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:
- one CrowdMap set up independently by the good people at Vijana.fm, sourcing from Twitter.
- and the major cooperative, mostly SMS-short-code oriented service at Uchaguzi.or.tz (Uchaguzi means, of course, election) I helped with this one.
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:
- 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,
- election observers were placated by getting reports from the field (filtered by volunteers like myself)
- 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.
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 DEMgroup, ugandawatch2011.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.