Tech for Elections: Improving Data from the Crowd

Russia's Yandex smartphone app for reporting vote fraud (Economist.com)

Collecting election-related data provides information about the conduct and integrity of elections - critical events in emerging democracies. This data is collected from both trained observers deployed in a systematic manner and from empowered citizens contributing their witness reports to provide a lense on the election. Collecting such data in an election allows civil society groups and citizens assess and evaluate the process, mitigate the potential for violence, reform the legal frameworks for elections, and engage citizens in menaginful ways. 

As I noted before, decisions on what tools and techniques to deploy for data collections in an election need to be driven by the intended goals.

NDI and our partners in many countries have pioneered and over the years greatly improved election-related data collection through trained and organized observers. Still still involves moving paper but also call-in centers, and, of course, highly efficient and systematic SMS-based reporting.  Citizen reporting efforts with the goal of engaging them meaningfully have, of course, proliferated.  Unfortunately, they also have often been plagued with the “Garbage In, Garbage Out” problem that has made it difficult to tell a cogent story about an election or come to any definitive conclusions. That said, we believe that citizen reporting can be useful especially in the period before election day to flag and highlight potential issues with voter registration and other preparations for election day. 

We are exploring a number of tools and methods in our work to intelligenty combine both systematic election observation and citizen reports both prior to- and during an election.  Some of these tools underused right now are: 

1)      Interactive Voice Response (IVR)

IVR systems (ex. Freedom Fone) enable automated, interactive, audio-based data collection and communication through mobile phone networks. They can be set to respond with prerecorded or dynamically generated audio to further direct reporters through a series of simple interactions. Their importance has been highlighted for reaching offline or illiterate constituencies, bridging language barriers, and allowing users to move past the 160 character limitation of an SMS.

2)      USSD: Unstructured Supplementary Services Data (USSD)

USSD is a real-time question & response service, where the user initiates a session and is then able to interact with a remote server by selecting numeric menu options. It’s most familiar as the service used to check airtime balances or request settings through a mobile service provider (by dialing a number and following text prompts). (See mobileactive.org)  USSD facilitates targeted data collection, and can guide a reporter through a more comprehensive evaluation process.  One drawback is that the connection requires continuous uptime to complete the session, and therefore a good, consistent signal as well as cooperation from the local operators. 

3)      Smartphone apps

Smartphone data collection applications are increasingly being developed for citizen reporting on election processes. Open Data Kit for Android, for instance, is an open source project composed of a survey form builder and back-end server that aggregates results and enables users to export and/or analyze results using simple graphs. Though not proven, we suspect that this interface improves the quality of citizen data collection through guided practice. Furthermore, smartphones could uniquely enable automatic geo-location for each data point, a critical feature (albeit with some privacy concerns for the submitter) to detect areas of violence or other irregularities. 

Each of these tools could enhance data collection in an election to empower citizens in providing high quality data about a political process and we'll be testing mutli-variate approaches in the near future to more definitely assess what these respective tools could contribute in an election.