Tech for Elections: Grounded Processes and Smart Tools

Get 'em in a row.

Often discussions of technology for (fill in the blank here) get confused about tools, techniques and processes.  This is especially true when the discussion turns to crowdsourcing, a technique where a group of individuals voluntarily undertake a task. In an electoral context, crowdsourcing often emphasizes participation over systematic evaluation. The use of online maps (a tool) emphasizes analysis and story-telling based on geographically relevant conclusions, at the expense of other analytical frameworks. 

Instead of tools and techniques driving strategic decision-making, it’s important to identify intended outcomes and the processes supporting those outcomes. 

In a recent NDI "ElecTech" workshop in Nairobi, we posed that any use of tech in elections should have as the primary outcome the ability to assess and evaluate the electoral process. We think it is helpful to think about four specific processes, a series of actions taken to achieve an end, where technology can significant impact the achievement of these outcomes.

These include: Organizational Structures, Data Collection, Telling a Story and Outreach. Let's focus on organizational structures first. 

Organizational Structures: Having Your Ducks in a Row

Protection of electoral integrity, conducted by civil society organizations, often involves large coordination efforts to mobilize thousands of citizens to report from polling stations on the conduct of the election. Many of these individuals need to be in one precise location and must be coordinated over a period of weeks to months. They must report on issues such as the quality of voter registration to voter list verification to campaign observation to actual election results at a given polling station to post-election complaints monitoring.

This amount of effort and mass-deployment requires significant internal communication efforts.  Traditionally, this has meant approaches such as hierarchical organograms, phone trees, member databases, and step-down trainings. These approaches are still relevant and are often the most cost-effective. For example, Obama for America in 2008 had 2,718 organizers who touched 86.5 million voters in battleground states through the use of a pyramid structure cascading through team leaders, team members, and finally active volunteers.

But increasingly, as organizations grow flatter and more agile, new tools are streamlining some of these approaches. For instance, observers are now able to:

  • Communicate more rapidly, for instance by using SMS groups and SMS blasting (ex. FrontlineSMS) to entire lists; 
  • Make better decisions with inclusive decision-making platforms (via tools like the Pirate Party’s Liquid Feedback)
  • Act locally, without strict hierarchies, therefore empowering grassroots members with targeted data (see Obama's 2012 Dashboard

Organizational structures that promote better performance are vital to assess and evaluate the quality of an election.  

Well-organized institutions must also collect large amounts of evidence to support their conclusions and advocacy. This process can be improved through the smart use of new technologies in data collection.  I'll talk about that in my next post.