Texting It In: Monitoring Elections With Mobile Phones

Posted by KatrinVerclas on Aug 12, 2007

In Sierra Leone's national election today, 500 election observers at polling stations around the country are reporting on any irregularities via SMS with their mobile phones. Independent monitoring of elections via cell phone is growing aqround the world, spearheaded by a few innovative NGOs.

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.

Since then, mobile phones have been deployed in six elections in countries around the world, with volunteers systematically using text messaging in election monitoring. Pioneered by NDI, SMS monitoring is becoming a highly sophisticated rapid reporting tool used not just in a referendum election like in Montenegro, but in parliamentary elections with a plethora of candidates and parties and complex data reported via SMS. This was the case in Bahrain, a small country in the Middle East, where monitors reported individual election tallies in a series of five to fourty concurrent SMS messages, using a sophisticated cosding system, with near accuracy.

Today's election in Sierra Leone is lead by the National Election Watch (NEW), a coalition of over 200 NGOs in the country. Assisted by NDI, NEW has monitors at 500 of the 6171 polling stations. Monitors report on whether there are any irregularities via SMS back to headquarters. This election is particularly significant for the country: It is the first presidential election since U.N. peacekeepers withdrew two years ago. It considered a historic poll that many hope will show that the country can transfer power peacefully after a long civil war and military coups. In the run-up to the election there was sporadic violence in Freetown; making the independent monitoring by NGOs particularly relevant and necessary.

Election monitoring is a highly technical discipline, with a sophisticated set of methodologies and extensive volunteer training.  Preparation for an election monitoring exercise involves volunteer training and advance planning that often starts months before an election.  Election monitors, typically led by domestic non-governmental organizations (NGOs) often with the help of foreign technical assistance providers like NDI, can report on multiple dimensions.  They may, depending on the election, report on quantitative data such as real-time voter turnout and even on actual election results. In those cases, monitors use the data to provide a "quick count" projection of the election results.  If a "quick count" is conducted then a statistical random sample of polling places is carefully selected to ensure the validity of projections.

Monitors also report on qualitative data about how well the election is executed. This may include information on whether polls are opening on time, whether there are enough ballots available, whether there is free access to polling places, and whether there is any evidence of intimidation or any other irregularities.

Reports are transmitted using an agreed-upon set of codes from a representative sample of polling places around the country. In Sierra Leone, for example, there are monitors stationed at 500 polling places in every part of the country who text in reports at regular intervals.

In many contested elections, especially in emerging democracies, speed of reporting is of the essence. It is critical that NGOs and independent civil society organizations report data accurately and quickly even before official results are released, especially when fraud is feared. Mobile phones have been an important tool in this regard. They are, of course, not a new phenomenon in election monitoring; after all, cell phones have been around for a while now.  But prior to NDI showcasing that SMS is a viable and reliable communication medium in elections, mobile phones were used merely to transmit reports verbally that then still had to be transcribed in a time-consuming and error-prone manual process.

Chris Spence, Director of Technology at NDI recalls: "In 2003, we had 24/7 shifts of college students in five locations across Nigeria entering data from paper forms that were faxed or hand-carried into the data centers. Timeliness and quality control were huge issues when nearly 15,000 forms containing dozens of responses each had to be manually entered into a database. Today, in the elections where we've used SMS, you watch the data flow into the database directly when it is time for the monitors to report. The system automatically sends confirmation messages back to the observer in an interactive exchange of SMS messages, so accuracy increases. At reporting time, it is quite amazing to see the numbers change on the screen as the sms messages pour into the database."

In addition to increased speed and greater accuracy of reporting, SMS election monitoring has a noteworthy ancillary benefit: the real-time ability by headquarters to communicate with observers throughout the election day by sending text reminders and updates keeps volunteers motivated and engaged. SMS and phone contact also provides vital opportunities for security updates should political conditions take a turn for the worst.  As a result, morale amongst the volunteers soars there is far less polling station abandonment.

In order for large-scale SMS election monitoring to succeed, a number of conditions have to be in place. When NDI assisted an Albanian consortium of NGOs in the local elections there in 2006, all the right elements were present: NDI was working with an experienced and reliable local NGO partner; SMS bulk messaging was available for all of the mobile phone companies; the phone companies worked with the NGOs and were available and ready during election day to deal with any problems on the spot; phone companies and the bulk SMS vendors were able to handle thousands of messages per minute to a few numbers at reporting times, wireless coverage even in rural areas was excellent, and the phone companies provided so-called interconnect ability that allowed monitors to send messages from all of the different carriers to one reporting number.

In Sierra Leone where most of the carriers lack international gateway interconnect ability, the NGO coalition there will need to set up a series of local phone numbers so that observers can text to a number within their own provider network.  This necessitates a much more rudimentary and complicated setup: Seven phones are tethered to a laptop and observers are texting directly to those phones without any bulk messaging intermediary.  Messages arrive in the phone and are passed to computer, the software reads it using custom scripts, and the data is compiled in an Access database ready for analysis. Concerns about the phones handling a high volume of messages in this situation necessitates a more complicated reporting strategy whereby each observer will report all of data in a single text message using a simple coding scheme.  Because Sierra Leone has more spotty wireless coverage, election monitors in rural areas will have to travel to areas where there is coverage to send in their reports at the end of the day.

An important consideration is the cost of a wide-scale program. To date NDI has found this method of reporting much more economical than other strategies.  Pricing for bulk sms from a provider like Clickatel is relatively inexpensive. In the Albanian election, for example, the bulk messaging costs for a total of some 41,000 messages received and sent from 2100 monitors was $2400 US Dollars -- an extremely inexpensive way to receive such massive amounts of data. 

NDI uses a software called SMS Reception Center, built by a developer in Russia and costing all of $69 USD. NDI tweaked the scripts over time, and paid the developer to improve the product for its purposes and specific local conditions.

In addition to the technical issues and costs inherent in running a large-scale operation, Spence notes a number of strategic issues to consider: The NGO partner on the ground needs to be experienced in electoral monitoring, the information collected needs to be suitable for the limited text messaging format of 160 chracters, and text messaging needs to be commonly used and part of the local culture. Notes Spence: "In all the countries we have worked, one thing we do not have to do is train anyone how to text."

In Nigeria earlier this year, a local NGO, the Human Emancipation Project, ran a small-scale citizen monitoring program that used untrained citizen reporters to send in SMS messages to one number. The NGO compiled and aggregated the incoming messages and issued a report after the election. Using a grassroots software tool, Frontline SMS, organizers reported that about 8,000 individuals texted in some kind of report. This is a very different method from the systematic election monitoring conducted by NGO observer organizations and their technical assistant providers where a more rigorous protocol is adhered to. There is merit in engaging every-day citizens to protect their country's elections even if these efforts do not produce reliable and verifiable election results and reports in the manner that systematic election monitoring does. The Nigerian effort was widely covered BBC News, and other outlets.

In the two years since the first large-scale SMS monitoring in Montenegro, there have been rapid improvements in mobile services as competition in the wireless industry has increased worldwide, and there is growing interest and understanding on the part of NGOs that systematic election monitoring is not as difficult as it first may seem. As election monitoring via SMS becomes standardized and NGOs gain experience, there is no reason for mobile phones and SMS not to play a greater role in other areas of civic participation. For example, imagine citizen oversight of public works projects where people might report on whether a clinic is actually built as indicated in a local budget. Other applications may be monitoring and accountability of elected officials, and dissemination of voter registration information such as the address of where to register, or the nearest polling station. Several pilot projects in the United States showed promising results in increasing voter turnout by text message reminders. The future is bright for innovative ways in which cell phones are used by citizens to participate and engage in their countries as the mobile revolution unfolds.

Additional resources:


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