Tag Archives: elections

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

Twitter vs. Tyrants: Ushahidi and Data Verification

My colleague Chris Doten asked me to suggest panelists for this congressional briefing on the role of new media in authoritarian states. I blogged about the opening remarks of each panelist here. But the key issues really came to fore during the Q/A session.

These issues addressed Ushahidi, data validation, security and education. This blog post addresses the issues raised around Ushahid and data validation. The text below includes my concerns with respect to a number of comments and assumptions made by some of the panelists.

Nathan Freitas (NYU):

  • It’s [Ushahidi] a crisis-mapping platform that  has grown out of the movement in Africa after the Kenyan elections.  It’s akin  to a blog system, but for mapping crisis, and what’s unique about it is it allows you to capture unverified and verified information.

Me: Many thanks to Nathan for referencing Ushahidi in the Congressional Briefing. Nathan’s comments are spot on. One of the unique features of Ushahidi is that the platform allows for the collection of both unverified and verified information.

But what’s the difference between these two types of information in the first place? In general, unverified information simply means information reported by “unknown sources” whereas verified tends to be associated with known sources of reporting, such as official election monitors.

The first and most important point to understand is that both approaches to information collection are compatible and complementary. Official election monitors, like professional journalists, cannot be everywhere at the same time. The “crowd” in crowdsourcing, on the other hand, has a comparative advantage in this respect (see supporting *empirical evidence here).

Clearly, the crowd has many more eyes and ears than any official monitoring network ever will. So discounting any and all information originating from the crowd is hard to justify. One would have to entirely dismiss the added value of all the Tweets, photos and YouTube footage generated by the “crowd” during the post-election violence in Iran.

  • And what’s interesting, I think we’ve seen the first round, the 1.0 of a lot of  this election monitoring.  As these systems come in place, they’ll be running  all the time, and they’ll be used in local elections and in state-level  elections, and the movement for – these tools will be easier, just like blogs.   Everyone blogs; in a few years, everyone’s got their own crisis-mapping  platform.

Me: What a great comment and indeed one of Ushahidi’s goals: for everyone to have their own crisis mapping platform in the near future. That’s what I call an iRevolution. Nathan’s point about the first round of these systems is also really important. The first version of the Ushahidi platform only became downloadable in May of this year; that’s just 5 months ago. We’re just getting started.

Daniel Calingaert (Freedom House):

  • [T]here’s a very critical component […] often  overlooked in these kinds of programs:  The information needs to be verified. It is useless or even counterproductive to simply be passing around rumors, and  rumor-mongering is very big in elections, and especially Election Day.

Me: Daniel certainly makes an important point although I personally don’t think that the need for verification is often overlooked in election monitoring. In any case, one should note that  rumors themselves need to be monitored and documented pre, during and post-elections. To be sure, if the information collection protocol is too narrow (say using only official monitors are allowed to submit evidence), then rumors (and other important information) may simply be dismissed and go unreported even though they could fuel conflict.

  • So it’s  important as part of the structure that you have qualified people to sort through the information and call what is credible reporting from citizens from very unsubstantiated information.

Me: Honestly, I’m always a little weary when I read comments along the lines of “you need to have qualified people” or “only experts should carry out the task.” Why? Because they tend to dismiss the added value that hundreds of bystanders can bring to the table. As Chris Spence noted about their operations in Moldova, NDI’s main partner organization “was harassed and kicked out of the country” while “the NDI program [was] largely shut down.” So who’s left to monitor? Exactly.

As my colleague Ory Okolloh recently noted, “Kenya had thousands election observers including many NDI monitors.” So what happened? “When it came to sharing their data as far as their observations at the polling everyone balked especially the EU and IRI because it was too “political”. IRI actually released their data almost 8 months later and yet they were supposed to be the filter.”

And so, Okolloh adds, “At a time when some corroboration could have prevented bloodshed, the ‘professionals’ were nowhere to be seen, so if we are talking about verification, legitimacy, and so on … lets start there.”

Chris Spence (NDI):

  • Monitoring groups – and this kind of gets to the threshold questions about Ushahidi and some of the platforms where you’re getting a lot of interesting  information from citizens, but at the end of the day, you’ve really got to  decide, have thresholds been reached which call into question the legitimacy of  the process?  And that’s really the political question that election observers and the groups that we work with have to grapple with.

Me: An interesting comment from NDI but one that perplexes me. I don’t recall users of Ushahidi suggesting that they should be the sole source of information to qualify for threshold points. Again, the most important point to understand is that different approaches to information collection can complement each other in important ways. We need to think less in linear terms and more in terms of information ecosystems with various ecologies of information sources.

  • And there’s so much involved in that methodology that one of the concerns about  the crisis mapping or the crowdsourcing [sic] is that the public can then draw interpretations about the outcome of elections without necessarily having the  filter required.  You know, you can look at a map of some city and see four or  five or 10 or several violations of election law reported by citizens who – you  know, you have to deal with the verification problem – but is that significant in the big picture?

Me: Ok, first of all, lets not confuse “crisis mapping” and “crowdsourcing” or use the terms interchangeably. Second, individuals for the large part are not thick. The maps can clearly state that the information represented is unfiltered and unverified, hence may be misleading. Third (apologies for repeating myself), none of the groups using Ushahidi claim that the data collected is representative of the bigger picture. This gets to the issue of significance.

And fourth, (more repeating), no one I know has suggested we go with once information feed, i.e., one source of information. I’m rather surprised that Chris Spence never brings up the importance of triangulation even though he acknowledges in his opening remarks that there are projects (like Swift River) that are specifically based on triangulation mechanisms to validate crowdsourced information.

Crowdsourced information can be an important repository for triangulation. The more crowdsourced information we have, the more self-triangulation is possible and the more this data can be used as a control mechanism for officially collected information.

Yes, there are issues around verification of data and an Ushahidi powered map may not be random enough for statistical accuracy but, as my colleague Ory Okolloh notes, “the data can point to areas/issues that need further investigation, especially in real-time.”

  • [I]t’s really important that, as these tools get better –  and we like the tools; Ushahidi and the other platforms are great – but we need  to make a distinction between what can be expected out of a professional  monitoring exercise and what can be drawn from unsolicited inputs from  citizens.  And I think there are good things that can be taken from both.

Me: Excellent, I couldn’t agree more. How about organizing a full-day workshop or barcamp on the role of new technologies in contemporary election monitoring? I think this would provide an ideal opportunity to hash out the important points raised by Nathan, Daniel and Chris.

Patrick Philippe Meier

Ushahidi Comes to India for the Elections (Updated)

I’m very please to announce that the Ushahidi platform has been deployed at VoteReport.in to crowdsource the monitoring of India’s upcoming elections. The roll out followed our preferred model: an amazing group of Indian partners took the initiative to drive the project forward and are doing a superb job. I’m learning a lot from their strategic thinking.


We’re also excited about developing Swift River as part of VoteReport India to apply a crowdsourcing approach to filter the incoming information for accuracy. This is of course all experimental and we’ll be learning a lot in the process. For a visual introduction to Swift River, please see Erik Hersman’s recent video documentary on our conversations on Swift River, which we had a few weeks ago in Orlando.


As per our latest Ushahidi deployments, VoteReport users can report on the Indian elections by email, SMS, Tweet or by submitting an incident directly online at VoteReport. Users can also subscribe to email alerts—a functionality I’m particularly excited about as this closes the crowdsourcing to crowdfeeding feedback loop; so I’m hoping we can also add SMS alerts, funding permitted. For more on crowdfeeding, please see my previous post on “Ushahidi: From Crowdsourcing to Crowdfeeding.


You can read more about the project here and about the core team here. It really is an honor to be a part of this amazing group. We also have an official VoteReport blog here. I also highly recommend reading Gaurav Mishra‘s blog post on VoteReport here and Ushahidi’s here.

Next Steps

  • We’re thinking of using a different color to depict “All Categories” since red has cognitive connotations of violence and we don’t want this to be the first impression given by the map.
  • I’m hoping we can add a “download feature” that will allow users to directly download the VoteReport data as a CSV file and as a KML Google Earth Layer. The latter will allow users to dynamically visualize VoteReports over space and time just like [I did here] with the Ushahidi data during the Kenyan elections.
  • We’re also hoping to add a feature that asks those submitting incidents to check-off that the information they submit is true. The motivation behind this is inspired from recent lessons learned in behavioral economics as explained in my blog post on “Crowdsourcing Honesty.

Patrick Philippe Meier