Indian Citizens Serve as Election Monitors

18 May, 2009 By: Kenneth Wong

Open-source technologies empower a geopolitical movement driven by the people.

In late April, ordinary Indian citizens -- the tiffin wallahs, the programmers, and the civil servants -- began casting their votes in the general election for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Parliament. But in the land of ancient gods and hereditary castes, the modern political process is fraught with mishaps.

On May 5, because of complaints of rigging, the Election Commission ordered repolling at three locations in the state of Uttar Pradesh. On May 6, supporters of a local candidate in Jaipur were reported to be offering opium to the villagers, justifying the practice as "the strengthening of bond." Elsewhere, reports of distributing homemade alcohol to voters (presumably as bribes) emerged. In some locations, voters reported their names were either missing or duplicated.

The mainstream media reported many of these incidents too. But some of them were coming directly from the voters, submitted online to an interactive map posted at Vote Report India, described as "a collaborative citizen-driven election monitoring platform." Powered by the open-source map engine Ushahidi, the Wikipedia-style election map brings citizen journalism into a whole new dimension -- the geospatial dimension.

Powered by open-source map engine Ushahidi, the Vote Report India portal lets average Indian voters expose irregularities and violations at their polling sites. The map displayed here shows the filter isolating reports of names missing in the registry.

The People's Voices
Ushahidi sprung out of another election, which took place in late 2007 in Kenya. What BBC called "Kenya's dubious election" led to a period of instability and violence. "Protests have led to some 600 deaths nationwide and 250,000 people have fled their homes," reported BBC News (January 8, 2008).

Ushahidi was created by a group of volunteers -- software developers scattered across the world from Malawi, Ghana, and Kenya to Canada and the United States -- as a technology to allow ordinary Kenyans to report what they witnessed as incidents, coded with time and location. Describing their mission, Ushahidi's creators wrote, "Our goal is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up its own way to collect and visualize information … The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time."

Ushahidi's name came from the Swahili word for testimony. The initial mash-up became an online map, providing both the Kenyans and the international community a way to report and monitor the increase or decrease of protests and violence. The rival parties have since signed a power-sharing pact, putting an end (at least officially) to their dispute over the election results. The Ushahidi map now serves more as a hyperlinked historical document than a reporting mechanism.

The initial Ushahidi project produced this online map that allowed Kenyans to report incidents of violence during the postelection fallout in 2008.

Technical Specs
Currently, Ushahidi supports XML and JSON (JAVA script object notation). Supporting other devices, platforms, and technologies might be beyond the scope of the small development team that launched the engine, but the open-source model is expected to attract community contributing. Currently, a mobile team is working on deploying Ushahidi on iPhones via Google Android SDK or other JAVA applications.

The developers wrote, "We want to make sure that software applications that are already supporting aggregation of information are incorporated. However, we also want to make sure the outflow of information from Ushahidi can work with platforms that are used for other types of data visualization than what we have available." The team's work on this front includes sending and receiving messages to and from social networking tools such as Twitter, Skype, and Jaiku.

View Report India uses Google Maps in conjunction with Ushahidi to display the aggregated incident reports. The deployment is made possible by the developers behind Ushahidi and Swift, an open-source crowd-sourcing toolset derived from Twitter Vote Report (also an open-source application-programming interface [API]).

In View Report India, the creators allow people to fill in a form to report their experience of the election process, along with options to link and display images and video clips. The collected incident reports are displayed with a credibility rating (based on votes). Visitors have the option to subscribe to incoming incident reports as RSS feeds or e-mail alerts.

The checkmark placed by the contributor decides which category -- voting machine problem, voter bribing, and inflammatory speech are three options -- an incident belongs to.

On May 7, in the city of Hisar, someone reported, "My friend's dad's name was missing when he went there to vote. It was strange." On April 16, someone else reported from Hyderabad, "Went to vote … name not on voter list despite registration." What was arguably the most absurd case appeared as a report on May 7 in Delhi. It read, "Chief Election Officer's name is missing from the Voter's List."

Although one or two reports of "name missing" could be attributed to simple clerical error, a collection of similar reports concentrated on a map stands out. It reinforces the validity of the reports in a way text documents and statistics cannot.

Ushahidi-powered online maps have also been used to keep track of the skirmishes in Gaza and the spread of the H1N1 virus.

In another deployment of Ushahidi, the engine is used to track the spread of H1N1 virus across the world based on input from ordinary citizens.

Community Support
Born during the dark days following the 2007 Kenyan election, Ushahidi seems to have found a bright future in citizen-driven geopolitical reporting. Recently, it received a $200,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation to continue developing its platform.

On May 7, the core development team behind Ushahidi met in person for the first time in Silicon Valley. In the team's blog, one of the developers, Ory Okolloh, wrote, "We had been building an organization and a platform -- virtually via Skype, chat, e-mail, Twitter across states and continents for over a year without ever having a single sit-down to chart our path … I think it just goes to show what is at the heart of the Ushahidi community -- a sense of partnership, trust, commitment, and some uber-self-starters."

The advance of geospatial technologies has given institutions, businesses, and government agencies a wide variety of technologies to monitor the movements and activities of employees and ordinary people. Some might say the dreaded era of Big Brother, as described in George Orwell's novel 1984, has finally arrived. With the free, open-source Ushahidi mapping engine, the people also have a chance to return the favor.