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Why Were Kenya's Elections Peaceful? Technology Provides Only a Partial Explanation

BY Kelly Gilblom | Thursday, April 4 2013

Screenshot of the Uchaguzi map of election day events.

When Kenyan presidential candidate Raila Odinga graciously conceded to his opponent, incumbent Uhuru Kenyatta, during a Saturday television broadcast that followed a long court battle, the country breathed a sigh of relief. Fears that Kenya would spiral into crisis, as it did after the 2007 presidential elections, had not materialized. In marked contrast to the terrible violence of the last time, this post-electoral transfer of power was, with the exception of isolated incidents, peaceful.

In the headquarters of non-profit tech company Ushahidi's Nairobi headquarters, a group of volunteers and tech professionals congratulated themselves. They had spent years working on software that would track incidences of crimes and unrest that occurred as a result of the election — and forming partnerships to get that information into the right hands.

They believe that their efforts provided Kenyans with an important tool that helped realize their wish for peaceful elections.

But technology alone was not the reason for peaceful elections in Kenya. "Kenyans wanted peace," said Elliott Wilkes, Kenya technical adviser at Mercy Corps, who worked with Ushahidi to monitor the 2013 elections.

The technological tools created by Ushahidi and its partners, explained Wilkes, helped them achieve the goal of peaceful elections — but they were not necessarily the deciding factor.

Significant role of community engagement

Technology played a minor role in the 2007 and 2008 elections, when claims of vote-rigging stirred old tribal rivalries and led to widespread violence. This year, however, it was a hallmark of the democratic process.

Private sector initiatives like Ushahidi's 2013 election-monitoring process, Uchaguzi (Swahili for "choice" or "elections"), involved a large network of groups reporting crime and other election-related hang-ups, mapping them online using Ushahidi software and then reporting them to the proper authorities.

According to Daudi Were, Ushahidi's lead on the Uchaguzi project, there was a significant increase in community engagement this time around, compared to 2007. While he did not cite specific numbers, Were said, "We are happy that people were engaged. I'm not sure if we were surprised about it, we expected a lot of engagement and you know the good thing about Uchaguzi is it meets you where you are."

Meanwhile, the government created the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) to implement a raft of new technologies aimed at ensuring vote counts were legitimate.

The IEBC introduced a biometric data system that kept track of voter ID photos and other individualized information. The goal was to prevent people from voting twice or from using the names of deceased or non-existent people to cast a ballot, as some claimed happened in 2007. It also planned to have constituencies submit votes electronically for the first time this year.

Technology played an important role this election, and Kenya, once again, showed itself to be a leader in tech promotion, said Wilkes.

Uchaguzi is probably the most important case study of a technology platform that made grassroots efforts more efficient and effective. In the weeks and months heading into the elections, the staff established partnerships with the IEBC, the Red Cross, the police and various first responders. By the time election season began, they were a known entity with high credibility. Rather than have ordinary citizens try to contact the authorities themselves to lodge complaints, Uchaguzi provided them with a single contact point for all issues, ranging from outbreaks of violence to polling booth irregularities. Complaints and concerns were submitted via the website, SMS, phone or email, with Uchaguzi's volunteers trained in the methodology of verifying complaints and then referring them to the appropriate authorities. Thus the NGO workers helped prevent the overload and chaos that stymied emergency response to the 2007-8 violence.

"Uchaguzi tries to collect as much data from as many people as possible," explained Duade Were. "Once you establish the information as credible, then you escalate to the organization you know that’s responsible for that response. If it’s a law enforcement issue, we take it to the police, if it’s an electoral issue, we take it to the IEBC. If it’s something that requires first responders, we take it to a partner such as the Red Cross."

Marrying technology to grassroots engagement

Amongst the experts interviewed for this article, there is wide agreement that by mapping the verified complaints, Uchaguzi was able to pre-empt those who might have made exaggerated claims in order to stir up trouble, as happened in 2007-8. This time, more people were aware there was visual proof of what was going on. And since mobile and Internet access is quite widespread in Kenya, it was easy to share the map, which also provided a forum for constructive engagement. Thus the Internet went a long way toward increasing transparency, which in turn played an important role in preventing a recurrence of violence.

Mercy Corps and others confirm that old-fashioned grassroots efforts are what provided the groundwork for a peaceful outcome, while technology was a useful tool that helped further that goal. Grassroots initiatives included face-to-face engagement with community leaders and the deployment of volunteer monitors to be physically present in voting constituencies on the day of the elections. The NGOs also invested effort in nurturing long-standing partnerships with a large cross-section of groups. But the IEBC electronic poll books that housed voters' biometric data suffered widespread technical failures on election day, leading the commission to ditch them altogether.

The failure of the biometric voter identification system did provide Odinga with credible reason to challenge the results, but the IEBC insisted the system was always intended to supplement old-fashioned vote counts, rather than replacing them. While some Kenyans said they were left feeling disillusioned with the electoral process, nearly everyone interviewed for this article, including Odinga supporters, seemed to believe the voting results were credible. Since Kenyatta received more than 50 percent of the vote, the country was able to avoid a potentially divisive runoff election. Perhaps most importantly, Odinga challenged the results in the court system, rather than on the street, and he accepted the court's decision calmly.

Grassroots efforts also proved valuable when Ushahidi had to shut down an alert system, when a glitch caused it to send and resend similar alerts.

Because people knew about the scope and scale of the Uchaguzi project ahead of time, this one technical failure did not cause citizens to lose faith in the platform altogether, according to its founders. And while election day saw about 15 people killed in isolated skirmishes on the coast, there were no other major violent events.

"They say that technology is only 10 percent of the story — a very important 10 percent — yet if all these other things are required for proper deployment, that's what we've been working on," said Daudi Were.

As Sara Jerving reported for techPresident in February, technology was supplemented by creative engagement projects, such as street theater aimed at raising awareness about violence and its causes in Kibera, a sprawling Nairobi slum that was a hotbed of internecine violence in 2007-8.

Streamlining communication

In 2007-8 the government did deploy security forces to quell criminal activity, even as neighborhood watch groups formed to supplement police efforts. But back then there was little cohesion or coordination between the putative peace makers. Meanwhile tech platforms like Ushahidi's crowd-mapping efforts were disorganized and still in their most nascent stages.

"One of the key challenges in 2007 was that everything was so fragmented. Everyone was doing their own thing, there weren't really any collective efforts taking place," said Were.

He said that Ushahidi's goal during these elections was to correct the big gaps in communication and bring all interested parties together on one platform so they could benefit from one another's efforts.

Were said: "It's always hard to measure something that didn't happen, but the fact that we didn't have a big humanitarian, a big security crisis this time I think speaks to the partnerships that were developed and how effective they were in working together."

A report by a research team at Nairobi's iHub showed just how much Ushahidi used scale to its advantage this time around. It contacted at least half a dozen aid agencies and NGOs ahead of time to serve as on-the-ground foot soldiers during the elections.

Aid and NGO workers sent in reports to a team of more than 200 trained volunteers at the Uchaguzi situation room in Nairobi and also served as eyewitnesses to verify almost 5,000 reports sent in by regular citizens via SMS or email. Complaints ran the gamut from logistical problems at polling stations to concerns about potential outbreaks of violence.

Another group was deployed to geo-locate the report and map it, while a team of translators ensured that those who could not speak English were heard, too. A technology team kept the servers from crashing and fixed unexpected glitches when they occurred. An analysis and research team then filtered the raw data into a visually appealing and useful form and other volunteers reported violence, crime, hate speech and logistical issues to authorities as needed.

"Civil society enlightens citizen(s) on their rights and responsibilities while the technology community develops tools to ease daily life processes. Bringing the two together for an election-monitoring project amplified citizens' voices, enabling the world to gauge the Kenyan election atmosphere and mood of the nation," the report said.

Increased credibility of government institutions

But private-sector efforts, such as Uchaguzi, are not the only ways technology was used to advance Kenya's election process.

While it is unclear exactly why the IEBC's technology efforts failed during the elections, experts say the fact that Kenya invested significant effort in modernizing its election process is a big deal. For ordinary citizens, seeing that their government was committed to transparency went a long way toward increasing the trust they placed in their institutions.

The government also invested major effort over the past few years in restoring the credibility of the courts and police. The payoff was illustrated on March 30, when the Supreme Court handed down its decision about the election results. On Twitter, Kenyan 'netizens talked about remaining peaceful, with many saying they had voted for Odinga, but now supported Kenyatta because he had legitimately been elected president.

"Only five years ago, Raila and many Kenyans rightly regarded the courts as corrupt. The courts were also regarded as handmaidens of the government of the day," said James Gathii, a law professor at Loyola University, who is writing a book on the Kenyan judiciary and is also a native Kenyan.

Gathii added, "Today, the progress made in transforming the judiciary is paying tangible dividends. Violence has been avoided."

Kelly Gilblom is an American freelance journalist based in Nairobi.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.