There is potential in digital testimonies - but how great is it?
In the aftermath of general elections in December 2007, Kenya was thrown into a period of political violence that ended up costing the lives of several hundred people. In response to the violence, a small group of Kenyan entrepreneurs and activists joined forces and created the digital platform Ushahidi with which citizens could report on, and thus contribute towards a mapping of, violent incidents.
Since then, the non-profit tech company and the platform by the same name, Ushahidi, has grown larger. The open source platform has been used for citizen-driven documentation of everything from election monitoring to the monitoring of natural disasters.
Associate Professor Norbert Wildermuth from Roskilde University is doing research into, among other things, IT-facilitated citizen-driven election monitoring, and in particular, Ushahidi. He has followed a plebiscite on a new constitution in 2010 and the presidential elections in 2013 and 2017 in Kenya.
Both Danish and international media outlets have portrayed Ushahidi as an example of both a significant technological development in Africa and of a peace-making initiative - but even though citizen-driven election monitoring shows potential, the effect has probably been painted in a bit too much of a positive light, Norbert Wildermuth says. He points towards the fact that the technology has certain challenges associated with it, and the impact is difficult to measure.
“If the purpose is to have peaceful elections and transparency, and the election then turn out to be peaceful, is this an indication of the system’s success? How does one measure that? Additionally, Ushahidi has a hard time specifying who has used the information,” says Norbert Wildermuth.
Potential preventive effect
To start with, the Ushahidi platform was a website with a database of citizen’s reports and a map where reports of such things as violence and election fraud were plotted. The reports came in via email or text message. Since then, the software has been developed and updated and is freely available so that others can use it to collect and generate documentation. This has allowed the citizen-driven collection of information, or crowd-mapping approach, to spread to several continents and to several other issues.
When the EU or other international actors send election observers to a country to monitor that the election is free and fair, it is only a small team of election observers that is sent. However, with a platform such as, for example, Ushahidi, then in principle all of the citizens in a country can act as election observers. The reports are supplemented and compared with reports from trained observers and updates on social media channels.
“It may act as a focal point where one collects information in one place and where journalists and civil society organisations get their information. It may also have a preventive effect, just like surveillance cameras in supermarkets, because those in power might not dare to cheat when there are potential election monitors all over the place,” says Norbert Wildermuth.
In Kenya, Norbert Wildermuth has noticed that President Uhuru Kenyatta also indirectly benefitted from Ushahidi’s system in connection with the 2017 election.
“The governing coalition can feel validated if independent, citizen-driven observations show the same results of the election as the official numbers. It is hard to say how important the government feels that such election monitoring is, but they have done nothing to attempt to stop it. I believe that any victorious coalition strongly wants and needs to appear as legitimate. This participatory election monitoring can thereby have the positive effect of making people, who had previously experienced election fraud, have more faith that the society’s democratic mechanisms and public authorities are preventing or drawing attention to election fraud as the independent election monitors are confirming the official results,” the researcher explains.
Election fraud has become invisible
Even though citizen-driven collection of information can have a positive effect, Norbert Wildermuth’s research also reveals that there are certain challenges. Among other things, these challenges deal with mobilising people to get involved and report.
“People want to get involved if it is their roads, schools or local healthcare institutions that get hit, but if you ask people to do this as an idealistic contribution to democracy and as an extension of society then you have already lost a lot of people, because they see no immediate benefits. It can be difficult enough to get people to involve themselves in politics in Denmark, but a lot of people in other places around the world really do struggle just to survive, and then perhaps they don’t really have the surplus energy to get involved,” says Norbert Wildermuth.
Another challenge is that it can be hard to follow the technological development. Previously, election fraud was something that was physical in nature, but that is changing.
“By now everything is digitalised, and that can make election fraud invisible. Fraud is no longer merely a matter of throwing in some extra votes or to tamper with a ballot box,” Norbert Wildermuth explains.
The media landscape and the media habits of the citizens can change between elections.
“You can’t just make an app and then think that you have found the ultimate solution. You need to constantly develop the project, and whereas it was very much about emails and text messages in the beginning, now the focus has been shifted more towards social media channels, and some might prefer to post an update on social media rather than send a report to Ushahidi,” the Roskilde University Associate Professor continues.
In addition, the credibility of the reports is a crucial factor. The Ushahidi systems attempts to verify reports by cross-referencing them with various sources so that a single report is not isolated, but this requires that there is a sound verification process in place.
The next step for Norbert Wildermuth is to find answers to a number of unanswered questions, because there is a need to research what the information can actually be used for and who uses it. There has been quite a bit of research made into citizen-driven collection of information for specific events, but Norbert Wildermuth wants to investigate how the phenomenon appears over time and when compared across countries and events.
“It is an important subject to research, as there might be great potential in how digital network media can contribute to political change,” says Norbert Wildermuth.
Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili.
The platform is open source and, among other things, has been used to document anything from earthquakes in Haiti, forest fires in Italy and election monitoring in countries such as the United States, Thailand, Honduras and Uganda.
According to Ushahidi, their software has been used more than 150,000 times in over 160 countries and it has collected over 30 million reports from citizens.