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Kenya referendum monitored by SMS and Twitter

The Kenya referendum came off well despite some irregularities and tension. One reason: a new system that uses SMS and Twitter to allow every Kenyan to be an election monitor.

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Reports flooded in from big cities like Nairobi, Kisumu and Nakuru, to remote outposts like Mandera and Garissa, where a visitor’s impression might be that camels outnumber cellphones.

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Not in Kenya. The country has something close to 12 million cellphone users, and many of those phones will be shared between several people. A day's browsing on a cheap web-enabled handset costs less than 10 cents (US).

Facebook and Twitter are both soaring in popularity (the referendum hashtag #KenyaDecides was reportedly trending on Twitter during Wednesday).

Sophisticated new blogs are launched regularly. Aware of a booming market, Google and Nokia both have offices in Nairobi.

“There is a significant uptake not only of mobiles, but of the different things handsets can be used for here,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi’s five founders, who’s helping manage Uchaguzi.

In the event, more than half of all Wednesday’s incident reports received at the project’s HQ easily slotted under the Positive Events heading.

"Voting under way – no problems" in Gachoka. "Long queues of voters waiting peacefully" in central Nairobi. "Good voter turnout" in Timbila. "Needy voters assisted" in Muranga.

Of the 166 Security Issues reports, the vast majority related to "tensions," although there were no reports of actual violence.

“This is a system which makes us know that we are all Kenyans, and fighting in your home area affects us all,” says Linnet Kwamboka, another young volunteer (almost everyone at Uchaguzi HQ looked to be under 30).

The scheme’s developers plan to introduce similar platforms to other East African countries that have elections looming in coming months, including Tanzania and Uganda, Hersman says.