From Ushahidi to Al Jazeera: the role of mobile in Kenya’s elections

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The people of Kenya will today start voting in a presidential election. Things have been tense in the lead up to polling day and mobile will play a critical role in both the monitoring and reporting of the situation on the ground.

The poll is set up to be a race between Uhuru Kenyatta and Raila Odinga, the sons of Kenya’s first president and vice president respectively, and is expected to be one of the most important in the country’s recent history.

During the last elections in 2007, the polls descended into violence. The majority of the Kenyan people will want to avoid a repeat of that, although the killing of at least four police officers near the port city of Mombasa won’t have helped.

The role of Ushahidi

When telling the story of the last Kenyan presidential, it’s impossible not to include one of the most important mobile innovations of the 2000s: Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”). The free and open source software company started out life collecting eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google Maps map.

The Kenyan site was developed and run by several bloggers and software developers, all current or former residents of Kenya: Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, Ory Okolloh and David Kobia. The site was initially proposed by Okolloh, developed cheaply, and put online within a few days. International media, government sources, NGOs, and Kenyan journalists and bloggers were used to verify eyewitness testimony. The site was later also used to facilitate donations from abroad.

The software was subsequently used to aid disaster management around the world, including Haiti, Chili and Japan as well as to monitor violence in Congo and Gaza.

This year, it is once again being used to monitor the situation on the ground in Kenya.

According to Hersman:

There are over 200 volunteers already trained up and ready to help manage the flow of information from the public. This time Kenya’s IEBC is ready, they’re digital, and are doing a phenomenal job of providing base layer data, plus real-time tomorrow (we hope).

“In short,” he says, “we’re a lot more prepared than 2008 in 2013, everyone is”.

He did however express some caution:

You’re never actually ready for a big deployment, by it’s very nature the crowdsourcing of information leads to a response reaction, you’re always behind the action. So, our main goal is to make that response processing of signal from noise and getting it to the responding organizations, as fast as possible.

This year’s Ushahidi deployment is called Uchaguzi and its is to “contribute to stability in Kenya by increasing transparency and accountability through active citizen participation in the electoral cycles”.

People can submit reports to Uchaguzi via email, text or Twitter. There is also a media monitoring team who scans Twitter, Facebook, blogs, mainstream media and other sources for any other information that can become a report in the system.

The team then verifies the reports before responding to them by “getting verified information to organizations and individuals who can intervene positively and monitoring that response to measure its effectiveness”.

Al Jazeera

Mobile use during the elections won’t just be restricted to non-profits though. The Al Jazeera news agency for instance says it has employed the use of both voice and SMS technologies to aid in its last mile coverage and citizen reporting of the Kenyan elections.

Its voice service allows people with basic feature phones to listen to listen to, interact with and create citizen reports for Al Jazeera via low-end handsets without any need for a data plan. “The concept is to connect with audiences that are offline and often off grid, people who Al Jazeera cannot often access or hear from,” says Cynara Vetch the project manager of Al Jazeera Voices.

The Al Jazeera Voices system has been built in collaboration with the World Wide Web Foundation and has been rolled out with various community partners.

Despite social media and internet use gaining significant traction in Kenya, it’s yet to be pervasive enough to reach all segments of society which for a media organisation like Al Jazeera is of prime importance. “Voices is one solution in bridging the gap between vocal, connected voices whose stories are having an impact on the media through social media and those that still remain relatively unheard because they don’t have the same access, ” says Vetch.

“Voice offers a comfortable way to communicate, in the region there is a huge appetite for radio so audio content and interaction is already in demand,” he adds.

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