Tag Archives: elections

PeaceTXT Kenya: Since Wars Begin in Minds of Men


“Since wars begin in the minds of men, it is in the minds of men that the defenses of peace must be constructed.” – 
UNESCO Constitution, 1945

Today, in Kenya, PeaceTXT is building the defenses of peace out of text messages (SMS). As The New York Times explains, PeaceTXT is developing a “text messaging service that sends out blasts of pro-peace messages to specific areas when trouble is brewing.” Launched by PopTech in partnership with the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (We are Peace), the Kenyan implementation of PeaceTXT uses mobile advertising to market peace and change men’s behaviors.

Conflicts are often grounded in the stories and narratives that people tell them-selves and in the emotions that these stories evoke. Narratives shape identity and the social construct of reality—we interpret our lives through stories. These have the power to transform or infect relationships and communities. As US-based PeaceTXT partner CureViolence (formerly CeaseFire) has clearly shown, violence propagates in much the same way as infectious diseases do. The good news is that we already know how to treat the later: by blocking transmission and treating the infected. This is precisely the approach taken by CureViolence to successfully prevent violence on the streets of Chicago, Baghdad and elsewhere.

The challenge? CureViolence cannot be everywhere at the same time. But the “Crowd” is always there and where the crowd goes, mobile phones often follow. PeaceTXT leverages this new reality by threading a social narrative of peace using mobile messages. Empirical research in public health (and mobile adver-tising) clearly demonstrates that mobile messages & reminders can change behaviors. Given that conflicts are often grounded in the narratives that people tell themselves, we believe that mobile messaging may also influence conflict behavior and possibly prevent the widespread transmission of violent mindsets.

To test this hypothesis, PopTech partnered with Sisi ni Amani in 2011 to pilot and assess the use of mobile messaging for violence interruption and prevention since SNA-K had already been using mobile messaging for almost three years to promote peace, raise awareness about civic rights and encourage recourse to legal instruments for dispute resolution. During the twelve months leading up to today’s Presidential Elections, the Kenyan NGO Sisi ni Amani (SNA-K) has worked with PopTech and PeaceTXT partners (Medic Mobile, QCRI, Ushahidi & CureViolence) to identify the causes of peace in some of the country’s most conflict-prone communities. Since wars begin in the minds of men, SNA-K has held dozens of focus groups in many local communities to better understand the kinds of messaging that might make would-be perpetrators think twice before committing violence. Focus group participants also discussed the kinds of messaging needed to counter rumors. Working with Ogilvy, a global public relations agency with expertise in social marketing, SNA-K subsequently codified the hundreds of messages developed by the local communities to produce a set of guidelines for SNA-K staff to follow. These guidelines describe what types of messages to send to whom, where and when depending on the kinds of tensions being reported.

In addition to organizing these important focus groups, SNA-K literally went door-to-door in Kenya’s most conflict-prone communities to talk with residents about PeaceTXT and invite them to subscribe to SNA-Ks free SMS service. Today, SNA-K boasts over 60,000 SMS subscribers across the country. Thanks to Safaricom, the region’s largest mobile operator, SNA-K will be able to send out 50 million text messages completely for free, which will significantly boost the NGO’s mobile reach during today’s elections. And thanks to SNA-K’s customized mobile messaging platform built by the Praekelt Foundation, the Kenyan NGO can target specific SMS’s to individual subscribers based on their location, gender and demographics. In sum, as CNN explains, “the intervention combines targeted SMS with intensive on-the-ground work by existing peace builders and community leaders to target potential flashpoints of violence.” 

The partnership with Pop-Tech enabled SNA-K to scale thanks to the new funding and strategic partnerships provided by PopTech. Today, PeaceTXT and Sisi ni Amani have already had positive impact in the lead up to today’s important elections. For example, a volatile situation in Dandora recently led to the stabbing of several individuals, which could have resulted in a serious escalation of violence. So SNA-K sent the following SMS: 

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“Tu dumisha amani!” means “Lets keep the peace!” SNA-K’s local coordinator in Dandore spoke with a number of emotionally distraught and (initially) very angry individuals in the area who said they had been ready to mobilizing and take revenge. But, as they later explained, the SMS sent out by SNA-K made them think twice. They discussed the situation and decided that more violence wouldn’t bring their friend back and would only bring more violence. They chose to resolve the volatile situation through mediation instead.

In Sagamian, recent tensions over land issues resulted in an outbreak of violence. So SNA-K sent the following message:

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Those involved in the fighting subsequently left the area, telling SNA-K that they had decided not to fight after receiving the SMS. What’s more, they even requested that additional messages to be sent. Sisi ni Amani has collected dozens of such testimonials, which suggest that PeaceTXT is indeed having an impact. Historian Geoffrey Blainey once wrote that “for every thousand pages on the causes of war, there is less than one page directly on the causes of peace.” Today, the PeaceTXT Kenya & SNAK partnership is making sure that for every one SMS that may incite violence, a thousand messages of peace, calm and solidarity will follow to change the minds of men. Tudumishe amani!

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Cross-posted on PopTech blog.

Traditional vs. Crowdsourced Election Monitoring: Which Has More Impact?

Max Grömping makes a significant contribution to the theory and discourse of crowdsourced election monitoring in his excellent study: “Many Eyes of Any Kind? Comparing Traditional and Crowdsourced Monitoring and their Contribu-tion to Democracy” (PDF). This 25-page study is definitely a must-read for anyone interested in this topic. That said, Max paints a false argument when he writes: “It is believed that this new methodology almost magically improves the quality of elections [...].” Perhaps tellingly, he does not reveal who exactly believes in this false magic. Nor does he cite who subscribes to the view that  “[...] crowdsourced citizen reporting is expected to have significant added value for election observation—and by extension for democracy.”

My doctoral dissertation focused on the topic of crowdsourced election observa-tion in countries under repressive rule. At no point in my research or during interviews with activists did I come across this kind of superficial mindset or opinion. In fact, my comparative analysis of crowdsourced election observation showed that the impact of these initiatives was at best minimal vis-a-vis electoral accountability—particularly in the Sudan. That said, my conclusions do align with Max’s principle findings: “the added value of crowdsourcing lies mainly in the strengthening of civil society via a widened public sphere and the accumulation of social capital with less clear effects on vertical and horizontal accountability.”

This is huge! Traditional monitoring campaigns don’t strengthen civil society or the public sphere. Traditional monitoring teams are typically composed of inter-national observers and thus do not build social capital domestically. At times, traditional election monitoring programs may even lead to more violence, as this recent study revealed. But the point is not to polarize the debate. This is not an either/or argument but rather a both/and issue. Traditional and crowdsourced election observation efforts can absolutely complement each other precisely because they each have a different comparative advantage. Max concurs: “If the crowdsourced project is integrated with traditional monitoring from the very beginning and thus serves as an additional component within the established methodology of an Election Monitoring Organization, the effect on incentive structures of political parties and governments should be amplified. It would then include the best of both worlds: timeliness, visualization and wisdom of the crowd as well as a vetted methodology and legitimacy.”

Recall Jürgen Habermas and his treatise that “those who take on the tools of open expression become a public, and the presence of a synchronized public increasingly constrains un-democratic rulers while expanding the right of that public.” Why is this important? Because crowdsourced election observation projects can potentially bolster this public sphere and create local ownership. Furthermore, these efforts can help synchronize shared awareness, an important catalyzing factor of social movements, according to Habermas. Furthermore, my colleague Phil Howard has convincingly demonstrated that a large active online civil society is a key causal factor vis-a-vis political transitions towards more democratic rule. This is key because the use of crowdsourcing and crowd-mapping technologies often requires some technical training, which can expand the online civil society that Phil describes and render that society more active (as occurred in Egypt during the 2010 Parliamentary Elections—see  dissertation).

The problem? There is very little empirical research on crowdsourced election observation projects let alone assessments of their impact. Then again, these efforts at crowdsourcing are only a few years old and many do’ers in this space are still learning how to be more effective through trial and error. Incidentally, it is worth noting that there has also been very little empirical analysis on the impact of traditional monitoring efforts: “Further quantitative testing of the outlined mechanisms is definitely necessary to establish a convincing argument that election monitoring has positive effects on democracy.”

In the second half of his important study, Max does an excellent job articulating the advantages and disadvantages of crowdsourced election observation. For example, he observes that many crowdsourced initiatives appear to be spon-taneous rather than planned. Therein lies part of the problem. As demonstrated in my dissertation, spontaneous crowdsourced election observation projects are highly unlikely to strengthen civil society let alone build any kind of social capital. Furthermore, in order to solicit a maximum number of citizen-generated election reports, a considerable amount of upfront effort on election awareness raising and education needs to take place in addition to partnership outreach not to mention a highly effective media strategy.

All of this requires deliberate, calculated planning and preparation (key to an effective civil society), which explains why Egyptian activists were relatively more successful in their crowdsourced election observation efforts compared to their counterparts in the Sudan (see dissertation). This is why I’m particularly skeptical of Max’s language on the “spontaneous mechanism of protection against electoral fraud or other abuses.” That said, he does emphasize that “all this is of course contingent on citizens being informed about the project and also the project’s relevance in the eyes of the media.”

I don’t think that being informed is enough, however. An effective campaign not only seeks to inform but to catalyze behavior change, no small task. Still Max is right to point out that a crowdsourced election observation project can “encou-rage citizens to actively engage with this information, to either dispute it, confirm it, or at least register its existence.” To this end, recall that political change is a two-step process, with the second—social step—being where political opinions are formed (Katz and Lazarsfeld 1955). “This is the step in which the Internet in general, and social media in particular, can make a difference” (Shirky 2010). In sum, Max argues that “the public sphere widens because this engagement, which takes place in the context of the local all over the country, is now taken to a wider audience by the means of mapping and real-time reporting.” And so, “even if crowdsourced reports are not acted upon, the very engagement of citizens in the endeavor to directly make their voices heard and hold their leaders accountable widens the public sphere considerably.”

Crowdsourcing efforts are fraught with important and very real challenges, as is already well known. Reliability of crowdsourced information, risk of hate speech spread via uncontrolled reports, limited evidence of impact, concerns over security and privacy of citizen reporters, etc. That said, it is important to note that this “field” is evolving and many in this space are actively looking for solutions to these challenges. During the 2010 Parliamentary Elections in Egypt, the U-Shahid project was able to verify over 90% of the crowdsourced reports. The “field” of information forensics is becoming more sophisticated and variants to crowdsourcing such as bounded crowdsourcing and crowdseeding are not only being proposed but actually implemented.

The concern over unconfirmed reports going viral has little to do with crowd-sourcing. Moreover, the vast majority of crowdsourced election observation initiatives I have studied moderate all content before publication. Concerns over security and privacy are issues not limited to crowdsourced election observation and speak to a broader challenge. There are already several key initiatives underway in the humanitarian and crisis mapping community to address these important challenges. And lest we forget, there are few empirical studies that demonstrate the impact of traditional monitoring efforts in the first place.

In conclusion, traditional monitors are sometimes barred from observing an election. In the past, there have been few to no alternatives to this predicament. Today, crowdsourced efforts are sure to swell up. Furthermore, in the event that traditional monitors conclude that an election was stolen, there’s little they can do to catalyze a local social movement to place pressure on the thieves. This is where crowdsourced election observation efforts could have an important contribution. To quote Max: “instead of being fearful of the ‘uncontrollable crowd’ and criticizing the drawbacks of crowdsourcing, [...] governments would be well-advised to embrace new social media. Citizens [...] will use new techno-logies and new channels for information-sharing anyway, whether endorsed by their governments or not. So, governments might as well engage with ICTs and crowdsourcing proactively.”

Big thanks to Max for this very valuable contribution to the discourse and to my colleague Tiago Peixoto for flagging this important study.

Evolution in Live Mapping: The 2012 Egyptian Presidential Elections

My doctoral dissertation compared the use of live mapping technology in Egypt and the Sudan during 2010. That year was the first time that Ushahidi was deployed in those two countries. So it is particularly interesting to see the technology used again in both countries in 2012. Sudanese activists are currently using the platform to map #SudanRevolts while Egyptian colleagues have just used the tool to monitor the recent elections in their country.

Analyzing the evolution of live mapping technology use in non-permissive environments ought to make for a very interesting piece of research (any takers?). In the case of Egypt, one could compare the use of the same technology and methods before and after the fall of Mubarak. In 2010, the project was called U-Shahid. This year, the initiative was branded as the “Egypt Elections Project.”

According to my colleagues in Cairo who managed the interactive map, “more than 15 trainers and 75 coordinators were trained to work in the ‘operation room’ supporting 2200 trained observers scattered all over Egypt. More than 17,000 reports, up to 25000 short messages were sent by the observers and shown on Ushahid’s interactive map. Although most reports received shown a minimum amount of serious violations, and most of them were indicating the success of the electoral process, our biggest joy was being able to monitor freely and to report the whole process with full transparency.”

Contrast this situation with how Egyptian activists struggled to keep their Ushahidi project alive under Mubarak in 2010. Last week, the team behind the current live map was actually interviewed by state television (picture above), which was formerly controlled by the old regime. Interestingly, the actual map is no longer the centerpiece of the project when compared to the U-Shahid deploy-ment. The team has included and integrated a lot more rich multimedia content in addition to data, statistics and trends analysis. Moreover, there appears to be a shift towards bounded crowdsourcing rather than open crowd-sourcing as far as election mapping projects go.

These two live mapping projects in Egypt and the Sudan are also getting relatively more traction than those in 2010. Some 17,000 reports were mapped in this year’s election project compared to 2,700 two years ago. Apparently, “millions of users logged into the [Egypt Project Elections] site to check the outcome of the electoral process,” compared to some 40,000 two years ago. Sudanese activists in Khartoum also appear to be far better organized and more agile at leverage social media channels to garner support for their movement than in 2010. Perhaps some of the hard lessons from those resistance efforts were learned.

This learning factor is key and relates to an earlier blog post I wrote on “Technology and Learning, Or Why the Wright Brothers Did Not Create the 747.” Question is: do repressive regimes learn faster or do social movements operate with more agile feedback loops? Indeed, perhaps the technology variable doesn’t matter the most. As I explained to Newsweek a while back, “It is the organiza-tional structure that will matter the most. Rigid structures are unable to adapt as quickly to a rapidly changing environment as a decentralized system. Ultimately, it is a battle of organizational theory.” In the case of Egypt and Sudan today, there’s no doubt that activists in both countries are better organized while the technologies themselves haven’t actually changed much since 2010. But better organization is a necessary, not sufficient, condition to catalyze positive social change and indirect forms of democracy.

Pierre Rosanvallon (2008) indentifies three channels whereby civil society can hold the state accountable during (and in between) elections, and independent of their results.

“The first refers to the various means whereby citizens (or, more accurately, organizations of citizens) are able to monitor and publicize the behavior of elected and appointed rulers; the second to their capacity to mobilize resistance to specific policies, either before or after they have been selected; the third to the trend toward ‘juridification’ of politics when individuals or social groups use the courts and, especially, jury trials to bring delinquent politicians to judgment.”

Live maps and crowdsourcing can be used to monitor and publicize the behavior of politicians. The capacity to mobilize resistance and bring officials to judgment may require a different set of strategies and technologies, however. Those who don’t realize this often leave behind a cemetery of dead maps.

Using Rayesna to Track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter

My (future) colleague at the Qatar Foundation’s Computing Research Institute (QCRI) have just launched a new platform that Al Jazeera is using to track the 2012 Egyptian Presidential Candidates on Twitter. Called Rayesna, which  means “our president” in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, this fully automated platform uses cutting-edge Arabic computational linguistics processing developed by the Arabic Language Technology (ALT) group at QCRI.

“Through Rayesna, you can find out how many times a candidate is mentioned, which other candidate he is likely to appear with, and the most popular tweets for a candidate, with a special category for the most retweeted jokes about the candidates. The site also has a time-series to explore and compares the mentions of the candidate day-by-day. Caveats: 1. The site reflects only the people who choose to tweet, and this group may not be representative of general society; 2. Tweets often contain foul language and we do not perform any filtering.”

I look forward to collaborating with the ALT group and exploring how their platform might also be used in the context of humanitarian response in the Arab World and beyond. There may also be important synergies with the work of the UN Global Pulse, particularly vis-a-vis their use of Twitter for real-time analysis of vulnerable communities.

Innovation and Counter-Innovation: Digital Resistance in Russia

Want to know what the future of digital activism looks like? Then follow the developments in Russia. I argued a few years back that the fields of digital activism and civil resistance were converging to a point I referred to as  “digital resistance.” The pace of tactical innovation and counter-innovation in Russia’s digital battlefield is stunning and rapidly converging to this notion of digital resistance.

“Crisis can be a fruitful time for innovation,” writes Gregory Asmolov. Contested elections are also ripe for innovation, which is why my dissertation case studies focused on elections. “In most cases,” says Asmolov, “innovations are created by the oppressed (the opposition, in Russia’s case), who try to challenge the existing balance of power by using new tools and technologies. But the state can also adapt and adopt some of these technologies to protect the status quo.” These innovations stem not only from the new technologies themselves but are embodied in the creative ways they are used. In other words, tactical innovation (and counter-innovation) is taking place alongside technological innovation. Indeed, “innovation can be seen not only in the new tools, but also in the new forms of protest enabled by the technology.”

Some of my favorite tactics from Russia include the YouTube video of Vladimir Putin arrested for fraud and corruption. The video was made to look like a real “breaking news” announcement on Russian television. The site got millions of viewers in just a few days. Another tactic is the use of DIY drones, mobile phone live-streaming and/or 360-degree 3D photo installations to more accurately relay the size of protests. A third tactic entails the use of a twitter username that resembles that of a well-known individual. Michael McFaul, the US Ambassador to Russia, has the twitter handle @McFaul. Activists set up the twitter handle @McFauI that appears identical but actually uses a capital “i” instead of a lower case “L” for the last letter in McFaul.

Asmolov lists a number of additional innovations in the Russian context in this excellent write-up. From coordination tools such as the “League of Voters” website, the “Street Art” group on Facebook and the car-based flashmob protests which attracted more than one thousand cars in one case, to the crowdsourced violations map “Karta Narusheniy“, the “SMS Golos” and “Svodny Protocol” platforms used to collect, analyze and/or map reports from trusted election observers (using bounded crowdsourcing).

One of my favorite tactics is the “solo protest.” According to Russian law, “a protest by one person does not require special permission. So activist Olesya Shmagun stood in from of Putin’s office with a poster that read “Putin, go and take part in public debates!” While she was questioned by the police and security service, she was not detained since one-person protests are not illegal. Even though she only caught the attention of several dozen people walking by at the time, she published the story of her protests and a few photos on her LiveJournal blog, which drew considerable attention after being shared on many blogs and media outlets. As Asmolov writes, “this story shows the power of what is known as Manuel Castell’s ‘mass self-communication’. Thanks to the presence of one camera, an offline one-person protest found a way to a [much wider] audience online.”

This innovative tactic lead to another challenge: how to turn a one-person protests into a massive number of one-person protests? So on top of this original innovation came yet another innovation, the Big White Circle action. The dedicated online tool Feb26.ru was developed specifically to coordinate many simultaneous one-person protests. The platform,

“[…] allowed people to check in at locations of their choice on the map of the Garden Ring circle, and showed what locations were already occupied. Unlike other protests, the Big White Circle did not have any organizational committee or a particular leader. The role of the leader was played by a website. The website suffered from DDoS attacks; as a result, it was closed and deleted by the provider; a day later, it was restored.  The practice of creating special dedicated websites for specific protest events is one of the most interesting innovations of the Russian protests. The initial idea belongs to Ilya Klishin, who launched the dec24.ru website (which doesn’t exist anymore) for the big opposition rally that took place in Moscow on December 24, 2011.”

The reason I like this tactic is because it takes a perfectly legal action and simply multiplies it, thus forcing the regime to potentially come up with a new set of laws that will clearly appear absurd and ridiculed by a larger segment of the population.

Citizen-based journalism played a pivotal role by “increasing transparency of the coverage of pro-government rallies.” As Asmolov notes, “Internet users were able to provide much content, including high quality YouTube reports that showed that many of those who took a part in these rallies had been forced or paid to participate, without really having any political stance.” This relates to my earlier blog post, “Wag the Dog, or Why Falsifying Crowdsourced Information Can be a Pain.”

Of course, there is plenty of “counter-innovation” coming from the Kremlin and friends. Take this case of pro-Kremlin activists producing an instructional YouTube video on how to manipulate a crowdsourced election-monitoring platform. In addition, Putin loyalists have adapted some of the same tactics as opposition activists, such as the car-based flash-mob protest. The Russian government also decided to create an online system of their own for election monitoring:

“Following an order from Putin, the state communication company Rostelecom developed a website webvybory2012.ru, which allowed people to follow the majority of the Russian polling stations (some 95,000) online on the day of the March 4 presidential election.  Every polling station was equipped with two cameras: one has to be focused on the ballot box and the other has to give the general picture of the polling station. Once the voting was over, one of the cameras broadcasted the counting of the votes. The cost of this project is at least 13 billion rubles (around $500 million). Many bloggers have criticized this system, claiming that it creates an imitation of transparency, when actually the most common election violations cannot be monitored through webcameras (more detailed analysis can be found here). Despite this, the cameras allowed to spot numerous violations (1, 2).”

From the perspective of digital resistance strategies, this is exactly the kind of reaction you want to provoke from a repressive regime. Force them to decen-tralize, spend hundreds of millions of dollars and hundreds of labor-hours to adopt similar “technologies of liberation” and in the process document voting irregularities on their own websites. In other words, leverage and integrate the regime’s technologies within the election-monitoring ecosystem being created, as this will spawn additional innovation. For example, one Russian activist proposed that this webcam network be complemented by a network of citizen mobile phones. In fact, a group of activists developed a smartphone app that could do just this. “The application Webnablyudatel has a classification of all the violations and makes it possible to instantly share video, photos and reports of violations.”

Putin supporters also made an innovative use of crowdsourcing during the recent elections. “What Putin has done is based on a map of Russia where anyone can submit information about Putin’s good deeds.” Just like pro-Kremlin activists can game pro-democracy crowdsourcing platforms, so can supporters of the opposition game a platform like this Putin map. In addition, activists could have easily created a Crowdmap and called it “What Putin Has Not Done” and crowdsource that map, which no doubt would be far more populated than the original good deed map.

One question that comes to mind is how the regime will deal with disinformation on crowdsourcing platforms they set up? Will they need to hire more supporters to vet the information submitted to said platform? Or will  they close up the reporting and use “bounded crowdsourcing” instead? If so, will they have a communications challenge on their hands in trying to convince that trusted reporters are indeed legitimate? Another question has to do with collective action. Pro-Kremlin activists are already innovating on their own but will this create a collective-action challenge for the Russian government? Take the example of the pro-regime “Putin Alarm Clock” (Budilnikputina.ru) tactic which backfired and even prompted Putin’s chief of elections staff to dismiss the initiative as “a provocation organized by the protestors.”

There has always been an interesting asymmetric dynamic in digital activism, with activists as first-movers innovating under oppression and regimes counter-innovating. How will this asymmetry change as digital activism and civil resistance tactics and strategies increasingly converge? Will repressive regimes be pushed to decentralize their digital resistance innovations in order to keep pace with the distributed pro-democracy innovations springing up? Does innovation require less coordination than counter-innovation? And as Gregory Asmolov concludes in his post-script, how will the future ubiquity of crowd-funding platforms and tools for micro-donations/payments online change digital resistance?

Crowdsourcing vs Putin: “Mapping Dots is a Disease on the Map of Russia”

I chose to focus my dissertation research on the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) during elections in repressive states. Why? Because the contentious relationship between state and society during elections is accentuated and the stakes are generally higher than periods in-between elections. To be sure, elections provide momentary opportunities for democratic change. Moreover, the impact of ICTs on competitive events such as contentious elections may be more observable than the impact on state-society relations during the regular calendar year.  In other words, the use of ICTs during election periods may shed some light on whether said technologies empower coercive regimes at the expense of civil society or vice versa.

This was certainly the case this past week in Russia as a result of the above crowdsourced election-violations map, which was used to monitor the country’s Parliamentary Elections. The map displays over 5,000 reports of election viola-tions that span the following categories:

While this map is not powered by the Ushahidi platform (contrary to this claim), the many similarities suggest that the project was inspired by the earlier nation-wide use of the Ushahidi platform in 2010, namely the Russia Fires Help Map. In fact, the major initiator of the Violations Map attended a presentation on Ushahidi and Help Map in Boston earlier this year.

The Elections-Violation Map was launched by Golos, the country’s only independent election monitoring organization and Gazeta.ru, Russia’s leading Internet newspaper. This promotional banner for the map was initially displayed on Gazeta.ru’s website but was subsequently taken down by the Editor in Chief who cited commercial reasons for the action: “Right now we have such a period that this advertisement place is needed for commercial advertisement. But we’re still partners with Golos.”

The deputy editor from Gazeta who had curated the map resigned in protest: “After it became evident that the Violation Map ‘no longer suited the leadership and the owners of the website’, [the deputy editor said,]  it would have been “cowardice” to continue the work. Despite Gazeta.ru’s withdrawal from the project, the Violation Map found another partner, “Slon.ru, a popular blog platform (~1 million unique visitors monthly).”

My colleague Alexey Sidorenko argues that the backlash against the Violations Map “induced the Streisand Effect, whereby any attempt to contain the spread of information results in the opposite reaction.” Indeed, as one Russian blogger tweeted: “Why are ‘United Russia’ representatives so short-sighted? It is evident that now half of the country will know about the Violation Map.” Needless to say, the Violations Map is one of the trending topics being discussed in Russia today (on election day).

As is well know, Golos is funded by both American and European organizations. Not surprisingly, Vladimir Putin is not a fan of Golos, as recently quoted in the Washington Post:

“Representatives of some states are organizing meetings with those who receive money from them, the so-called grant recipients, briefing them on how to ‘work’ in order to influence the course of the election campaign in our country,” Putin said.

“As the saying goes, it’s money down the drain,” he added. “First, because Judas is not the most respected of biblical characters among our people. And, second, they would do better to use that money to redeem their national debt and stop pursuing their costly and ineffective foreign policy.”

As expected by many, hackers took down the Golos website along with the Election-Violations Map. (The Sudanese government did the same last year when independent Sudanese civil society groups used the Ushahidi platform to monitor the country’s first presidential elections in two decades). Incidentally, Slon.ru seems to have evaded the take-down. In any case, the blocking of websites is just one very easy tactic available to hackers and repressive regimes. Take this other tactic, for example:

According to a Russian-speaking colleague of mine (who also pointed me to this pro-Kremlin activist video), the woman says that “mapping dots is a disease on the map of Russia.” The video shows her calling the Map’s dedicated number to report a false message (she gives a location that doesn’t exist) and subsequently fills out a false report online. In other words, this is an instructional video on how to submit false information to a crowdsourcing platform. A fully translated transcript of the video is available here.

This same colleague informed me that one of Russia’s State Television Channels subsequently broadcast a program in which it accused those behind the Violations Map of making false claims about the falsification of reports, accusing the “Maptivists” of using an American tool in efforts against the Russian ruling party. In addition, the head of Russia’s Election Committee submitted a complaint against the map to the court, which resulted in the organizers receiving a $1,000 fine (30,0000 Rubles).

Gregory Asmolov, a PhD student at LSE, argues that the Russian government’s nervous reaction to the crowdsourced map and its attempt to delegitimize and limit its presence in cyberspace is clear proof of the project’s impact. Gregory goes on to write that the crowdsourced map is an interim product, not a finished product, which serves as a diagnostic system in which individuals are the sensors. He also argues that crowdsourcing mirrors the reliability of society and thus claims that if there is low confidence in the reliability of crowdsourced information, this is a diagnosis of society and not the crowdsourcing tool itself.

Alexey Sidorenko concludes with the following: “The Violation Map incident is just an indicator of a much deeper trend – the growing will for the need of change, exercised by free, non-falsified elections. In previous election cycles, most journalists would not have resigned and no big portal would have been brave enough to advertise election violation monitoring. Aside from the deeper sociological undercurrent, technology plays a crucial role in all presented stories. [...] none of these events would actually have happened if Golos and Gazeta.ru had not united in producing the Violation Map. Golos has had an election violation database since 2008, but it never was as influential as it is now. This suggests the success of the project relies heavily on its online mapping element (if any event gets concrete geographic coordinates it automatically gets more real and more appealing) and having a proper media partner.”

My dissertation research asked the following question: Do New ICTs Change the Balance of Power Between Repressive States and Civil Society? In the case of Russia’s Parliamentary Elections, it would seem so. So my next question is this: If Help Map inspired this week’s Election Violations Map, then what will the latter inspire now that many more have been exposed to the power of crowdsourcing and live maps? Stay tuned for the next round of Crowdsourcing vs. Putin.

How Egyptian Activists Kept Their Ushahidi Project Alive Under Mubarak

This is my second blog post on the U-Shahid project in Egypt. The first one analyzed 2,000+ reports mapped on the Ushahidi platform during the country’s recent Parliamentary Elections. Egypt is one of my dissertation case studies and in this blog post I summarize some initial findings based on a series of interviews I had several Egyptian activists who were part of the U-Shahid project.

The Egyptian government began asking questions about U-Shahid well before the project was even launched. They found out about the project by tapping phone lines and emails. Once the project was launched, the Egyptian Ministry of the Interior continued to shadow the project in several ways. They requested copies of all meeting agendas and a list of names for everyone who was trained on the Ushahidi platform, for example.

In order to remain operational, the Egyptian activists spearheading the U-Shahid project said that they “stressed the technical aspect of the project, and remained fully open and transparent about our work. We gave Egyptian National Security a dedicated username and password [to access the Ushahidi platform], one that we could control and monitor [their actions]. This gave them a false sense of control, we could restore anything they deleted.” That said, one activist recounted how “there were attempts by the government to overload our website with many fake reports […] but we were on it and we were able to delete them. This happened a minute or two every three hours or so, attacks, overload, but eventually they gave up.”

When asked why the regime had not shut down the platform given the potential threat that U-Shahid represented, one blogger explained that “many of the activists who began using Ushahidi had many followers on Facebook and Twitter, they also had the attention of the international media, which could create unwanted attention on the regime’s actions.” This same blogger also noted that many of the activists who collaborated on the U-Shahid project were “connected with people in the US Congress, directors of international human rights NGOs, and so on.” Perhaps the Mubarak Regime was concerned that cracking down on the U-Shahid project would backfire.

In any case, the activists “did a lot of scenario building, considered many ‘what if’ situations. The fact that we were so well prepared is why they [the regime] could not touch us. We tried to connect all the data on Facebook and Twitter so that if they closed our Ushahidi map, we would move to a new domain name and let all our followers know. We also had a large database of SMS numbers, which would allow us to text our followers with information on the new website. Finally, we had a fully trained team in Lebanon ready to take over the project if we were completely shut down.”

“We were well prepared,” added another blogger, “we knew they could not arrest all of us on the day of the election, and just in case, we trained a group in Lebanon who could take over all operations if we were stopped.” According to one activist, “using this mapping technology provided a way to collect and recruit a lot of activists, and not just any activists, but more effective ones. This actually created a headache for the regime because a growing number of digital activists became interested in using the Ushahidi platform.” Another interviewee added that the technology acted as a “magnet” for activists. One activist also remarked that “they [the government] don’t understand how we work; we can learn very fast but the government has many rules and processes, they have to write up reports, submit them for approval, and allocate funding to acquire technology. But for us, we don’t need permission. If we want to use Tor, we simply use Tor.”

Another explained that their project’s credibility came from the realization by many that they were simply focused on “getting the facts out without agenda. We were both transparent and moderate, with no political or party affiliation, and we emphasized that our goal was to try and make the election process transparent.” In sum, said another activist, “we let people decide for themselves whether the content mapped on Ushahidi was good or not.” Another activist argued that the use of the Ushahidi platform “created more transparency around the elections, allowing easier access than in any previous election.” More specifically, “in previous elections and before the existence of Ushahidi, many NGOs made reports of election irregularities, but these were rarely shared publicly with policy maker or even with other NGOs. And even after the elections had taken place, it was very difficult to access these repots. But the Ushahidi [platform] is open and online, allowing anyone to access any of the information mapped in near real-time.”

Still it is really challenging to fully assess the potential political impact (if any) the U-Shahid project had–something the activists are very aware of. One can only investigate so much for so long. One activist noted that “next time we use the Ushahidi platform, this year for the presidential elections, we will be sure to track the reports submitted to the judicial courts and compare them with those we collect. We also plan to better advertise our project with lawyers and political candidates so that they can use our reports including videos and photos in court and for trials.”

What I’m particularly pleased about in addition all the learning that has taken place is the fact that the U-Shahid project spawned off a number of *copy cats during the elections and new maps are being launched almost every other month in Egypt now. The project also increased the number of Egyptian who participated in directly monitoring their own elections. Lastly, I’m excited that the Egyptians who spearheaded the U-Shahid project are now training activists in Tunisia and other Arab countries. They have acquired a wealth of practical knowledge and experience in using the platform in authoritarian environments, and now they’re sharing all this hard-won expertise.

There’s a lot more to share from the interviews, and I hope to do so in future posts. I also plan to blog about the findings from my case study of the Sudan.

 

Analyzing U-Shahid’s Election Monitoring Reports from Egypt

I’m excited to be nearing the completion of my dissertation research. As regular iRevolution readers will know, the second part of my dissertation is a qualitative and comparative analysis of the use of the Ushahidi platform in both Egypt and the Sudan. As part of this research, I am carrying out some content analysis of the reports mapped on U-Shahid and SudanVoteMonitor. The purpose of this blog post is to share my preliminary analysis of the 2,700 election monitoring reports published on U-Shahid during Egypt’s Parliamentary Elections in November & December 2010.

All of U-Shahid‘s reports are available in this Excel file. The reports were originally submitted in Arabic, so I’ve had them translated into English for my research. While I’ve spent a few hours combing through these reports, I’m sure that I didn’t pick up on all the interesting ones, so if any iRev readers do go through the data, I’d super grateful if you could let me know about any other interesting tid-bits you uncover.

Before I get to the content analysis, I should note that the Development and Institutionalization Support Center (DISC)—the Egyptian group based in Cairo that launched the U-Shahid project—used both crowdsourcing and “blogger-sourcing.” That is, the group trained some 130 bloggers and activists in five key cities around Egypt to monitor the elections and report their observations in real-time on the live map they set up. For the crowdsourced reports, DISC worked with a seasoned journalist from Thomson-Reuters to set up verification guidelines that allowed them to validate the vast majority of such reports.

My content analysis of the reports focused primarily on those that seemed to shed the most transparency on the elections and electoral campaigns. To this end, the analysis sought to pick up any trends or recurring patterns in the U-Shahid reports. The topics most frequently addressed in the reports included bribes for buying off votes, police closing off roads leading to polling centers, the destruction and falsification of election ballets, evidence of violence in specific locations, the closing of polling centers before the official time and blocking local election observers from entering polling centers.

What is perhaps most striking about the reports, however, are how specific they are and not only in terms of location, e.g., polling center. For example, reports that document the buying of votes often include the amount paid for the vote. This figure varied from 20 Egyptian Pounds (about $3) to 300 Egyptian Pounds (around $50). As to be expected, perhaps, the price increased through the election period, with one report citing that the bribe price at one location had gone from 40 Pounds to 100 over night.

Another report submitted on December 5, 2010 was even more specific: “Buying out votes in Al Manshiaya Province as following: 7:30[am] price of voter was 100 pound […]. At 12[pm] the price of voter was 250 pound, at 3 pm the price was 200 pound, at 5 pm the price was 300 pound for half an hour, and at 6 pm the price was 30 pound.” Another report revealed “bribe-fixing” by noting that votes ranged from 100-150 Pounds as a result of a “coalition between delegates to reduce the price in Ghirbal, Alexandria.” Other reports documented non-financial bribes, including mobile phones, food, gas and even “sex stimulators”, “Viagra” and “Tramadol tablets”.

Additional incidents mapped on the Ushahidi platform included reports of deliberate power cuts to prevent people from voting. As a result, one voter complained in “Al Saaida Zaniab election center: we could not find my name in voters lists, despite I voted in the same committee. Nobody helped to find my name on list because the electricity cut out.” In general, voters also complained about the lack of phosphoric ink for voting and the fact that they were not asked for their IDs to vote.

Reports also documented harassment and violence by thugs, often against Muslim Brotherhood candidates, the use of Quran verses in election speeches and the use of mini buses at polling centers to bus in people from the National Party. For example, one reported noted that “Oil Minister Samir Fahmy who is National nominee for Al Nassr City for Peoples Council uses his power to mobilize employees to vote for him. The employees used the companies buses carrying the nominee’ pictures to go to the election centers.” Several hundred reports included pictures and videos, some clearly documenting obvious election fraud. In contrast, however, there were also several reports that documented calm, “everything is ok” around certain voting centers.

In a future blog post, I’ll share the main findings from my interviews with the key Egyptian activists who were behind the U-Shahid project. In the meantime, if you choose to look through the election monitoring reports, please do let me know if you find anything else of interest, thank you!

Quick, Stop All Ushahidi Deployments in Egypt!

Has the world gone crazy? There are now at least five Ushahidi deployments in Egypt. Somebody stop this proliferation before things really gets out of control. This is ridiculous, who knows what could happen!

Oh how I long for the days of  expensive, proprietary software that prevented the widespread use of commercial platforms by the unwashed masses. Life was good back then, and simple. Only external organizations with millions of dollars of funding could monitor elections. Centralized, top-down hierarchical control was such a blessing. You’d think that those using Ushahidi in Egypt would at least make their deployments password protected. But no, they have the nerve to share their data publicly. The nerve.

Someone please force these groups to use one (and only one) platform and to use a password. In fact, people should be required to apply for permission to use an Ushahidi platform by completing a 10-page form, providing 5 references along with a financial statement for the past 3 years. They should also sign a binding contract that obliges them not to share any data publicly. The golden rule should be one platform per country per year. All this needs to be controlled. Seriously, don’t people understand the consequences of democratizing tools for trans-parency and accountability?

Just look at what’s happening in Eygpt. Ushahidi was never used in the country before the lead up to the country’s Parliamentary Elections. But now, because the platform is both free and open source, no fewer than 5 different groups have decided to add more transparency to the elections. How irresponsible is that? I mean, this is only going to give people more ideas on how to hold their government accountable in the future.

Indeed, there may end up being twice as many platforms during the Presidential Elections next year as a result. And then what? This will just make each platform weaker since the data will be split across platforms. (Down with open data!). Don’t people understand that they can’t just do whatever they want? (Down with more choices!). Doesn’t anyone care about our rules anymore? The masses need to listen to us and do as we say. Oh how I do miss the good old days. Sigh.

This careless proliferation of Ushahidi platforms in Egypt will only add more data (down with more data!), which means even more monitoring of the government’s actions during the elections (down with transparency!). The first Ushahidi platform that was launched already has 351 mapped reports and the other four platforms have already mapped a total of 461 reports. This is terrible. The additional data means that triangulating some reports may be possible, either manually or by using Swift River.

This needless proliferation also means that many more issues will be monitored. At least the first Ushahidi platform that was launched didn’t have a specific category on women. But the platform launched by the Independent Coalition for Election Observation includes a category on women. And that platform is only in Arabic! Don’t people understand that election monitoring is supposed to be for English-speaking outsiders, i.e., the West?

It gets worse. The Muslim Brotherhood is also using the platform to create more transparency around the elections. As the screenshot below reveals, they even have the audacity to monitor and map assaults on journalists, observers and human rights organizations. This is worse than blogging. But don’t get me started on blogs. The fact that anyone can blog is a travesty and an assault on everything we hold holly. The printing press? Don’t even go there.

Crisis Mapper Anahi Ayala Iacucci clearly disagrees with me in her blog post on this topic. She writes that the whole point of Ushahidi is “to make it available to everybody to be able to have their voices heard, to allow for sharing of information. If people have some doubts please read the Ushahidi website: ‘Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.'”

Again, has the world gone crazy? My ultimate nightmare, however, are APIs and RSS feeds. These allow data from different Ushahidi platforms to be easily shared. Just look at the screenshot below and you’ll understand my concerns. I was able to create one list of all reports simply by cutting and pasting the five website links into my Google Reader. This link will take you to a public website with one list of integrated reports from all five platforms updated in real-time. If you’d like to add this to your own Google Reader, use this Atom Feed.

And if this isn’t disturbing enough, people can actually subscribe to automated email alerts of incoming reports based on specific areas of interest. I also hear a rumor that each Ushahidi platform comes with a unique key and that swapping keys allows for the automatic sharing of data between two or more Ushahidi platforms. Networked Ushahidi platforms. The nerve. Maybe the Egyptian government will be able to crack down on these platforms and curb this proliferation of transparency. After all, the US government has already invested billions of dollars to keep this repressive regime in power.

Mapping Election Fraud in Afghanistan

My colleague Nils Weidmann recently moved to Princeton to start his post-doc with the Empirical Studies of Conflict group. Nils is always up to something interesting. His latest research project focused on mapping election fraud in Afghanistan.

Nils analyzed voter turn-out at voting stations using Beber and Scacco’s last digit method, which was used to analyze the Iran elections earlier this year. The method is very straightforward. In a free and fair election, the last digits (numbers “0” through “9”) for voting station turn-out should occur in equal frequency, i.e., should be “random.” Any non-randomness in this distribution may thus indicator manipulation.

For example,  the distribution below for Helmand province is clearly not random since the digit “0” occurs far more frequently than the other digits.

Picture 1

Provinces with non-random distribution of last digits for voting stations can then be mapped.

Picture 2

As Nils points out, “despite the fact that the certified results contain almost no suspicious stations anymore, evidence of manipulation remains for four provinces.” See map below.

Picture 3

Nils also produced spatial distribution maps for polling stations that had a higher number than the 600 voter count allocated and maps for polling stations with an overly high vote shares for one candidate.

It would be great to super impose all the maps that Nils produced in order to compose a vote fraud probability index. I’d also be curious to know how projects by GeoCommons and Alive in Afghanistan might contribute to the research that Nils is pursuing, and vice versa.

Picture 5

Patrick Philippe Meier