There is potential in digital testimonies - but how great is it?
The intention behind citizen-driven election monitoring is to contribute to transparency and a peaceful democracy, but as an approach, it has some barriers. This is revealed by the research of Roskilde University Associate Professor Norbert Wildermuth.
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.
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.