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Collaborative, Citizen-Driven Election Monitoring Reaches India

BY Nancy Scola | Monday, April 6 2009

Vote Report

The word for this is, quite simply, awesome. It's going to take all my narrative powers to tell this story quickly in a way that makes any sense. But as the pirates say, 'ere goes.

Back around the '08 elections in the United States, a group of advocates, activists, programmers, and other assorted volunteers came together to whip up a citizen-driven vote reporting system called Twitter Vote Report. (Twitter was only one of the input channels involved in the project but, hey, it was the one with the sexy factor, and branding counts for something.)

From beginning to end, the project took about three and a half weeks, culminating on election day. One of the motivating ideas, though, was that by putting a priority on making this an open and collaborative project, and by making sure the code being built stayed open-source, all that work might have an impact after November 4th.

Now, predating Twitter Vote Report was a project called Ushahidi, which you may have heard of because it got a great deal of press in the aftermath of the January 2008 Kibaki vs. Odinga presidential elections in Kenya. Some really horrible violence followed the contested vote, and Ushaidi sprung up as a way of collectively tracking the resulting attacks, riots, brutality, looting, fires, and more. Kenyans submitted violence reports via SMS or web form, which were then plotted on a Google map.

Ushahidi has since evolved into a fuller-featured platform for, as they put it, "a platform that crowdsources crisis information...[a]llowing anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form." Their goal, they say, "to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response."

Let's jump back to Twitter Vote Report. As we built out the project in those frantic October days, we were a bit concerned that in the certain flood of election day reports sent our way, we might have a signal vs. noise problem -- with nonsense reports, sabotage reports, poorly-structured reports, or well-intentioned but informationless reports muddying the data stream. So developers built what we called a "sweeper" interface, where volunteers could clean up and weight what users were inputting into the system.

Awesomeness part I: That sweeper interface is being used by the Ushahidi team to help inform the development of what they're calling "Swift River" -- or what they're calling crowdsourcing the filter. "Anyone," blogs Ushahidi lead Erik Hersman, "who has access to a computer (and possibly just a mobile phone in the future), can then go and rate information as it comes in."

Awesomeness part II: That Swift River platform is now being used to power Vote Report India, a monitoring project around upcoming elections for India's lower house of Parliament. Yep, Twitter Vote Report is taking over the subcontinent. What's more, Vote Report India clearly draws inspiration from TVP. Replace "Indian" with "U.S." in the project's description -- "a non-partisan all-volunteer collaboration between software developers, designers, academics, and other professionals to bring transparency to the 2009 Indian elections" -- and you have our mission statement for TVP. More on the project:

Vote Report India will partner with citizens' networks, human rights organizations, and journalists to contribute direct SMS, email and web reports on violations of the Election Commission's Model Code of Conduct. It will then aggregate these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos and tweets related to the elections from all relevant sources, in one place, on an interactive map. The interactive map will allow tracking the irregularities in the campaigns leading up to the elections, the voting experience on the day of the elections, and the results themselves.

At one level, Vote Report India will serve as a critical initiative aimed at nurturing transparency and accountability in the Indian election process. At another level, the platform will provide the most complete picture of public opinion in India during the elections.

(H/T Andrew Turner, one of the key developers who has helped to nurture and guide the vote report project as it evolves.)