 4 hours yelling "No, D P! Not D D!" Apparently the NATO alphabet is not in common usage in Nigeria. Now our number crunchers will dig into the information and come up with the detailed analysis.

I will go home and brood over the various tech problems we encountered and attempt to mitigate them. With some work and some luck, the Gubernatorial races in a week will go better from that perspective. The project as a whole, however, has been a tremendous success. While this was politically the highest-stakes day for Nigeria, the most difficult one for NDI and Swift Count will be the next. We're doing 6 concurrent PVTs. Unprecedented, as far as I know. READ MORE »

SwiftCount Your Blessings

SwiftCount Data Clerks

I've joined my NDItech colleague Jared Ford on the ground in Abuja, Nigeria for the #biggestPVTever. We're working with Project Swift Count (@swiftcount), a coalition representing women, religious lawyers, and other civil society groups. It's pretty exciting - this series of elections (not one! not two! but three in a row!) are a major milestone in this massive, chaotic, confusing, colorful, diverse country of 150,000,000. It's the biggest population in Africa in a nation about twice the size of California with a historically tense relationship between a largely Muslim North and Christian South.

There are some logistical challenges to running an election in these circumstances.

INEC, the Independent National Election Commission, delayed the first round of elections by a week at the last minute. Actually, considerably past the last minute - our observers were already at their stations with increasingly fretful reports rolling in as time rolled by and the polling places remained shuttered. INEC is clearly trying to get it right, and it paid off today. READ MORE »

Practice Makes Perfect, or How We Fail Early and Succeed Late

Data entry clerks in the Swift Count National Information Center, Simulation Day Uno

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 »

The low tech of high tech: people & paper

PVT training materials for deployment to Nigerian states

Any systematic data collection effort requires collectors (ex. observers) to gather information in a uniform manner in order to enhance data quality.  Successful implementation of a common methodology is a prerequisite of a comprehensive, statistical assessment of an entire political process (ex. government service delivery, policy implementation, electoral process, etc.)

Preparing collectors for this type of process most often involves in-person trainings (ex. Training of Trainers (TOT) for large groups), supplemented with guiding materials and simulations.

In order to observe three successive weekends of elections in Nigeria (National Assembly, Presidential & Gubernatorial), Project 2011 Swift Count plans to deploy approximately 8,000 observers to a representative random sample of polling stations in all 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of the country.

Preparing the associated materials and trainings to guarantee the ability to collect, analyze and share comprehensive information, involved just some of the following: READ MORE »

When do you tune in? Before the voting begins

PSC Regional Coordinators for Nigeria Voter Registration 2011

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.”

Those who control state institutions and resources, or organized means of bribery and intimidation, can try to manipulate election processes before the voting begins, in a multitude of ways: blocking opponents right to stand for office; stopping candidates from campaigning for votes; denying qualified electors the right to cast ballots, etc. READ MORE »

Are African Regimes Learning Tech-Busting Tactics?

Mugabe is watching?

A panel at the Atlantic Council last week addressed questions surrounding the potential for the popular uprisings taking place in North Africa to spread south - to the rest of the continent. I was asked to discuss online repression techniques used to squash speech and expression, the degree to which these repressive approaches are likely in more closed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and how citizens, activists and rights groups can prepare or respond.

On the broader question about uprisings gaining traction across Africa, with or without tech, there seems to be little notice of pockets of activism taking place in Sudan and Gabon, and we've seen opposition parties in Nigeria and Uganda making noise about taking lessons from their northern Arab neighbors if their respective governments don't hold credible elections this year. An important point raised some skepticism that the international broadcast media, that we believe played a key role in Tunisia and Egypt, would take notice in these other African countries if trouble continues. READ MORE »

The Benefits of Backwardness


I'm just back from my assessment trip with the Liberian Legislature.

I had a great time with a lot of interesting folks. In a number of ways, this assessment was easy.

  • Tech infrastructure and capacity of the Legislature: Virtually nil.
  • Long-term infrastructure development plan: The same setup needed for, say, a small college .

The real challenge is the short term, and it's basically a question of triage. What are the most critical, targeted steps that can be taken in the next year or two that will have the greatest impact for the most people when you are starting from zero?

The Legislature has some great opportunities precisely because of their complete lack of infrastructure. This is the "benefits of backwardness" - when you're catching up you have a chance to leapfrog technologies. Historians suggest that's one reason Germany did so well when it first industrialized; it was able to jump to cutting-edge capital equipment, not start from spinning jennies. READ MORE »

Pushing the Envelope with Envelopes. And Excel.

Liberia's Capitol

I'm on the ground in Liberia working on a parliamentary modernization program with the national legislature. NDI does a lot of this work with the idea that a more effective, responsive and competent democratic government is a heck of a lot better for its citizens and more likely to endure.

Liberia's had a rough 30 years and it shows. The World Factbook indicators make for grim reading, and it is telling that the only good road through Monrovia - city of 1.3 million - is rarely busy.

The legislature has had a correspondingly difficult go of it. We're trying to help where we can.

One of the more prosaic but surprisingly complicated parts of a legislature is how a bill becomes a law. Go right ahead and do your review, I'll wait.

So with all the bouncing around a bill does, it's really important to keep track of where it is. Not just in the process - physically, too. It's a pain when you lose it. With the help of a former Chief Clerk* of the Montana State Legislature, we've set up something to do just that.

Ingredients for a Bill Tracking System:

Can a Radio Station Govern a Country?

Photo Credit: Flickr user 'abdallahh' / via World Bank CommGAP Blog

My friend Hannah Bowen has a great post up at the World Bank's Communication for Governance & Accountability Program (CommGAP) on how control over the flow of information in a closed society can be tantamount to control over the state. Bowen, who works at InterMedia, blogs at the Bank as an expert on communications in developing economies.

She takes a look at the role of radio (one of our favorite low-tech techs!) in the ongoing electoral crisis in Cote d'Ivoire (Ivory Coast), where presidential incumbent Laurent Gbagbo has refused to concede to Alassane Ouattara (declared victor by the electoral commission).

Gbagbo has successfully maintained authority over the state broadcaster, Radiodiffusion Television Ivoirienne (RTI); RTI has broadcast reports recognizing Gbagbo as the winner of the election. This week, Ouattara's supporters announced their intent to take control of RTI.

Why is this important? Bowen explains: READ MORE »

Data Envy

National Voters' Register Online

The Uganda Election Commission recently launched their National Voters' Register Online system - with the assistance of our friends over at IFES - that allows citizens to confirm that their name appears on the voters roll in their polling place . This is a great step and important service - and something we don't see often enough in many countries around the world. IFES and the other international organizations should continue to focus on these kind of technology initiatives around election administration - and then take the next step by helping civil society groups and political parties use the data to hold electoral officials and governments accountable for good elections.

The data available through the Uganda tool allows citizens to look themselves up if they know where they are registered to vote, and voter lists are provided for each of thousands of polling centers. There are limits to what can be done with data in this format - but the system knows who is registered to vote where, and thus where polling stations are and how they map to all the political districts in the country. The election officials may also have geocode information for polling centers and map data. READ MORE »

Selling Cell Phones

Africa Mobile Technology

I woke up waaay too early this morning to go see Alec Ross, the State Department's Senior Advisor for Innovation speaking on 21st Century Diplomacy, the Obama Administration's branding for their thinking about tech in foreign policy. Some have mocked the State Department for their rhetoric on the topic, but for a very, very large bureaucracy State has made some rapid shifts.

State, and Alec's remarks, really emphasie mobile tech. Ross observed that the number of mobile devices has increased 20% in the 18 months he's been in his job. It's now the case that a very large percentage of all humans on this planet are in areas with cell coverage.

Oh, and all of this happened on the back of private business. All these cell towers went up without a gazillion dollar World Bank-funded project or the work of foreign charities because it's profitable. Make that very profitable. Many of the richest businessmen in Africa (e.g., Mo Ibrahim) made their fortune in mobile networks, and Safaricom is one of the biggest firms in East Africa. READ MORE »

Holy iCow


The Apps4Africa event has wrapped up, and the winner has the most charming app name I've ever heard: iCow.

Apps4Africa, as you doubtless recall, is the State Department sponsored program to fund local development of innovative apps to empower people to solve problems in their own community.

The winner? iCow. It's a program to track the times when your cattle are, well, ready for gettin' it on.

I certainly would not have thought of that.

Another very clever innovation - it's entirely voice-based. In largely non-literate societies, text based solutions could freeze out most of your potential target market.

Contests like this are not a silver bullet (what is?) but they're a great way to encourage people to jump into this space and come up with some creative ideas that would never have emerged in a State Department conference room.

Now to really make a difference the apps will have to get into the hands of the people who can use them. That's a distribution problem and a marketing problem, but I'd imagine it's also particularly a technology problem. I don't know what the penetration of smartphones is among illiterate dairy farmers, but it's probably not that high - yet. 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 »

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 »

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