Addressing concerns about Liberia’s election instance

The Ushahidi Liberia team received a comment from Timo Luege on our recent elections post that raised concerns and criticisms about the elections instance. We thought it might be helpful to share our responses here, in hopes of providing more context for an instance that Timo describes in his blog post as “a failure”. We have updated the instance’s disclaimer based on Timo’s comments so that further clarification can be available for all the instance’s users. The following excerpts were drawn from Timo’s post about the Ushahidi elections instance:

“For the past three days I have been following the coverage of the Liberia elections on liberia2011.ushahidi.com (the elections were held on 11 October). Unfortunately, I’m far from impressed. To be clear: this is not the fault of Ushahidi…but it shows the limitations of crowdsourcing information. In total, only 23 reports were submitted to the web platform on election day for all of Liberia. Many of these reports were of dubious news value…”

Ushahidi Liberia response:
-    The majority of the reports on this site are contributed by Ushahidi Liberia’s partner organizations; each organization has their own protocols and metrics for report verification and publication
-    It has been Ushahidi Liberia’s intention from the beginning not to crowdsource information regarding the electoral process. Given the potential for unreliable information and volatility from the crowd in Liberia, we have intentionally sought information from partner organizations – a crowdseeding approach rather than crowdsourcing. This differs from other deployments of the Ushahidi platform. Clarification about this is now provided on the elections instance; Timo’s blog post reminded our team that this was not apparent on the instance, and we appreciate the chance to clarify the assumption that the instance was composed primarily of crowdsourced information
-    In many cases, report quality and content reflects how much training reporters have received from their parent organizations on sending information to the platform. Sometimes the Ushahidi Liberia team is invited to conduct trainings for reporters, at other times they are not; it is the choice of the partner organization with which our team works. Our team believes these reports reflect the reality in Liberia that detailed and useful reports are not easily acquired due to larger issues such as the disruption of the education system by the recent civil war.
-    As for the number of reports shared on the map during election day, we received an additional 126 messages that are currently being verified and approved on the backend, so the numbers of those published do not reflect the number received by our partners. Again, it is the responsibility of partner organizations to approve their own reports as we hope to build sustainable use of the platform in Liberia beyond our on-the-ground presence.

“The bigger issue is that a large number of reports were automatically posted on 11 October at 00:00 by the Elections Coordinating Committee…Obviously these reports are wrong: either, they really were published before the polls opened, in which case they are completely fabrications, or the posts were backdated, which is a serious mistake…For a project like this, that is a disaster.”

-    Ushahidi Liberia’s Tech Lead oversimplified the date/time when he bulk uploaded the ECC polling data. The rest of the ECC’s polling data is accurate – in the upload that our Lead did not list the exact time each was uploaded at the ECC data center; we apologize for this mistake. All former ECC polls reports have been corrected on the elections instance with the same reports and the exact times they were entered into the ECC database. We often receive large datasets collected offline and automate the uploading process for partners that otherwise would not be able to add the data themselves due to limited bandwidth.

“On October 12, only two reports were posted to the platform. This shows how thin the network of contributors really is. While the results of many polling stations had already been posted on the doors of the local police stations, none of this information made it onto the web platform. Obviously, there were not enough monitors in the field to report that information.”

-    Regarding results, the elections instance never claimed that it would post this data. What is posted on this instance is the result of our partner organizations’ priorities and scope; none of these partners intended to collect results, and the information is otherwise being announced for the first time (preliminary results) as I write this post by the National Elections Commission. This website by the Liberia Media Center provides the only preliminary results that existed before the NEC’s announcement, and is admittedly unofficial. After the NEC’s prelims announcement today, the LMC website will display NEC’s results alongside LMC’s.  In addition, the Ushahidi platform is designed to display discrete data points; it is not well suited to displaying summations, averages or other forms of numerical analysis. Thus the platform does not currently lend itself to displaying vote results. When it comes to monitors in the field, there are thousands of monitors gathering results; if anything, it is simply too early to determine results.

“I had been very curious to see, how well the Ushahidi platform would work in a country with as limited an infrastructure as Liberia. Unfortunately the answer is: it doesn’t work…As I mentioned before, many Liberians don’t have mobile phones and even those who have one, frequently don’t have credit on the phone or the electricity to charge it, or they are living in one of the many areas which have no mobile phone reception. Of the remaining people, I doubt that many were even aware of the monitoring initiative. Internet access is even rarer…Last but not least, the low quality of maps of Liberia certainly posed an additional challenge…”

-    We agree with many of the challenges you have listed when it comes to using the Ushahidi platform in a setting like Liberia. Please refer to the following blog posts we’ve written regarding these issues and how we’ve addressed them:
Liberianizing the Platform
Getting better data on Google Maps
Lessons Learned by end of 2010
Launching the elections instance with new features
Patrick Meier on wrong assumptions regarding technology use in places like Liberia
Meeting with community crime watch groups to improve use of platform
Trying to make SMS gateway work amid Liberia’s limitations
Lessons from recent local trainings

As you suggest, the challenges of implementing this tool in Liberia are significant and not to be underestimated or ignored.

“All of this limits the size of the crowd almost exclusively to the nine partner organizations that were supposed to feed information to the platform. Some of these organizations, like UNMIL, would certainly have been able to contribute something of value. But in the end they didn’t – UNMIL for example did contribute a single report.”

-    UNMIL asked the team to create a link to their Facebook and website pages for them on our instance because it was getting more traffic than their own sites, however they have not been officially sharing data with the instance. We have since moved their links to the election info page on the instance and have removed their group page.

I hope that these explanations clarify some of the questions and concerns raised, and the Ushahidi Liberia team welcomes further conversations about these or other aspects of the Liberia elections instance. Our team will be sharing further posts in the coming days regarding the latest additions to the elections instance and the possibility of a run-off for the presidency.

6 Responses to “Addressing concerns about Liberia’s election instance”

  1. Frankly it seems unfair to label this work a failure, and it would definitely be more constructive to wait until a proper evaluation can help you to decide. However can you clarify for us what the Liberia instance aimed to achieve, and whether – in your view – it successfully met those aims? There’s no shame in admitting failure, as Engineers Without Borders have hopefully shown.

    • Hi Paul, please see my response to Timo’s comment on this post. Thanks for your feedback

  2. hank you very much for your response, Kate. I really appreciate it and your response has managed to correct a few things that I had misunderstood.

    I’m particularly glad to hear that the 00:00-issue was a technical issue and nothing worse!

    I think the main problem is that by setting up an Ushahidi site for Liberia, you were creating expectations that the quality of the information on the site would be similar to what people have seen in other contexts. In a way that is a lopsided compliment. However, I don’t think that elections in a country with as many technological and infrastructure problems as Liberia, can be realistically monitored with this particular tool which is not to say it can’t be the right tool in other contexts. As I said above: Let’s see whether it will work better in 2017.

    I’ll get back to you by email regarding the wrong location.

    • Our intention with the elections instance was to improve information sharing in a country where this is discouraged and access to information is limited at best. In short, this was our goal – plain and simple. The infrastructural and technical challenges certainly exist, but they do not prohibit the use of the platform in Liberia; if that were the case, we would not see any reports nor would we see actors such as UNMIL using it as one of their primary tools in their Elections Coordinating Center.

      Each deployment of the Ushahidi platform is unique and its contents as well as its impact determined by the context. While there is no way to know exactly how a deployment of Ushahidi will be received or utilized by the public, our team considered it worth the time and energy to introduce this tool to plant the seed of greater information sharing. In some cases, if something can’t be done “right” then it shouldn’t be done at all; we believe in this case it was better to try with imperfect results than not to try at all.

  3. Thank you and I think this is a great post, I have to feed your blog to learn more useful information. Really appreciate it and I wait your next info about this topic more specifically.