Can I Ask You a Question? Tech for Engagement in Somalia

Gathering information, increasing knowledge

Want to know what Americans think about the status of the US economy? There's a poll for that. What about if people in the UK would rather be brainy or beautiful? There's a poll for that, too.  Pollsters in the United States gather information through all sorts of channels, be it mobile phones, websites, Facebook, and utilize lots of demographic proprietary databases to reach respondents.  

But polling is not just for rich countries. Asking citizens for their opinions can result in powerful insights into new topics in lower-resource environments as well. 

Voice of America, in partnership with Google Ideas, surveyed 3000 Somali citizens earlier this year. Asking questions about the constitutional review process in the country, Voice of America gathered information from Somalis using an open source platform. As Google Ideas notes on its blog,

"As the draft constitution has undergone revisions in recent months, Google Ideas developed a pilot project with the Somali service, Africa Division of Voice of America (VOA) to help Somalis register their opinions. Starting in April, with just a few clicks, VOA pollsters could call and survey Somalis for their thoughts on a new constitution, asking questions such as: Should there be a strong central government? Should Sharia law be the basis of the constitution? And should there be a requirement that women be included as elected officials? Over three rounds of polling, VOA used the internal site to collect the survey results."

The platform, using the Google App Engine, Google Voice, and Google Docs, allows a pollster to conduct the entire survey within one interface. The pollster brings up a phone number, clicks a button to use Google Voice to call a respondent, and then records responses in a Google Form. The information then feeds directly into charts, available for quick online publication.

While the poll itself has been critizised by experienced Somali analysts as containing a non-representative sample and should therefore be viewed with caution, we are keenly interested in the platform as a way to engage citizens in a political process.  We are always seeking better platforms for citizen deliberation, and in this case a polling mechanism with a smart platform, can engender a political debate about key issues that is inclusive and representative and that can turn conversation into political action. The source code for the application can be found here