Reflections on TZ Elections on Ushahidi, looking to Uganda

uchaguzi-button

I was fortunate enough to be invited to be a remote Ushahidi volunteer in the recent 2010 Tanzanian elections. Last Saturday, Kikwete was confirmed the winner and the parliamentary seats were finally settled. Its time to reflect.

To avoid confusion, let me point out that there were actually two separate instances of Ushahidi being used in the election:

Image representing Ushahidi as depicted in Cru...
Image via CrunchBase

The 2010 Tanzanian elections represented an ideal use case in home territory for the project. Tanzania is the world’s premiere speaker of the Swahili language (with some pardon to the Mombasa coast), and so in a sense, the word Ushahidi, Testimony itself. Ushahidi in Tanzania represented the project fulfillment with all parties potentially benefiting from the software’s beam of transparency:

  1. the relatively strong civil organizations, including the police in Tanzania were prepared to be trained and take crime reports and prevent major incidents and loss of life,
  2. election observers were placated by getting reports from the field (filtered by volunteers like myself)
  3. and the public was heard.

According to Erik Hersman‘s updates, the effort involved 2,000 TACCEO-trained Tanzanians and evidently many more who came upon the site and its shortcode. By the end, there were about 5,000 non-spam SMS messages submitted to the software according to the volunteer panel, and some 2,000 reports filed based on those.

I applied through the Google Form that I linked on my blog last week, noting that I was US (and not Tanzania-based) and noting that I could translate TZ-style Swahili to English. I did most of my approving and translating of reports during the morning East Africa Time hours, before the primary teams in Tanzania and at the iHub came fully online. I then continued to watch Uchaguzi from the internal volunteer panel and through the situation room over the following days.

I have been very impressed by Ushahidi’s inspiring conceptual work on the main project and on its offshoot, Swift River. I had never helped with a busy Ushahidi instance before–I didn’t have an insider perspective of the Tanzania Situation room, or a pure outsider view of the report map. As they stayed true to their own transparency, most of my information presented here is actually already exposed in the situation room itself. Still, perhaps it benefits from a third party presentation.

The Ushahidi software instance at Uchaguzi.or.tz, running on Beta 7 version of the PHP code, was fairly bumpy from the start. In the earliest hours of election day, there were some database glitches for volunteers. It was difficult to search messages or reports without getting a backend SQL failure. Later, after I went to bed for the USA morning, Erik reported that a database table had crashed and had to be restored from a backup. Judging from the volunteer panel several hours later when I logged in, the disruption did not seem too bad, most of the messages seemed intact, which is impressive. It seemed that many developers around the world were involved in fixing bugs as the system was stressed. I wonder what features were new that justified the beta version for Uchaguzi TZ to the team.

After things settled down, there was a bit of discussion on the Swahili Street blog about one of the facilitator organizations, Jamii Forum‘s CHADEMA party bias. While internal procedural transparency is very important and was well achieved by this year’s Uchaguzi, in the future more emphasis might be placed around relative organizing biases for full disclosure.

Image representing Ushahidi as depicted in Cru...
Image via ManagingNews

Uganda 2011 in February monitors on Managing News

More generally for East Africa, it will be interesting to see how the Uganda 2011 Presidential Election monitoring develops for that election on February 18th, 2011.  The monitoring website of Uganda-based DEMgroupugandawatch2011.org is using a different software package, Managing News from Mountbatton and Development Seed, instead of Ushahidi to accept text messages and document reports. Is there a story there? I wonder why they choose differently. Development Seed seems to be doing good work generally on the Global Development Oriented Drupal-mod OpenAtrium. How does this fit in?

Updates and links since posting (November 24)

Pernille had a reflection post from Nov 2 with some additional comments that I had missed , thanks for linking here too. Pambazuka has a widely cited article on the proceedings of these fourth Tanzania Multiparty elections.  Vijana.fm has a nice Kiswahili article cautioning watanzania about being careful to check media sources and to think about media context.

In other good news, the codebase that was beta tested in the Tanzanian elections for Ushahidi 2.0 is now final and released! So despite the bugs we experienced, the experiences from the Tanzanian elections have probably cleaned up a lot of the rough spots in that great Open Source release. It should now be more stable for the next big election.

Besides Managing News in Uganda and these particular Ushahidi instances in Tanzania, there are even more election transparency software initiative case studies from Russia, Burundi, Poland and elsewhere highlighted over at the Jackfruity blog.

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5 Responses to “Reflections on TZ Elections on Ushahidi, looking to Uganda”


  • this is an excellent post. it gives a picture of the amount of effort, skill and good will that went into the uchaguzi.or.tz project. Indeed, I thought about volunteering to be filter, but was too busy and couldn’t. So I became a source.

    But I think you are missing something very important. How can the public judge the data presented? There was data coming in from trained (in what?) TACCEO people; data from ‘trusted sources’; and data from ‘the crowd’. How was it asessed? What bits of info came from what sources? On what basis was info. ‘verified’ or allowed to remain ‘unverified’? How can I, as dar web crawler looking for election updates, trust the info? This is very important and ushahidi really need to address it. Not all who take its data will follow discussions on blogs like yours. It really needs to be spelled out for all sorts of reasons. Also, i was doing election updates for people overseas. I hardly looked at uchaguzi.or.tz coz it was not reliable. TV, radio and press rocked.

    The other big issue is Nairobi. Here’s a line from Erik Hersman in the ‘situation room’: “Reports are still being processed. Most volunteers are heading offline, but 5-7 will be mapping through the night. We need more pure (TZ-type) Swahili speakers to really manage the influx.”. insert ‘need more (US-type) English speakers’ in an imaginary commentary on a ‘deployment’ of ushahidi for the US mid terms. We deserve better than that.

    I’ve been critical, but it’s well meant. (and really, that JF hook up… what was going on there?!)

    Keep your eye on us Thadk, it’s appreciated.

  • Yeah, I was sitting on this post, it was getting stale, and didn’t get as much analysis or flow into it as I wanted. Thanks for the positive feedback.

    Not to get sidetracked but I am a bit sympathetic to Erik’s “TZ-type” Swahili–SMS messages get heavily compressed and Swahili, of course, can become unintelligible without knowing the way it is used and being familiar with the geographical mtaa context beyond being able to use google maps. You’re right, Tanzania does deserve better but this kind of goes back to the JF bias issue: is it better to have external volunteers or internal ones that might be partisan?
    I ran across one message that wrote in, “there are many young people here”. Young people were a major vote and and were at some risk of being disenfranchised. You need to have some control not to post things like that as reports–both in software to encourage double-checking and failing that, having less partisan/external volunteers.
    Re:situation room: Were there two situation rooms, one at iHub and one in TZ? It seemed that way. Volunteer Skype chat didn’t seem to include all of the workers, maybe just one of the locations.

    How can the public judge? Its hard to judge even on the inside as someone who can reply to messages, with so little context. Journalists can have a wider view by just keeping their ear to the ground. I guess when Ushahidi like software is most effective is when people don’t know who to call. I guess the risk is that in the 2000 reports of “Everything’s okay” and “This guy is adding people to the rolls”, those few who don’t get picked up by the media are lost in the 160character snips.

    If I did the “verified” code I would have had a clearer hover-over in both swahili and english that described the criteria to visitors–whether there had been some back-and-forth by SMS, some press reporting or whatnot. Remote volunteers were not suppose to verify any of their reports (though the button was there, so it might have been possible for me to do it, without check)

    Good to hear that TV, journo’s were doing good. What would a better interface be for exposing those, or are those mass media enough? Do you agree that more distinguishing and more interactive notion of “verified” would have been a start?

  • Thanks for this. In general, I’m amazed how little reflection on ushahidi takes place out side of tech/blogging/social media circles (and even then, it is rare enough). The narrative is always upbeat and progressive. But, as you clearly know better than me (due to involvement and tech skills), that isn’t necessarily the case.

    Problem is, that undermines ushahidi…. If you want to be involved as a small ‘p’ political actor then you need to engage in open public debate. Ushahidi is a political tool. That’s great and I endorse it. But people who ‘deploy’ (odd choice of word) ushahidi need to be more open what they do and how they do it. And open about limitations. Basically, they need to actually engage with “the crowd” but in ways that they may not be able to control.

    As for the JF issue, it would have been pretty straight forward to have the uchaguzi.or.tz ‘mainstream media’ feed to actually have feeds from boring old mainstream media (MCL, TSN, IPP…) instead of … a discussion board.

  • Thanks for mentioning Vijana FM Thad, and thank you also for a reflective post. We hope we’ll be able to pick your mind in the future regarding software-development initiatives in and around East Africa.

    Cheers!

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