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A Technological Spring in the South Caucasus

BY Onnik Krikorian | Wednesday, April 17 2013

Elva co-founder Jonne Catshoek (credit: Onnik Krikorian)

Riven by ethnic conflict and destabilized by geopolitics, the year ahead might prove to be a tumultuous one in the three South Caucasus countries of Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia. Armenia held its presidential election in February but is still experiencing ongoing protests. Now eyes are already starting to focus on its two neighbors, which will hold their elections this autumn — and new tools will be available to monitor potential outbreaks of violence.

Long gone are the days when blogs were the main medium for online activism in the region. The last time they played a crucial role was in 2008, when clashes during Armenia’s 20-day post-election State of Emergency left 10 people dead. Now activists and watchdog groups are using new web applications to track border activity and monitor potentially volatile situations. Meanwhile, municipal governments deploy similar tools, hoping to collect public input in a new way.

Border areas

Along Georgia's northern border, near the disputed territory of South Ossetia, activist NGOs are using a platform called Elva to monitor conditions and look out for early warning signs of violence. Village representatives use SMS to fill in information, which is tracked in a database and presented in an online map.

Elva's project manager, Jonne Catshoek, has helped others re-use the software in other contexts. It was also used to monitor the state of Georgia before parliamentary elections in 2012 and will likely be deployed for the October 2013 presidential election there. Observers used it to gather information about how supporters of the government, opposition supporters, and undecided voters reacted to certain issues and incidents.

But the platform might see more use in the South Caucasus region for its earlier purpose. The de facto border separating Armenia and Azerbaijan is extremely volatile, with more than 3,000 people, including civilians, killed since a 1994 cease-fire officially suspended fighting between the two countries.

So alarming is the situation that in 2011 the International Crisis Group warned of an "accidental war" breaking out, and tensions remain high. In March, for example, two Armenians were captured by Azerbaijani soldiers when they inadvertently crossed the border.

Catshoek said this is a familiar situation for NGOs using Elva. The platform has played a role in facilitating the release of Georgian citizens who were detained after accidentally crossing into South Ossetia, he added.

"Giorgi," a Georgian who lives in the village of Dvani on the border, described one such incident to techPresident in August for a previous story. Speaking to techPresident through a translator, he said, "A man from Gori came to the village to visit a relative. In the morning he went to buy tobacco and did not come back. We suspected that he had been detained by Russian borderguards. I sent a notification through the network and that’s how we found out where he was." The man was released after three days. Giorgi adds that since he started acting as his community's representative, "Now people in my community call me when someone is detained."

"The reason I participate in the network is that my community benefits from it," he continued. "We live in the area [where] detentions are quite frequent because the border [that separates Georgia and the breakaway South Ossetia] is not well defined. Often people cross it without realizing they have done so. In cases like this, I notify the network and then through the network we receive information about the development — where the person is and if the relevant actors are involved."

Saferworld, a British NGO that works with local communities to improve security for civilians in conflict zones, is excited about Elva. Tabib Huseynov, the group's South Caucasus Regional Coordinator, said, "We have established community networks in various conflict-affected areas [throughout the South Caucusus]. We support these community-based networks to engage with the security providers, regional governments and authorities to articulate their concerns and jointly work out solutions. So, by working more closely with these conflict-affected communities, we are trying to increase understanding of their safety concerns and to demonstrate how local needs can be responded to more effectively, even in advance of political resolution of the conflicts."

Catshoek sees an opportunity for Elva in the Armenian context as well — possibly after the release of a new version next month.

Election monitoring

Elva's second line of business, elections, is another area where web tools have attracted attention around the world.

In Armenia, activists concerned about the integrity of the May 2012 parliamentary elections launched a mapping tool called iDitord as a means to collect reports of violations via SMS, telephone, Twitter and the web. The site administrators collected about 1,000 reports between iDitord's launch in early April and the end of polling on election day. The effectiveness of platforms like these can be difficult to gauge, but iDitord must have been considered a threat by some: the day before voters went to the polls, attackers attempted to take iDitord down by flooding it with web traffic in a denial-of-service attack. The site was down for only 20 minutes that day and a few hours during another attack on election day itself.

Undaunted, project managers beefed up security and again deployed iDitord in this year's presidential election on Feb. 18. There were three attempts to bring the site down, but each failed, said Samvel Martirosyan, director and project coordinator of iDitord.

Martirosyan says the results were worth the effort: of "252 applications" of election violations made to the prosecutor's office, he told techPresident, 46 "came from iDitord." Out of 13 criminal cases opened after the election, he said, two came from iDitord reports. Those cases are ongoing, he said.

In Yerevan, election monitors used iDitord to track May 5 municipal elections that some political analysts and civil society activists consider to be a continuation of the post-presidential standoff between the government and opposition in that country.

Across Europe and the world, these platforms are still in their infancy. In Russia, civil society NGO Golos received 5,339 reports when it launched a platform to monitor the 2012 presidential election there. That's a little more than five times the reports than were received through iDitord although Russia, with 142 million people, is 45 times more populous than Armenia. Nevertheless, analysts believe they could become increasingly important.

International observers might not be invited to monitor Azerbaijan's presidential election in October, but the potential might be there for local civil society groups to do so instead, aided by interconnecting platforms across voice, SMS, social media and the web.

"I think that there is a place and a need for such systems, and that need could increase depending on how things change in the coming months with regard to election observation," said an international worker previously based in Azerbaijan. This person spoke to techPresident on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of election monitoring in the country, which Freedom House and Human Rights Watch have given low marks for openness.

"And even if observation of this fall's presidential elections is conducted as it has been in the past," this person continued, "the knowledge gleaned from such systems would be an interesting complement and comparison to in-person election observation."

Monitoring abuse

Activists hope these techniques can be applied to other instances where the state has a contentious relationship with the truth.

Last October, Transparency International hosted a hackathon in Moscow, including participants from Azerbaijan, to explore how citizens might use technology to report on corruption and abuse of power.

One of the outcomes was a pilot project focused on abuse of women. Stop Harassment will be implemented in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, and then introduced in other regions. According to its developers, the purpose of the project is to "pressurize the government into responding properly" to the problem of gender-based corruption, domestic violence, and sexual harassment.


Screenshot from Stop Harassment website

Transparency International in Azerbaijan told techPresident, via its Georgia office, that a final version of the project will be launched later this year.

“Through such an online platform women in Baku will be able to anonymously report incidents of harassment via SMS, email, as well as […] through Facebook and Twitter to a site that would map and categorize the facts of harassment and would also let women share their stories,” wrote Milena Marin, Transparency's Data and Technology Coordinator, on the organization's web site.

Working with government

But web tools can also provide opportunities to work with, rather than pressure, government. Earlier this year in Yerevan, the city in Armenia where monitors used Elva to monitor the mood before elections, the mayor announced that city officials would participate in iYerevan, a site that allows citizens to suggest improvements to the city like public art or new uses of open space. In Tbilisi, Transparency International Georgia launched the Georgian equivalent of Fix My Street, a platform that cites problems like potholes or graffiti and tracks the city's response, at an event featuring the mayor and city officials. The platform, Chemikucha.ge, received more than 35,000 page views and 162 problem reports in its first 72 hours of operation.

Activists and NGOs have been experimenting with online tools and Internet-powered applications in the Caucasus region for years, but not all of them have attracted the same amount of attention. In April 2010 a social innovation camp held in Tbilisi attracted participants from all three countries — Armenia, Azerbaijan, and the host country, Georgia. The main outcome of that workshop was a prototype project to monitor deforestation in Armenia. It failed to arouse widespread interest but was one of the earliest examples of an organization using new mapping tools in a crisis. Two months later, the Georgian Young Lawyers Association, along with Transparency International Georgia, the International Society for Fair Elections, the Caucasus Research Resource Centers, and the National Democratic Institute, launched Vote Georgia, an election-monitoring platform.

The activist and watchdog community in Georgia continues to experiment with similar tools. Another platform was used in last year's crucial parliamentary election in Georgia, which saw the first democratic change of government at the ballot box in the entire region.

These tools allow people in the South Caucusus to communicate quickly with people outside the region, but they might not be immediately useful to locals.

According to household surveys conducted by the Caucasus Research Resource Centers for its 2012 Caucasus Barometer, 46 percent of respondents in Armenia, 59 percent in Azerbaijan, and 49 percent in Georgia said they never accessed the Internet.

Catshoek, 28, a Netherlands native, says that with the rapid proliferation of Internet-enabled smart phones the situation is likely to change significantly in the coming years. Meanwhile, Elva and Ushahidi, a mapping platform that serves as the basis for several tools, also support SMS.

Catshoek is optimistic. He moved to Tbilisi in August 2009, he said, in order to apply a background in democracy support and conflict analysis to a region that has come to fascinate him. He sees great potential in Elva.

"Elva started as a relatively small project," he said, "but seeing how it has benefited local communities, I quit my day job last year and turned Elva into an independent NGO."

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

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