Election Monitoring, Citizen Reporting and Mobile Phones: An Interview with Ian Schuler

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Feb 08, 2010

The National Democratic Institute and MobileActive.org are hosting "New Tools for Better Elections", a conference on February 26th on new technologies for fair, representative and equitable elections. In preparation for the event, we sat down with Ian Schuler, Senior Manager of Information and Communications Technology Programs at the National Democratic Institute. Schuler specializes in the application of mobile technology for the advancement of democracy and human rights, He is the author of SMS as a Tool in Election Observation.

In this conversation, Schuler breaks down not only the differences between election observation, citizen reporting, and crowd-sourcing, but also explains why these distinctions matter and how mobile technology is changing the way elections are held. Read on for excerpts from our conversation, or scroll down to watch the interview in its entirety.

Q: You and NDI have done a lot of election monitoring around the world. Explain why election monitoring matters. 

A: Elections are the main process by which people participate in their government by selecting their leaders. People expect that it’s going to be a fair process, and that it’s going to be an accurate process. So it’s important for people to have confidence to know that somebody is really systematically watching the entire process to make sure that it is good. Election monitoring prevents fraud by making it harder for the people who want to manipulate elections to do so; it detects fraud when it happens, and it lets people know if the process was good – and if it was not, what were the problems and what might be constructive, non-violent ways of remedying those problems, whether it’s simply improving the process for later or rerunning elections or whatever is warranted in that situation. 

Q: You’ve spoken before about a need for a differentiation between crowd-sourcing and election monitoring. How do these two terms differ, and why is that important?

A: […] I think it’s even more important to distinguish between election monitoring and citizen reporting around elections. As the tools for citizens to publish their own voices have improved, as we have blogs and social networking and tools like Ushahidi and others that make it easier to collect and publish and map and visualize citizen reports and citizen voices, the opportunities for citizen reporting around elections have definitely increased. 

Crowdsourcing is very closely tied to citizen reporting around elections. Citizen reporting is a great exercise and it’s important for citizens to have an outlet for their voices that those sort of exercises can really collect – it’s really good [for sharing] experiences and information about what’s going on, but it’s a different exercise than election observation or election monitoring, which has the goal of really evaluating the process. In election monitoring, a group of citizens come together well in advance of an election and develop a strategy that employs a number of different approaches for evaluating ‘was this a good process or not’ and informing the public about to what extent it was a good process and to what extent there were problems. And at the same time, being able to give the public and give the government suggestions on what should be done to remedy those problems.

And certainly, crowd-sourcing as a methodology can support both of those. But particularly on the citizen reporting side, those kind of tools have really exponentially grown the way that citizens are able to share their experiences around an election. But election observation is a lot more than that. […]

Q: Speaking of these tools, how has the mobile phone influenced the way that crowd-sourcing happens and also the way that election observation and citizen reporting happen?

A: Yeah, the mobile phone has made it so much easier. Countries that have the biggest challenges to election integrity are also often countries that traditionally have very low infrastructure – a low telecommunications infrastructure. The explosion of mobile phones in these places over the past several years – it’s night and day, the ability to collect information and move information. Both in citizen reporting and in election observation, both of these have benefited greatly from the ability of people to quickly report information about what’s going on around the entire country. And so, election monitoring organizations have, on the night of elections, been able to really have a very good picture of what’s happening in the most remote areas of the country, not just what’s happening in urban areas. And even throughout the day, as there are issues that are arising, have those reports coming in in a way that they can immediately respond to them, and that observers can go on observing but can be moving that information back to headquarters so that people can begin to do something about that.  It’s remarkable, the difference that it’s made on both sides, on all sides.  Citizens really engaging in their election process. 

Q: Could you give me some specific case examples where mobile technology has been particularly useful in either the citizen reporting aspect or the election monitoring aspect of this? 

A: The place where you’ve really seen the most difference, I think, is where there is a high likelihood of conflict. And in the election monitoring context, if election monitoring works well it can help to prevent conflict. By the same time it’s reporting about elections, [it’s also] giving non-violent, constructive ways to deal with problems that might exist. In Montenegro during their independence referendum, in Sierra Leone during their elections in 2007, in the recent elections is 2008 in Zambia, those were all places where the election monitoring groups, in a very tense environment, were able to get back results and information quickly and were able to validate the results that were being announced and validate that the process was a good process at a time when there were spoilers, or people who might have been interested in manipulating public sentiment to initiate violence in a way that would help them in the post-election environment.

By having groups that could go out and say, ‘no, this was a good process’ or ‘no, we’re doing a parallel account of these numbers because our observers are collecting the numbers as well’, we’re able to validate these numbers, that that helped to convince citizens that it was a good process, or convince citizens that there was someone looking out for their interests and so they wouldn’t go out into the streets when people were encouraging them to do that. 

On the other hand, in Kenya in 2007 there wasn't a group that was employing the right […] There were election monitoring organizations but they happened to be employing the wrong methodologies, and so there was a lot of post-election violence. That’s the case where Ushahidi spawned from, and I think that’s still really one of the best cases of the use of Ushahidi after the election for citizens to report where they were seeing that sort of electoral violence – and in an environment where the government was preventing the mainstream media from being able to cover that violence. Mobile phones and those sort of tools made it easier for citizens to get that information and to pass that information on to others.  […]

Q: Using the example of Kenya, where mobile technology may not have had an effect [on the outcome of the election if used] beforehand, how do you think mobile technology can play a role in election observation before an election, during an election, and after an election? And how can that affect the different outcomes? 

A: […]  Mobile has a tremendous role both in allowing citizens to quickly express their opinions and to quickly get information about what’s going on in the pre-election period, on election day, and in the post election period. I think it’s certainly most influential on election day, because that’s the time when everything is happening, there’s a lot of international interest – that timeliness is that much more important. But even before the election and after the election, during the campaign period, during the voter registration process, while votes are being counted, while complaints are being lodged and while there’s a process of challenging numbers that might be problematic – all of those are processes that it’s good for citizens to be engaged in and watching both through formal groups, like election monitoring groups, and also as individual private citizens. So mobile phones can be used in numerous ways by those organizations and individuals to pass information about what they’re seeing in different places. 

The other thing about an election is that it’s one of the few truly nation-wide events that happens in a country, and so you really are tying people together, and experiences together from around the entire country to make decisions on behalf of all the people. That sort of geographic spread and that sort of connecting [of] everyone is something that, in some countries, the telephone network is the only infrastructure out there that truly does that. 

Q: Have you seen the development of any new technologies or procedures that are coming out to meet these needs for different periods in the elections, or is it mainly SMS and voice-focused [technology]?

A: Right now it’s mainly SMS and voice, although I think there are more sophisticated things going on with SMS. We’ve been working with groups for a while to allow them to collect really pretty sophisticated information via SMS by having a set of codes they can distribute to their observers in advance; within a single text message it’s possible to send a lot of information about how the process is going at a particular polling station and a lot of information about problems and critical incidents as they arise. I think some of the advances that are going on right now are more on the side of collecting unstructured information – the citizen reports, or reports by trained observers that are more text-like in nature rather than filling out a form and sending it in reports. And how do you collect a high volume of unstructured information and then have tools on the back end that will allow you to process that and try to make some sense of it and integrate that into all of the other efforts that are going around or that citizens are using to protect their elections? 

Obviously, SwiftRiver is one of the tools that’s being developed to sort of parse that and manage and organize unstructured information of that sort. I haven’t really seen IVR used in election contexts as far as collecting information and an observation standpoint. I think it’s been used to get information out around an election or to get news out, but less in observation or citizen reporting so far, but I think that this is something that in time we’ll see more people working around on that. Particularly as you really want to engage in citizen reporting in countries with relatively low levels of literacy, being able to use voice in local languages really opens up the opportunities to engage people. And then certainly I think that you’ll see more use of videos and pictures, people sending video and pictures, both citizen reports and election monitors sending video that they are capturing to support the reports that they’re making. 

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest technological developments that have happened in the election observation landscape in the last five years?

A: I think some of the biggest developments have been technical. You get SMS and the ability to really integrate that in in a way that messages come in and are immediately parsed by a computer and allow the group to really be able to have a minute-by-minute update and picture of what’s going on in the country. I think that that’s immensely helped organizations’ ability to say meaningful things and to really have a positive impact on elections. Also, just being able to have the ability to send messages out to their observers, and let them know about problems that they’re seeing, let them know where voting might be extended. The ability to communicate out to observers allows them to be more nimble and flexible as organizations as well, and SMS is very helpful in that.

I think also, in election monitoring, as much as those tools have been helpful, I think that a number of different methodologies have really been perfected over the last few years. Parallel vote tabulation is a way for organizations to be able to evaluate the results management and whether the results that are announced actually reflect the results that were the real results at the polling stations. I think that methodology has made a huge difference. Parallel turnout tabulations similarly look at turnout. Voter registration audits I think are an important methodology that’s really been perfected over the past five years – well before election day, allowing citizen groups to really do a good audit of the voters list to determine or detect problems with the voters list. 

All of those methodologies that are being developed, there are obviously technical tools that need to be developed in order to support them.  In a perfect world, these new, advanced methodologies are also being paired with good tools to help groups to that more effectively. But it is sort of a bit of an arms race; as election monitoring organizations get better at detecting fraud in one area of elections, people who want to manipulate elections find other ways of doing it. And frequently, it’s moving to manipulating things well before election day, well before people are really paying attention. So again, it’s even more important for dedicated groups of citizens to constantly be organized and vigilant around these kind of processes. […]

Q: And what sort of technology is needed to make [a change in the relationship between elections and mobile phones] happen? Is there anything that’s missing now that you believe could really have a huge effect on how things are monitored? 

A: Yeah, I mean some of it is just the infrastructure, right? I think that many of the countries I work in, they don’t have mobile Internet yet or mobile broadband, so they ability to use video and to use smartphones to push ahead information two ways. The infrastructure just isn’t there yet. I do think, as we mentioned, we’re very excited about some of the tools that are being developed for visualization of election information, some of the good stuff that Development Seed and others are doing – we’re really excited about some of the tools that are being developed for managing unstructured information, the Swift project, Ushahidi and what others and involved in. I think that there are some really interesting projects going on out there to make the best of the existing infrastructure, but as the infrastructure in these countries advances, that’s going to open up a lot more opportunities, a lot of additional opportunities. […]

Q: You’re part of the group, along with MobileActive and NDI, that is hosting "New Tools for Better Elections," a conference on the use of technology in elections on February 26th. What do you think this conference will accomplish? What do you hope that it will accomplish? 

A: A lot of people are doing really interesting things right now, but so far there hasn’t been an opportunity to get everyone in the same room who’s doing work on these sort of tools and really think together about how these different initiatives might work together and really think about what are the key challenges that we should be facing, that the groups are facing, and what are the best ways to address those. And so I’m really excited about getting a lot of the really smart people in a room, that have been working on these tools for election oversight or citizen reporting around elections, and one way or another getting them all together and sort of figuring out how we can go forward with at least a common understanding about what the challenges are and how different people are contributing to them. And ideally, even sort of a common research agenda for people on what are the tools that should be developed or what are the approaches that are being developed for helping citizens be more engaged and protect their elections. 

Ian Schuler Interview from MobileActive.org on Vimeo.


Photo credit BBC World Service, Creative Commons

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