Archive for the 'Liberty' Category

Reflections on TZ Elections on Ushahidi, looking to Uganda


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, 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 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. 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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Africa Unjustly Trapped: Why?

Recently I’ve heard from some interesting figures which resonated with me as I sit in a disturbed corner of Africa. I have read the first book and I am keen to get my hands on the second after hearing its thesis. Their theoretical grounding is good and they offer suggestions to solve significant cultural issues but they are, as far as I can tell, still small voices. I’m going to try and sum their theses up grossly in order to put their arguments out and perhaps pique your interest.

I’ve mentioned before on the blog how it makes little sense to me how a country with such rich prospects as Tanzania can be so poor. Another wonder of mine is why do the AIDS prevention techniques presented to me by the US government feel hollow. For me, these books ring as partial answers.

I hope to have more later about each, for now, bullets:

Invisible Cure by Helen Epstein: Why has Africa been trapped with HIV and AIDS? (Amazon)

VIA New York Review of Books review

  1. Africans are no more promiscuous than most other people, as measured by numbers of sexual partners in a lifetime, casual sexual encounters, and visits to prostitutes.
  2. Common transactional relationships (significantly: more than one at the same time) arise from the gulf between an rich and impoverished men and women and the vacuum left by the breakdown of traditional familial, land & tribal ties.
  3. Multiple partners have somewhat more traditional precedent in Africa than in most any part of the world. Both male & female partners are fairly free in this regard (unlike in strict Muslim cultures)
  4. HIV is most contagious in the first few months of the disease. Concurrent partners have contact in that period essentially “networking” the disease, spreading it far beyond the promiscuous members of society.
  5. The bulk of high profile eradication campaigns have ignored this, instead favoring pet ideological goals.
    1. Conservative and religious groups prefer to condemn sex before marriage rather than emphasize faithfulness.
    2. Liberal and Population Control groups have encouraged fairly impractical condom use, especialy for “risky” individuals.
    3. Talking about partner reduction is hard for outsiders. When key reports in 1990 showed this was likely to be successful, the reports were set aside by the UN in favor of easier condom programs.
  6. Uganda was the only success story with a focus on “Zero Grazing” partner reduction, existing community ties, and making the disease the enemy instead of the people with it.
  7. Even today, Uganda is losing its grip on the fundamental solution, preferring to pander to Abstinence-linked funds from Washington and is losing its edge in prevention.


Bottom Billion by Paul Collier: “Why are nations trapped in poverty?” (Amazon)

VIA My Heart’s in Accra review and EconTalks podcast

  1. Internal Conflicts: highly persistent and high risk of going back into them once you come out of them. They are extremely common! Africa in the 1970s large scale violence was low. 1990s so much. Less recently but still an ugly reality
  2. Having a lot of natural resources: should be an opportunity but it too often used to corrode and corrupt the politics (Int’l Aid contributes too). Even if it doesn’t make violence it makes political leaders dysfunctional. Instead they have a contest with each other to control the public purse. Tragedy of the commons “Resource which no one regards as their own”. Causes “Dutch Disease” where in the 1960s, newly discovered vast Natural gas resources deemphasized stable manufacturing markets that help average citizens raise their standard of living.
    1. I suspect this one is the most relevant in TZ. In the past two months the sapphire market has exploded in my town. Agricultural land here is particularly lush compared to other East African countries like Kenya.
  3. Landlocked without natural resources. Options for development are limited to services. (W/ resources Botswana). Around the world, this is 1/3 of the population. Only in Africa these actually became countries, most other places they became parts of more prosperous countries.
  4. Start with poor economic policies, bad governance. Need to fix but pace of reform was much faster if country was big and if population was educated. Reform requires a critical mass of educated people! Educated mass often departs (though it *does* send back money!! How does this count, as aid?)
    1. The great leader Nyerere managed to keep civil war and tribalism at bay here but also conceded defeat in securing anything resembling fiscal prosperity in TZ, as he resigned.

Quick: Someone set up a Print-On-Demand service in TZ, duplication rights, and give me some paper so I can disseminate. Getting tired of dealing with customs.

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