Freesteel Blog » Ushahidi and election monitoring

Ushahidi and election monitoring

Tuesday, October 12th, 2010 at 4:47 pm Written by:

This is a post about why there needs to be an election/election leaflets plug-in module for Ushahidi, and who ought to do it.

This Ushahidi system, which was made in Kenya in 2008, is a reasonably crude mobile-phone-aware geospatial content gathering system that has been applied in lots of different places. It has received constructive attention from cool people who have lots of time, vision and money.

Ushahidi has been designed to handle live crowd-sourcing of witnessed events in an evolving crisis, gathering information via text messages.

Meanwhile, in my own time I have contributed work to the stack of democracy monitoring projects (mostly by mySociety) such as:

For the past UK election cycle there was also that was simple and did live monitoring of election leaflets. It has banked over 5000 leaflets for future record, and was used widely (mostly without credit).

I (and others) have spent a lot of unrecoverable money and time on ElectionLeaflets and recently tried to take it to the UK Electoral Commission for use in the upcoming referendum next May.

The Electoral Commission has no duty to monitor election leaflets, but they do have a duty to monitor referendum leaflets — according to the law

The staff at the Electoral Commission told me they weren’t best pleased with this. It’s a hassle having to do anything, isn’t it? But they didn’t want any help from us. “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out,” they added.

The Electoral Commission were at one time handing out hundreds of thousands of pounds to various projects of limited ambition. (I pried out the exact figures last week.) But now any remote interest in investment in stuff that needs doing has completely withered away.

Anyways, back to this Ushahidi business.

Because of the great need for a crowd-sourced election monitoring platform to provide a means by which the public can share their individual collective experiences of these notable events with their peers, people have been deploying this disaster monitoring service for the following events:

The maps look good with their aggregated pointers, until you realize there’s a problem: the location markers don’t indicate what kind of things they are marking. They’re just red blobs. (Here is our leaflet map. And over on ScraperWiki I am working out the technology to programatically set the pointers according to the event properties.)

Also, because crises know no boundaries, districts and borders are not modeled — Though it might be useful to know about the directions and regions of transit Mapumental-wise given how situations tend to fill out the valleys rather than cross mountain ranges.

And people are encouraged to report bad stuff only, not any notable activity that would (a) forewarn of bad stuff developing, (b) put the bad stuff in context, and (c) produce positive reports from positive events, rather than just silence from positive events.

A real election modelling system would know about:

  • Voting districts
  • Political parties
  • Candidate lists
  • Poll locations
  • Election results

This would give a proper home for, as well as more important projects, such as — where people could begin to be able to track and be involved in the unseen process of selecting the two or more evils that the public is eventually afforded the option of electing the lesser of.

I only got to see the wide applications of the Ushahidi system this morning.

Someone used it to mark up the snowed in streets in Washington DC last winter. This is what mySociety’s could have been adapted for, but it wasn’t.

What’s with mySociety these days anyway?

Back in July they blogged this:

Today I’m very happy to be able to tell our community that mySociety is to be the recipient of $575,000 of grants from the US based Omidyar Network.

The grants cover two areas:

  • Building organizational capacity
  • The provision of expertise to develop open source websites for transparency-focused organizations in Africa

Omidyar Network is a philanthropic investment firm… To date, Omidyar Network has committed more than $330 million to for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations that foster economic advancement and encourage individual participation across multiple investment areas, including microfinance, property rights, government.

Omidyar Network also funds some projects by friends of mySociety, such as Ushahidi and Global Voices.

Ah, so you can see it’s obviously all in hand. The resources have been put together with the capability, and it all fits perfectly into the terms of reference.

So I guess tomorrow someone will email me the link to some sort of grand scheme or architecture standard for monitoring parties, elections, representatives and executive institutions wherein all these projects can fit and integrate, like some sort of Debian Unix release.

> apt-get install electionleaflets
> apt-get update uk-political-boundaries
> apt-get install party-donation-views
> apt-get install ballotpedia
> fab www deploy

I look forward to reading the obvious outline spec and vision that should have got drawn up 5 damn years ago, so all these little units I have been doing could be compatible with it, and deployed with it, and not built from scratch with resources I do not have!

Unfortunately, the millionaires up there in the tech field don’t seem to have time to think down to such a minuscule level as this. Their strategic thoughts and interactions are exospheric.

Meantime, here’s one of their great videos urging people to code something or other that might sort of do something somehow.

I don’t have time for this. I’ve just been delivered two large ringbinders of the Liverpool Direct Contract that I FOI-ed 2 years ago, and I have to work out which bits are still missing. This is relevant today owing to the recent leaking of a secret report of this utterly rotten ten year IT contract with a proprietary supplier. Had a tiny fraction of the waste been invested in open source, there’s no accounting for just how much progress there would have been over the last decade.


  • 1. Paul C replies at 15th October 2010, 4:39 pm :

    That video made me sad, and not in a good way.

  • 2. sam replies at 17th October 2010, 11:49 pm :

    While I have the greatest of admiration for your immense talents, one thing that no amount of talent or passion gets you, is the ability to tell others how to spend their volunteer time. And the paid ushahidi staff are dealing with other issues which are more important to their aims – generally working to increase the software to be better in pressures of life and death in disasters.

    While election leaflets are moderately important, to you – and somewhat to me – ushahidi already has a photos module which easily let’s you upload a photo – it may be that it needs extending for an incident to be a leaflet drop site, but that is marginal amount of work if you know the leaflet context and info that’s needed – the ushahidi bit is comparatively easy. It may have already been done – it shouldn’t take long if not, and it would benefit other issues where there are multiple photos taken at once of other incidents. I suspect it would also be valuable for their original issue of election violence – and in other countries where incidents are photographed.

    Why ushahidi has become a platform rather than any of the other projects that have engaged with part of it, is down to the aims of the people involved; and there have been many blog posts on that to topic

    Ushahdi has a plugin architecture; if you choose not to use it – for whatever legitimate reason – then there are few grounds for people to use yours against their reasons

  • 3. Julian replies at 18th October 2010, 11:59 am :

    I’m not talking about volunteer time at all here.

    My volunteer time is completely and utterly jammed stuffed and full, because I have more ideas and commitments than resources available.

    I totally agree that one cannot tell how others spend their volunteer time. It requires money to tell others how to spend their time. I don’t happen to have enough spare money to do this very often — though I have done it in the past with actual real money:
    thestraightchoice blog dec 2009
    Has anyone else?

    My pleading is therefore directed towards Omidyar and others who do have the money and are already putting resources into Ushahidi. Unfortunately, I don’t have a direct channel to relay any information to them — hence I can only put it on my blog. Steiny, you and others do have the contacts who can pass messages up to these highfalutin people. And maybe they will when they are having dinner with them, and run out of obvious conversation and need something to fill the time. I am not in contact with these people.

    This well-developed concept just has to get out there in the wind — of doing election monitoring properly because users have shown the willingness to deploy it. I absolutely know what it needs to be, but I have no capability, resources or outlet to take any effective action at all. And I know it.

  • 4. Paul C replies at 21st October 2010, 2:21 pm :

    Related, may be of interest:

  • 5. Julian Todd replies at 22nd October 2010, 10:28 am :

    Good article. My view on crowd-sourcing is it isn’t new — companies have always crowd-sourced job vacancies by advertising them. Crowd sourcing tools are just about publishing more than the job spec/advert, but also the entire working environment, so you can see more of it. (I’ll flesh out this thought later).

    He picks over the pakflood ushahidi instance/failure. I understand there are some special issues to do with this one. Bear in mind that we are expecting American NGOs to engage in a disaster where American gov is at war with the people of that country.

  • 6. BradfordMarie28 replies at 31st October 2010, 4:22 pm :

    Have no money to buy a car? You not have to worry, because it’s achievable to get the loan to work out such problems. So get a collateral loan to buy everything you need.

Leave a comment

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <blockquote cite=""> <code> <em> <strong>