The purpose of this post is to lay the groundwork for the development of an Ushahidi toolkit for election monitoring. The text below is thus meant as an invitation to chime in and share lessons learned in deploying Ushahidi for election monitoring. We plan to make this the first in a series of primers. Future posts in the series will focus on using Ushahidi for disaster response and human rights monitoring.
If you are interested in using Ushahidi for election monitoring, perhaps the most important step you can take is to plan early. Why? Because disseminating information on your initiative across an entire country will take time. This is about developing a media and social campaign since the more individuals you can get to report the better.
Ideally, start at least 6 months out and start using the platform for something other than election monitoring, such as traffic, crime or corruption monitoring. They key is to have users familiar with the platform so they can see the added value well before the elections take place. This will help you expand buy-in in the lead up to the elections.
The next decision you’ll need to make is whether you want your project to be open so that anyone can report on election irregularities or whether you will mobilize trusted networks of monitors to do the reporting. You can certainly do both, which we actually recommend if time and resources allow. The advantage of doing both is that this increases the possibility of triangulating and validating incoming reports.
Before turning to sourcing and handling incoming data, you’ll need to select the categories you want to use for the monitoring. Here are some examples: fraud, vote tampering, illegal campaigning, removal of observers, etc. Have a look at previous Ushahidi deployments to get a range of categories used: Afghanistan, India, Kenya, Lebanon, Mexico and Sudan.
You’ll want to decide what combination of technologies you’ll use to carry out the reporting: Web form, email, SMS, smart phone apps, Twitter, etc. There are advantages and disadvantages to each. Using Ushahidi’s smart phone apps makes the reporting free, more secure and automatically geo-tagged.
If you use SMS, you can either set up a number using a service like Clickatell or FrontlineSMS, or approach the country’s telecom company to set up a “short code.” A short code is a 3 to 4 digit number that can be made free for users who text that number. Note that you’ll still need to pay for the service, however. One advantage of using SMS is that you have the opportunity to get a lot more individuals involved in the reporting. One disadvantage is that you’ll need to map the events being reported based on the location information provided in the incoming text messages, which can be time consuming. That said, the telco’s will have that data and may be willing to share. We’re also developing Swift River to automate the geo-location process.
In addition to SMS, you could report on the elections by email, i.e., have observers report on election irregularities by sending emails to a dedicated email address. These emails should include detailed location information to make the mapping as easy as possible. The same approach can be taken using Twitter and a dedicated hash tag and/or Twitter feed.
Another point worth thinking about is whether you want to complement the on-the-ground monitoring with online media monitoring. The latter comprises reading through official news, social media, Twitter, blogs, Facebook groups, etc., to find relevant election-related events that can be mapped. This is a time consuming effort, however. But we do recommend thinking about recruiting volunteers to help comb the news during the elections. This produces a rich set of information when combined with reports coming in from the ground. Keep in mind that you can also map pictures and video footage as well.
If you’re looking to carry out traditional election monitoring at polling stations, you’ll want to make sure you have trained and dedicated monitors deployed to these stations in such a way that the data they generate is statistically representative. If you’re more interested in crowdsourcing the election monitoring, then you’ll want to maximize the number of users who report on election irregularities. Naturally, you can combine both approaches.
How you carry out the above steps will necessarily differ if the country in question is democratic versus authoritarian. In the case of the latter, you’ll want to take extra precautions to maximize the safety of those who contribute to the election monitoring. This may mean using secure smart phone apps, or code when using SMS. In any case, you’ll want to read up on this quick guide and also take time to review the guidebooks produced by Tactical Tech.
So these are some of the basic decisions and steps that you’ll want to consider when using Ushahidi for election monitoring. Please do chime in with your thoughts and recommendations in the comments section below. We’ll compile your input when developing a more formal toolkit for Ushahidi election monitoring.