Mobile Activism In African Elections: A Paper and a Missed Opportunity

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Mar 20, 2009

I have been meaning for a while to respond to a paper Rebekah Heacock, a graduate student at Columbia, wrote last year. Hancock describes in Mobile Activism in African Elections (PDF) three recent elections in Kenya, Nigeria, and Sierra Leone, and how mobile technology was used for both crowd-sourced and systematic election monitoring.

She poses that: 

The proliferation of mobile phones in Africa is transforming the political and social landscape of the developing world, empowering people to source and share their own information and to have a greater say in what comes to international attention. This paper compares the use and impact of mobile technology in three recent African elections: Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Kenya.

The three elections reviewed saw very different uses of mobile technology.  However, Heacock gets it wrong in her conclusions and misses a very important opportunity to distinguish between two very different uses of mobile phones in election monitoring: citizen-generated and crowdsourced ad-hoc election monitoring and information gathering on the one hand, and systyematic, organized monitoring by trained local volunteers according to a strict methodology that is stastically relevant and can predict and verify election results.

Both have inherent but very different values and I wish Heacock had described both the differences and the value, benfits, and uses of either method more accurately and in-depth.

But let's go back to the three elections and how they differeed in the use of mobile technology.  As Hancock describes, in Nigeria, the Network of Election Monitors used a combination of registered volunteers and crowdsourcing to receive reports from polling stations.

Registered NMEM associates in each of Nigeria’s 36 states recruited additional volunteers and forwarded mass reminders about the program on the morning of the elections.  Multiple messages from the same polling site were crosschecked for accuracy, and over 10,000 messages, describing both orderly voting experiences and widespread fraud, were received in all.“

In Kenya, Ushahidi, a mash-up map, ws developed and deployed after the election to crowdsource reports via email, web submission, and SMS about incidences of violence.  According to Heacock,

Over 200 incidents were reported, then verified through non-governmental organizations and posted to an interactive calendar and map. Mobile phone-based crowdsourcing also went beyond Ushahidi: several of Kenya’s bloggers allowed readers to comment on their posts via SMS, and the BBC received nearly 4000 text messages from Kenyans after asking for updates on the situation. Local media also used mobile technology to conduct surveys on campaign issues, broadcasting poll questions on television and radio and encouraging listeners to respond via SMS.

Lastly, Heacock notess the election in Sierra Leone where mobile phones were used for systematic election monitoring by a local coalition of NGOs.  Similar to election monitoring in Ghana about which I wrote about extensively last fall, the election in Sierra Leone followed a rigorous protocol to monitor the election process.

In a recent  article in Innovations, "SMS As a Tool in Election Observation," Ian Schuler of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), discusses how, when, and why SMS has been used in election monitoring.  

Schuler describes the methods used by NEW in Sierra Leone:

NEW’s efforts were aided by an innovative text-message reporting method. Observers used a series of carefully constructed codes to send short message system (SMS) messages to one of seven phones connected to a computer by USB cables at NEW headquarters. NEW observers could transmit complex information about the election, from minor procedural infractions to serious flaws. The computer then interpreted the codes and stored the information in a database, which included reports that facilitated rapid analysis ofthe data...NEW’s SMS rapid-reporting system enabled it to make timely and detailed reports that helped to instill confidence in the process and contributed to the peaceful transition to a new administration.

Similarly, in Ghana I worked with the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers, and wrote about the monitorin there:

Each of the 4,000 trained observers-mostly members of the 34-organization strong CODEO coalition--are deployed all over Ghana are using their phones to report on incidences at the polls and how well the polls are conducted, using a coded checklist.  As we have reported before, systematic SMS reporting by trained local citizen observers about how well an election is conducted can prevent rumors, and is an independent and reliable indicator about the quality of the election process.  

1,000 of the observers are also conducting 'Parallel Vote Tabulation', a methodology that independently verifies the accuracy of the official vote count at the end of election day.  As the name suggests, the observers are watching as the votes are counted at the randomly selected polling stations where they are deployed before ballots are collated and transported. This allows observers to get as close as possible to an actual count.  The vote tabulation for each candidate and party are then immediately transmitted by the observer via SMS to the CODEO Observation Center to be tabulated and compared with the official results.  

Since these 1,000 polling stations constitute a representative sample of the more than 22,000 polling stations in Ghana, a well-conducted parallel vote tabulation provides a very reliable indicator as to whether the total official vote count announcements are accurate.

An observer from the EU noted that the system CODEO developed was by far 'the most impressive' election observation system using mobile tech that he had seen.  And the news so far from the Rapid Response Observers is encouraging: There have been few incidence and voting is going largely smoothly.   As many people will tell you on the street: "We are voting for Mama Ghana."

The methods deployed by Ushahidi and in Nigeria versus the election monitoring conducted by NEW and CODEO on Sierra Leone and Ghana, respectively, were very different and it would be very useful to delineate much more clearly when crowdsourcing information for greater participation in elections is in order, and when methodical election monitoring with trained volunteers according to a strict methodology is useful and appropriate. Both methods have their value. 

However, Heacock concludes wrongly and without backing up her assertion, that 

By allowing voters to become reporters and evaluators In Nigeria and Sierra Leone, mobile phones encouraged citizen participation and a greater sense of ownership in the political process.  Crowdsourced information proved to be more comprehensive and more timely than reports gathered through traditional methods; it was also reasonably accurate, due to the
verification processes each system had in place.  Mobile monitoring is too informal to replace international monitoring missions, but the ability of cell-phone equipped observers to collect and disseminate accurate election results to the public quickly and cheaply helped ease tensions that may have otherwise lead to conflict.

She does not explain why 'crowdsourced informtion' is more comprehensive (especially puzzing since Sierra Leone's observation mission was not at all crowd-sourced) and she misunderstands mbile monitoring entirely.  She also is misguided when she notes that "mobile monitoring is too informal to replace international monitoring missions" -- a rather dubious assertion given, for example, the thousands of local trained volunteer monitors that were deployed in Ghana -- nurses, workers, teachers, and others in the CODEO coalition who were far more effective with their method than the few international monitors observing. 

There are a few notable mistakes in Heacock's paper as well. The first time mobiles were used in election monitoring was actually not in 2007 in Africa but in Indonesia in 2005 and in Palestine in 2006, as well as in Montenegro.  As we described elsewhere,

The story starts in Montenegro, a small country in the former Yugoslavia. On May 21, 2006 the country saw the first instance of volunteer monitors using SMS, also known as text messaging, as their main election reporting tool. A Montenegrin NGO, the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), with technical assistance from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in the United States, was the first organization in the world to use text messaging to meet all election day reporting requirements. 

We invite both Heacock and Ian Schuler, as a practitioner and expert in the field of election monitoring to respond and explain when and how crowscourcing versus systematic election observation is appropriate to advance the understanding and use of mobiles in making elections more accountable, fair, and participatory in countries around the world. 






Mozambique experience

Very interesting discusssion.
If by "using mobile phones to monitor elections" you mean using any function of a mobile phone, including phone calls, mobile phones were used to conduct PVTs in the municipal elections of 2003 and general elections of 2004 in Mozambique. Observers (465 in the first case and 1,500 in the second) used cellphones to call in the results of randomly selected polling stations around the country to a command centre in Maputo. This was done by the Electoral Observatory, a coalition of Mozambican civil society organizations, with the support of the Carter Center and Democracy International. The Observatory conducted another PVT using cellphone calls in November last year for municipal elections, this time with the support of the Electoral Institute of Southern Africa (EISA). For this year's general elections, we are looking into other technological options using cellphones and text messaging (instead of phone calls). We would be very interested in learning more about the type of software and technology that can be used to received coded/formatted text messages from cellphones and transfer them to a computer. Can this be outsourced to a company such as those that run text message voting for TV programs such as Idols/American Idol? Or is it better to acquire specific software and have it run in-house?
I'd appreciate your input very much.

Miguel de Brito, Country Director for Mozambique, EISA.

Election Observation and Crowdsourcing

Thanks to both Katrin Verclas and Rebekah Heacock for an interesting discussion. I agree with Katrin on the need to distinguish between formal election observation efforts that involve accredited and trained observers and citizen reporting of elections. Crowdsourcing is a very good model for some types of citizen reporting around elections. Crowdsourcing has serious limitations that keep it from being a substitute for election observation. Rebekah Heacock is correct that both citizen reporting efforts and election observation groups are making exciting use of mobile phones across the continent.

I have seen new communications tools used in smart ways in election across Africa. I worked closely with the primary domestic observation efforts in recent elections in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe. I worked on various aspects of the Kenya's elections and was an accredited international observer. I was not in Nigeria for the 2007 election (I cut my teeth on Nigeria's 2003 election), however NDI had significant programming around international and domestic observation which I advised from afar. I hesitate to classify NMEM as an observer group, but I was in contact with NMEM leadership before and after the Nigerian election.

I agree that there a role for crowdsourcing in citizen reporting on elections. Ushahidi provides a great example of using crowds in election and non-election environments to catalogue recognizable and verifiable "events" around the country. Compared to traditional reporting, citizen reporting is much more participatory and often more thorough and timely. Around elections, crowdsourcing efforts can supplement election observation efforts. They can be used to collect pictures, video or stories that can be used to illustrate characteristics of an election.

Election observation is much more than reporting information about an election. Election observation is intended to inform the public of whether the election process was fair and credible and whether the results reflect the will of the people. Where there are attempts to manipulate elections, election observation is meant to systematically collect evidence of manipulation that can be used in a court or can inform domestic and international policy. Often, observers and observer groups are legally empowered to challenge improper behavior. Proper election observation requires trained, accredited and strategically deployed citizen observers that have access to every aspect of the voting and counting process.

The international media covering African elections devote a disproportionate amount of attention to international observation missions of domestic efforts. Unsurprisingly many peoples' notion of election observation involves a few dozen international dignitaries in range rovers. In each of these elections thousands or tens of thousands of local observers were mobilized to observe elections in every corner of the country. These observers were trained to examine 20-50 aspects of concern and communicate that information quickly for analysis. Often observers reported critical incidents in real time so that the observer group could help in addressing problems before voting ended.

In many elections on the continent, the handling of results was the most controversial aspect of the election. Voting that was undertaken in a reasonably fair and peaceful manner was followed by a tabulation process that lacked public trust. Equally unfortunate, the trend of creating a "Government of National Unity" to remedy problematic elections has fueled an counter trend of losing parties using claims of rigged elections to mobilize protest (sometimes violent) to challenge legitimate results. Strategically deployed observers that collect the actual vote counts at polling stations can expose manipulation of the tabulation process and corroborate good results. Exactly these efforts made a significant impact to the post-election environment in recent elections in Ghana, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe. It is exactly this sort of effort that was lacking in Kenya. Had it existed there, Ushahidi may not have been necessary.

For a variety of reasons, crowds are not good at making an overall determination about the quality of an election. Crowds aren't empowered to observe every aspect of the process from the opening of polls through the counting of ballots. Rigging often occurs at the times when no one is watching. Untrained observers can easily misinterpret voting procedures, missing subtle manipulation or finding fault in properly executed elections. Crowds are biased. Partisanism is high throughout Africa and often the public is inclined to view their voting experience through a partisan lens. This is particularly problematic in countries where the "connected class" is relatively small and is largely composed of individuals with a particular political slant. Anonymous crowdsourced efforts are open to partisan manipulation. Critically, crowds are limited in their ability to verify and report information on counting and results in a manner that could be compared to official results.

To take your example of Nigeria, NMEM asked Nigerians to text their opinions on the election and followed up with a variety of questions. This was beneficial in providing citizens a constructive way to engage citizens around the elections. However, this sort of effort is no better able to tell you that an election was good than a web poll is able to project who will win an election. While NMEM collected 10,000 text messages, Nigerian observer group Transition Monitoring Group (TMG) trained and deployed nearly 50,000 election observers across every state. The TMG effort collected better information and engaged more Nigeriens in a more substantive way. TMG offered a serious statement on elections that was regarded by local and international media and had a positive influence on the post-election environment. TMG's preliminary report came out before NMEM's and the organization remains involved in post-election reform to address the issues that arose in the 2007 elections.

The danger of confusing citizen reporting with election observation is that donors, civil society organizations and policy makers begin to think that the two are interchangeable, and that they can pick and chose which to support.

Like Katrin, I agree with Rebekah's overall point that both citizen reporting and election monitoring efforts have benefited immensely from smart use of mobile technology. Election observation groups are able to collect rich information extremely quickly, even in challenging environments. Citizen reporters have quickly share up-to-the-minute information on the election and post-election environment. Both of these efforts would benefit from better, easier tools and informative case studies.

Thanks again for a great discussion
Ian Schuler

Hi Katrin, Thanks for your

Hi Katrin,

Thanks for your comments on my paper. You're absolutely right that there is a difference between truly crowdsourced information like that gathered in post-election Kenya and more coordinated observation efforts like those that took place in Sierra Leone and Ghana.

I still believe that crowdsourced efforts can be more comprehensive than traditional election observation missions -- traditional monitors in Nigeria face multiple obstacles in their attempts to collect valid, statistically significant data on national elections. They are limited by time and geography, as well as by their official status: their visible presence at a polling site reminds voters and others present that they are being watched, decreasing the likelihood of fraud or voter intimidation at that polling place and possibly skewing the results of the observers’ study. Crowdsourced information avoids these obstacles, and the reports collected by NMEM volunteers in Nigeria came from every state in Nigeria.

Also, in Kenya, the information Ushahidi received often predated and/or exceeded what mainstream media was reporting, as evidenced in Patrick Meier and Kate Brodock's 2008 study.

As I noted in my paper, NEW's work in Sierra Leone played a crucial role in quickly compiling and releasing nationwide results and analysis, though the country's lack of infrastructure presented severe challenges. Your point about Ghana's observation mission is well taken, and I think the CODEO coalition efforts represent a major step forward for mobile election monitoring.

Finally, to clarify, I didn't mean to suggest that the first instance of mobile phone election monitoring took place in 2007, but that the first instance in Africa did. To my knowledge, the Nigerian elections were the first African elections in which mobile phones were used to monitor -- please correct me if you know of any other cases in Africa that predate this.

Thanks again for your comments -- the clarification and nuance you've provided are definitely welcome.

Rebekah Heacock

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