Citizen Loop: Voter Engagement Through Mobile Feedback Loops

Voter Engagement Through Mobile Feedback Loops

We recently put forward a proposal with the folks from The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and CiviCRM to the Knight Foundation News Challenge on Elections. The competition looks for creative ways to help engage citizens, strengthen participation and educate voters.

Our proposal is entitled “Citizen Loop - Enhancing Voter Engagement Through Mobile Feedback Loops”. The concept is relatively simple: an interactive voter engagement tool that increases participation through an automated, dynamic, text message feedback system providing information and helping citizens make a plan to vote.

Zambia Elections: Scaling Local Tech Rapidly

Installing a fiber internet cable just days before the Election.

Presidential elections in Zambia were called after the death of President Michael Sata last October, and were won in January by Defense and Justice Minister Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front. While the second-place candidate called the election “stolen”, based on the findings of the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG), the official results as announced by the ECZ reflected the ballot casts at polling stations. Lungu was inaugurated shortly after, and the opposition are already looking toward the next round of elections in 2016.

Systematic citizen observation can be an important stabilizer in tightly contested elections. To collect the necessary evidence to be that stabilizing agent, NDI’s partner, CCMG, needed to scale it’s local technology and data systems rapidly, and also needed for them to work flawlessly.

In a data collection and internal communication exercise sufficiently large and complex, NDItech helps our partners to integrate globally state-of-the-art tools within local communications and technology infrastructure. The intermediate goals being analysis of over 20,000 messages from 800+ people, the ability to shift data collection priorities immediately, and consistent communication between decision-makers and implementers.


Discussing Data: Visualizing Nigerian Pre-Election Trends

Part of NDI partner TMG's Nigerian pre-election reports, visualizations like this help highlight key trends in the data.

In the lead up to the March 2015 Nigerian elections, NDI partner, the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG), deployed a team of over 750 pre-election observers across each of the country’s local government areas (LGAs). These observers have spent the past few months collecting and submitting short message service (SMS) reports on various indicators of interest. This incoming data can be a lot to digest, so to help make some initial sense of it all, the team has turned to data visualization as a component of their analysis. Here to help explain the pre-election observation (PREO) process and its data visualization component is Ryan Dalton, Senior Program Assistant on NDI’s Nigeria team in D.C.

Q: Could you briefly explain the pre-election observation efforts in Nigeria? READ MORE »

Testing Mobile Applications for Election Monitoring

Are mobile applications the future of election monitoring?

NDItech has written extensively on the challenges and innovations of  election monitoring programs.. To understand and assess these election processes, partner groups rely on the transmission of rapid and reliable data from observers to data centers.  Getting information to the center quickly can be a challenge as observers are often located in far-off rural areas perhaps days from the capitol. As a result, most observation exercises rely on capturing information via paper forms and later using phone calls and SMS-based communication systems to transfer information. READ MORE »

Circumventing Twitter Restrictions

Screen Shot 2014-03-24 at 10.09.24 AM.png

Turkey blocked Twitter. If you happen to have been on vacation over the weekend or haven’t had a chance to check out the newspaper in a few days, The Washington Post and Reuters both have good write ups on the potential political fallout of this Twitter block as well as some background information on the situation. The interesting thing, as noted in the Washington Post article, is that this “restriction” has had little effect on Twitter chatter within the country. In fact, in the aftermath of discovering that they were no longer able to access Twitter, tweets spiked to 138 percent of the normal posting rate, an ironic feat in light of the ban. This statistic begs the question, “How are Turks tweeting, and tweeting rapidly, and about a Twitter ban?”

Well, the answer is simple and not so simple. Turkey has faced routine website blocking for the better part of the last decade, most notably the 2008 restriction of access to Youtube (which was in effect for 2 years). By now, most Turks, especially the younger generation, are well acquainted with the various measures for circumventing such restrictions. In case you are not, here are a few of the ways to access Twitter in the event of a block.

  1. SMS

On March 20th, Twitter sent out a tweet instructing Turks how they could tweet via SMS on both Vodafone and Turkcell networks. SMS tweets are popular in areas with limited access to internet data, but in this case the service is proving to be multi-functional. Users can also receive tweets from friends that the user designates they would like to receive mobile tweets from. Obviously Twitter via SMS lacks much of the user experience of the broader Twitter app and website, but it still proves to be an effective work around.

Data Centric for Low (No) Cost

Malawi - Roadside Shop - February 2014

Recent news out of Malawi has focused on the President dissolving her cabinet in the wake of arrests of several officials on suspicion of stealing state funds. The “cashgate” corruption scandal highlights the importance of accountability, and suggests an opportunity for citizens to play a key role. In this tense environment, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) plans to evaluate the conduct of the elections by the Malawi Election Commission (MEC). MESN is a network of civil society organizations working on democratic governance and elections.

An important component of that evaluation is the attention that MESN will pay to data collection and observer management. We’ve discussed many times the importance of high quality data in election monitoring, here.

Successful implementation of a common methodology includes preparing materials, staff, and tools. In order to keep costs low, and quality high, MESN has taken a simple and effective approach to communicating with their observers, and collecting and digitizing their data. Addressing key questions of cost (can users afford to keep the system running?) and capacity (does the organization understand how to administer and fix the system?) MESN is utilizing two tools in tandem: an SMS gateway called Telerivet, and Google Docs. READ MORE »

Online Organizing Platforms

@SenWarren opens #RootsCamp13

Our last RootsCamp ‘13 round-up identified free tools to maximize voice, and to collect and analyze social and mobile data. Each tool was quite specific in its purpose and execution. Beyond these, the attendees (vendors and activists alike) discussed a broader set of platforms (suites) that attempt to manage people and data in a way that allow for a variety of campaign and advocacy activities including petitions, member engagement, mobilization, etc.  As before, find a round-up of the best-of-breed at the conference below. Send any of your own suggestions, and we'll update the list.

Campaign Management

NGP VAN is the largest provider of political data management tools for progressives in the US. With it’s recent purchase of NationalField, which builds tools for managing field staff and volunteers, they provide an integrated platform of fundraising, organizing, new media, and social networking products.

NationBuilder is billed as “Political campaign software starting at $19/mo”, NationBuilder has developed an impressive set of online tools for campaigns including websites, voter databases, fundraising tools, and communications tools. Nationbuilder is looking to internationalize its platform. READ MORE »

Instant Messaging on Smartphones: WhatsApp's Lack of Security

WhatsApp Logo

WhatsApp has become a very popular (read: FREE) alternative to traditional text messaging.  Over the past few years, many smartphone users have shifted from using BlackBerry Messenger and other instant messaging apps to WhatsApp. This is especially true for activists in much of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.

The growing popularity is understandable considering that this cross-platform instant messaging application for smartphones only costs $0.99 for iPhone users and nothing for other platforms.  With more than 200 million active users monthly, WhatsApp CEO Jan Koum boasted that “We’re bigger than Twitter today,” at a conference in April. According to company statistics, WhatsApp users are quite active - sending 12 billion and receiving 8 billion messages per day.   

With WhatsApp you can send free messages to friends, family, colleagues, etc. anywhere in the world.   In addition to messaging, you can create groups and exchange an unlimited number of images, video and audio media messages.  Sounds pretty great, right? READ MORE »

The People Are Calling: Interactive Voice Services for Citizen Participation

ILA Dhageyso, a project out of Somaliland uses IVR to facilitate citizen-government interaction.

So you want to increase citizen participation in government and civil society, but the tech infrastructure is poor and there are low literacy rates with many people living in rural areas who are hard to reach. What do you do to increase transparency and civic interaction between a government and citizens? Poor tech infrastructure, rural populations, and low literacy rates are commong barriers to using tech in many countries where we work. Integrated Voice Response (IVR) provides a mechanism for civic interaction that breaks down many of the barriers to interactive civic engagement listed above. READ MORE »

Kenya Decides - The Kenya Election, Mobiles, and Interactive Media


The polling stations are slowly closing in Kenya in a so-far largely peaceful day. This is a critical election in one of the most technically-advanced countries in sub-Saharan Africa with many monitoring efforts underway as #kenyadecides (to use the Twitter hashtag of choice). While many predict that is going to be a run-off election, we wanted to give a 'rundown' of all the cool tech used that we are watching:

1. The IEBC, the Kenyan Election Commission, put up (with some help from Google) an interactive map and SMS service for people to find their voter registration stations, registration status, and polling station on election day. It also includes a candidate finder. While the map has some usability issues, it's become a very useful resource for citizens that only can be improved upon.  It's a model for other independent election commissions that is commendable. IEBC's Facebook Page is also worth watching. Incidentally, by all accounts, the IEBC so far has done a great job providing security and ballots; it's also been very responsive to incident reports from both systematic election monitoring organizations and citizen reporting efforts.  No small feat given the enormous voter turnout.  

Most interestingly, IEBC promises to report election results in close-to real time using its API. UPDATE: The API from the IEBC with real-time election results data as the vote is counted is working fabulously and media houses in Kenya are pulling the data and transmitting it live on television. Unprecedented for Kenya.   READ MORE »

Mali Speaks...and Listens

Mali Speaks, Al Jazeera

There are two projects in Mali that caught our eyes - or should we say, our ears? Al Jazeera, in partnership with mobile vendor Souktel, conducted a mobile survey in Mali, asking citizens' opinions via SMS about whether France's military intervention in the country was legitimate.  Al Jazeera then translated, tagged, and displayed responses on a color-coded map as part of its Mali Speaks project.  It is not entirely clear how many responses were recorded but the map is illuminating and well designed, illustrating how some sgment of the population feels about France's military intervention (Hint: Overwhelmingly positive). Of course, such citizen polls are not representative and tend to skew towards more literate, more urban, male, and wealthier resondents. Nonetheless, if combined with more systematic and stringent polling methodologies, they can provide a sense of the sentiment of citizens and can be conducted inexpensively in close-to real time. Combined with compelling visualizations, they can also be used by citizen groups as a tool for advocacy and by policy makers as a barometer of public opinion.

Al Jazeera has conducted other Speaks projects in Somalia, Uganda, and Libya. Souktel, earlier this year, also worked in Kenya where local youth leaders used the service to conduct and participate in live polls and votes via SMS to elect a board of directors, choose a name for their network, and determine an organizing structure for their regional youth movement. READ MORE »

Internet Freedom - Not So Much in Mobile Land

African Countries with SIM Card Registration Requirement (Courtesy: Martin and Donovan)

Last week was Internet Freedom Day - a year after a bill attempting to restrict content online, the so-called SOPA/PIPA bill, was defeated in the United States Congress. We here at NDItech are people of the Internet. We believe, as described in the Declaration on Internet Freedom, that

a free and open Internet can bring about a better world. To keep the Internet free and open, we call on communities, industries and countries to recognize these principles. We believe that they will help to bring about more creativity, more innovation and more open societies.

But, we are worried. As an organization that supports and works for democratic principles and practices, empowered communities, and responsive and accountable governments under the rule of law, and, as a unit within this organization that believes and works on the effective and innovative use of technology in this work, we see troubling trends. 

These are trends not happening on the Internet as we typically define it per se, though even there is plenty to worry about. What we are seeing is in the land of mobile phones - the devices and networks where most of the world communicates today.  There is actually very little information on 'internet freedom' issues in telecommunications - there is no 'state of mobile freedom' report, and there is precious little data on mobile censorship, SMS tracking, surveillance, etc.  Much of it is anecdotal, unsubstantiated, or both. READ MORE »

Liveblogging #GhanaDecides Day 2: The Revenge

CODEO Dataclerks, Ghana 2012

Goooood morning #Ghana

In a bit of a personal tradition, I'm liveblogging elements from today's Groundhog Day-style election Part the Second.

Updates are added in reverse cronological order.

Epilogue READ MORE »

Podcast: Using Technology to Empower Citizens

The recent Nicaraguan election marked victory for incumbent President Daniel Ortega with 62% of the votes.  

In this inaugural podcast, the NDI ICT team explores how technology was used in this electoral process to empower citizens.   Through the Viva el Voto website, citizens were provided a space where they could denounce voting irregularities and learn about their rights as a voter.  The website worked to strengthen civil society, and provide citizens a space where they could voice their concerns.  Our podcast showcases the work of our Nicaraguan partner Etica y Transperancia who has worked in Nicaragua for decades to strengthen democratic institutions and increase transparency in Nicaraguan society.   

Enjoy the podcast! READ MORE »

Hunting (Developers) in Kenya

Digital Kenya

I'm currently in Kenya working with NDI's Somalia program* spinning up a communications platform to better link Somalis split between various regions of their country, living as refugees in Kenya, or having traveled to join the diaspora around the world.** Being so fragmented creates a huge problem with silos; while Somalis are an incredibly communicative group with a very oral culture, they have few places where they can talk together or even see the same information. We hope to mitigate that a bit.

It's very exciting to be here in Nairobi, hub of Africa's tech revolution - if someone hasn't yet coined the term Silicon Rift Valley, I'm trademarking it. I've spent the last few days working closely the NDI Somalia program officer behind this concept; one of the strengths of NDI is that you can pair one person who has deep knowledge of the local context together with another with deep knowledge of technology for development. (Unfortunately, she wasn't available, so they sent me instead.) READ MORE »

SwiftCount Your Blessings

SwiftCount Data Clerks

I've joined my NDItech colleague Jared Ford on the ground in Abuja, Nigeria for the #biggestPVTever. We're working with Project Swift Count (@swiftcount), a coalition representing women, religious lawyers, and other civil society groups. It's pretty exciting - this series of elections (not one! not two! but three in a row!) are a major milestone in this massive, chaotic, confusing, colorful, diverse country of 150,000,000. It's the biggest population in Africa in a nation about twice the size of California with a historically tense relationship between a largely Muslim North and Christian South.

There are some logistical challenges to running an election in these circumstances.

INEC, the Independent National Election Commission, delayed the first round of elections by a week at the last minute. Actually, considerably past the last minute - our observers were already at their stations with increasingly fretful reports rolling in as time rolled by and the polling places remained shuttered. INEC is clearly trying to get it right, and it paid off today. READ MORE »

Practice Makes Perfect, or How We Fail Early and Succeed Late

Data entry clerks in the Swift Count National Information Center, Simulation Day Uno

Ahead of the intense effort and coordination involved with PVT-type data collection on an Election Day, organizations choose to simulate the reporting and data management processes which will be required in a tense political environment.

In massive data collection exercises, “stress” or “load” tests can assess the training and commitment of the observers, the effectiveness of the communications system and the training (video!) of staff in the center.

Last week, ahead of the first round of elections in Nigeria (National Assembly Elections), Project Swift Count (PSC )  undertook the first of three simulation exercises, wherein all 798 LGA Supervisors and 7,114 Observers were to send in a sample text message. As with most simulations, this one revealed problems and potential threats, thereby initiating immediate fixes as well as longer term back-up measures. 

Some of the technology and communications threats included: READ MORE »

The low tech of high tech: people & paper

PVT training materials for deployment to Nigerian states

Any systematic data collection effort requires collectors (ex. observers) to gather information in a uniform manner in order to enhance data quality.  Successful implementation of a common methodology is a prerequisite of a comprehensive, statistical assessment of an entire political process (ex. government service delivery, policy implementation, electoral process, etc.)

Preparing collectors for this type of process most often involves in-person trainings (ex. Training of Trainers (TOT) for large groups), supplemented with guiding materials and simulations.

In order to observe three successive weekends of elections in Nigeria (National Assembly, Presidential & Gubernatorial), Project 2011 Swift Count plans to deploy approximately 8,000 observers to a representative random sample of polling stations in all 774 Local Government Areas (LGAs) of the country.

Preparing the associated materials and trainings to guarantee the ability to collect, analyze and share comprehensive information, involved just some of the following: READ MORE »

When do you tune in? Before the voting begins

PSC Regional Coordinators for Nigeria Voter Registration 2011

Elections cannot be separated from the broader political context of a country, and efforts to protect electoral integrity must examine how pre-election or post-election developments uphold or negate the democratic nature of an election.  i.e.  “Elections are a process, not a one-day event.”

Those who control state institutions and resources, or organized means of bribery and intimidation, can try to manipulate election processes before the voting begins, in a multitude of ways: blocking opponents right to stand for office; stopping candidates from campaigning for votes; denying qualified electors the right to cast ballots, etc. READ MORE »

Are African Regimes Learning Tech-Busting Tactics?

Mugabe is watching?

A panel at the Atlantic Council last week addressed questions surrounding the potential for the popular uprisings taking place in North Africa to spread south - to the rest of the continent. I was asked to discuss online repression techniques used to squash speech and expression, the degree to which these repressive approaches are likely in more closed countries in sub-Saharan Africa, and how citizens, activists and rights groups can prepare or respond.

On the broader question about uprisings gaining traction across Africa, with or without tech, there seems to be little notice of pockets of activism taking place in Sudan and Gabon, and we've seen opposition parties in Nigeria and Uganda making noise about taking lessons from their northern Arab neighbors if their respective governments don't hold credible elections this year. An important point raised some skepticism that the international broadcast media, that we believe played a key role in Tunisia and Egypt, would take notice in these other African countries if trouble continues. READ MORE »

Tech vs. the Many Tools of Control

A protester in Minsk

Belarus' people went to the polls December 19. It didn't go well, as Alexander Lukashenko's implausible 80% victory added to a string of really grim elections of late. The OSCE statement noted "observers assessing almost half of vote counts monitored as bad or very bad". NDI's partner organizations were on the ground, watching it - but their tech-enabled reporting system had been crippled.

A couple months back I traveled to the region to work with some of our Belarusian partners as they prepared to peacefully monitor the elections. One major component of the effort was using SMS to try to get numbers back as fast as possible for analysis. READ MORE »

Analyzing Data, Documenting Election Fraud

Maiden's Tower in Azerbaijian

November 7th was a bad day for worldwide democracy.

As Ian has discussed and partners on the ground have documented the military elections in Burma were a disaster. At the same time, Azerbaijian held parliamentary elections that "cannot be considered free and fair" as NDI's partner, the Election Monitoring and Democracy Studies Center (EMDS) found in their hard-hitting report. Violations included ballot box stuffing, multiple voting, not bothering to post final numbers, etc. EMDS was on the ground, documenting it all. EMDS monitors, observing at a statistically-selected sample of polling places, reported data into a central headquarters.

Using a web-based system to enter the information from each observer, coordinators were able to look for gaps, do on-the-fly analysis to flag anomalous results, and look at trends by district, time, or other criteria. The central database was built by local developers, and enabled EMDS to rapidly aggregate, process, and examine these observer reports. EMDS was able to rapidly report on the situation and call out the regime for their electoral abuse. READ MORE »

On the Front Lines with FrontlineSMS


NDItech has recently been doing a lot with a slick piece of software called FrontlineSMS. It's not new, but it's been a powerful solution for us of late, so I thought I'd share.

Frontline is a tool to allow people to do basic two-way SMS communications via standard laptops and cellphones (or, preferably, GSM modems). Frontline was designed by Ken Banks to facilitate interactions within conservation groups in parts of Africa without internet access.

Given its heritage it's not surprising that Frontline really nails our mantra of "appropriate technology" in a number of ways.

  • It doesn't have a steep learning curve. Our partners in Eastern Europe downloaded and got it working on their own before I even got to show it to them.
  • It runs on very common technology
  • It communicates with people where they are: text messaging. Across Africa, as we've mentioned, mobile phones are far and away the best way to reach people.

In the vast swaths of the world where only elites are on the internet, this is a great way to build connections between organizations and their members, whether civil society groups, political parties, or other groups. READ MORE »

Moments of Opportunity: 2008 Zimbabwe Elections

Tsvangirai Campaign Poster - From FrontLineBlogger's Flickr Photostream

A good example of combining good use of technology with well-organized political activity by strong organizations to increase political space in an authoritarian or closed society was Zimbabwe’s 2008 election.

In that country the opposition Movement for Democratic Change was well organized and in position to make political gains based on the findings of a non-partisan election monitoring group, the Zimbabwe Election Support Network - ZESN. ZESN organized and trained thousands of courageous election observers dispatched across the nation on election day.

The moment of opportunity for a political breakthrough was created through the use of a well-established election monitoring methodology and a set of mobile communication and database technologies that enabled observers to quickly report polling station results to the capitol city, and ZESN to project an accurate election result based on a national statistical random sample of polling stations declaring Morgan Tsvangirai the winner.

This process disrupted the government’s attempt to falsify the results and steal the election as they had traditionally done. Instead, the ZANU-PF government took 5 weeks to acknowledge the result - which necessitated a run-off election that the MDC chose to boycott. Negotiations followed and because the MDC was well organized and had laid the groundwork to be in a position to negotiate a political agreement that gave Tsvangirai the Prime Minister position and the MDC several cabinet ministries in a government of national unity (GNU). READ MORE »

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