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.

Antony Gitonga/Reuters
Kenyans queue to vote in the country's referendum in Naivasha, Wednesday. Kenyans turned out in droves across the country early on Wednesday to vote in a referendum on a long-awaited new Constitution, saying they hoped the ballot would usher in a new phase of peaceful democracy.

A little less than an hour after voting started, an alert Kenyan waiting outside a polling station noticed something wrong.

Agents of the local legislator arrived – in a government vehicle – and actively began campaigning for the queuing voters to say 'No' to the country’s new constitution in the Kenya referendum.

Because balloting had already started in Wednesday’s nationwide referendum, that was illegal.

The voter grabbed his cellphone, tapped out the text message “mp agents going round poll stations influencing people 2 vote no,” and sent it to a group of volunteers monitoring the election.

Instantly, 160 miles to the south in a new office block in a Nairobi suburb, a volunteer saw the SMS pop up on her laptop and straight away called local electoral officials to investigate.

The text message was one of 1,230 reports sent by the time polls closed to a Kenyan project that married traditional election monitoring with social media and Internet crowd-sourcing.

The Uchaguzi platform – the word means "election" in Kiswahili – grew out of earlier software developed during the violence that rocked Kenya after the 2007 presidential election.

That program, Ushahidi (meaning testimony), has since been used to map the fallout from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, earthquake victims in Haiti, and xenophobic violence in South Africa.

What it does

For both systems, the theory is the same: set up a special SMS shortcode, Twitter hashtag (#uchaguzi for Kenya’s referendum) or e-mail address, publicize it, and encourage ordinary people to send reports.

During Wednesday’s referendum, messages were to be filed under a series of headings including Police Action, Security Issues, Hate Speech, Vote Counting, and Positive Events, among others.

“It’s something very new for Kenyans to know that they can instantly report an incident to an independent monitor far away who will guarantee to investigate,” says Charles Kithika, a website fix-it guy at Uchaguzi. “It will discourage the bad people from doing things they used to think they could get away with.”

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.

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.


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