Election monitoring using new media: Notes from my experience in Sri Lanka

Ushahidi’s blog has a great post on the development of a tech toolbox for election monitoring. Unsurprisingly, it is anchored to the use of Ushahidi as a platform for election monitoring, which has been used quite effectively in India amongst other places.

Through the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), I introduced Web 2.0 and mapping to election monitoring in Sri Lanka around two years ago, realising at the time that the visualisation of election violence and real time monitoring could help media and civil society hold members of political parties and their supporters more accountable for their actions.

There is no other election monitoring agency in the country that uses maps, the web, or Facebook, in a comparable manner and the Government Department of Elections website remains stuck in the 90’s.

Writing in 2009 on the challenge of using new media for election monitoring, I noted that,

Right now, there’s no escaping the labour required for the task – each location and incident is entered into the map directly, no automated source from the web is used to populate maps. Helps us give as close to a real time image of the ground situation in the lead up to and on the day of election, more useful we are told by extensive feedback from local media, than a mashup that just puts unverified reports on a map along with other data streams.

At the time I started to work on using web media for election monitoring, and even today, the installation, configuration and customisation of Ushahidi requires a level of technical expertise that is well beyond every single election monitoring NGO I know of in Sri Lanka. It is therefore not easy to promote or use the system without a sufficient budget to get help in localising it and for staff training. Further, short code SMS’s for purposes of election monitoring are very hard to negotiate with all mobile service providers, given the risk averse nature of these business to monitoring that obviously clearly targets political parties including those which constitute government.

With these limitations in mind, I used the following set of tools to undergird CMEV’s monitoring operations, which continue to date.

  • Video production: Vimeo, YouTube, iMovie, Flip Mino HD
  • Mapping: Google Maps
  • Backend: WordPress
  • Podcasts: drop.io, Garage Band, Skype
  • Social networking: Facebook, Twitter
  • Photos: Flickr

Video

I use the Vimeo channel of the Centre for Policy Alternatives to host videos shot using a Flip Mino HD. The Flip records very high quality video, which I process and edit using iMovie on my Mac, saving it in a lower resolution before uploading it to Vimeo using its relatively new (and still buggy) Adobe Air based uploader. I have been forced to use YouTube (e.g. this video) when on the day of an election, Vimeo has temporarily halted uploading and site functionality for routine maintenance.

There is a high degree of interest in these videos. For example, 4 videos uploaded to the CMEV site during the course of the Presidential election day on 26 January 2010 were viewed over 1,400 times.

Mapping

From the get-go, I used Google Maps because of its ease of use and rich feature set. Two years ago, Google Maps didn’t have any of the street level information for key cities it now features. I used a laborious technique of getting lat / long data from one map via Google and entering this into the election monitoring map to plot incidents in cities and towns. Today, this process is made much faster and easier with the street level information that was first featured in 2009.

I have manually plotted well over 1,500 incidents over four elections since 2008, including Sri Lanka’s first post-war Presidential election earlier this year.

For each election, I have created two maps – one plotting election violence leading up to election day, and another plotting election violence on election day.

The map plotting election violence on the day of the Presidential election held on 26 January 2010 has been viewed nearly 26,000 times to date, proving my hunch that information visualised on Google Maps would be in high demand.

Plotting election violence on Google Maps also allows for new forms of advocacy against election violence through the visualisation of patterns and perpetrators, such as A map of shame: Clustering cities and regions with very high levels of election violence.

Backend

I had used WordPress for years, and when CPA’s own website in its previous avatar became too laborious to hold all the information the monitoring was generating, I created a new blog to be the hub for CMEV’s information dissemination. All the while, I kept in mind how CMEV could continue operations even if WordPress temporarily went down during a critical phase of monitoring.

CMEV’s website now holds all of its election monitoring reports, field reports, videos, podcasts and maps, with links to archived material on CPA’s own website.

Podcasts

I recorded all the podcasts in elections before 2010 using my Mac’s in built speaker, which was good enough for the job. I wasn’t aiming for broadcast quality in these recordings, but a clarity good enough to get the message across. I edited the podcasts using my Mac’s GarageBand, adding for example an intro and extro to give it a touch of professional flair.

For the Presidential Election in 2010, we did something completely new and revolutionary in Sri Lanka, using drop.io’s voice mail feature to record election monitoring updates via mobile phones. For the cost of a call to the US, we were able to use mobile phones to give out timely updates that media was able to use as well. As noted on the CMEV site and all of our press releases on election day,

These updates can be downloaded as MP3s for broadcast, listened to online, embedded on any website and social networking platform, emailed or easily linked to. Special incidents will also be covered in these updates, and to help reduce the burden on our monitors, journalists are strongly encouraged to use this feed as their primary channel of regular soundbites from CMEV.

At the time of writing, over 450 had listened to these podcasts.

Drop.io came into its own when on the day of election, just before polls closed, there was a serious question over the eligibility of a leading candidate. I was able to use Skype to record an interview with a leading constitutional lawyer (and friend) and immediately feature it on the drop.io channel for media to pick up on and use to dispel rumours and propaganda.

Social networking

CMEV is the only election monitoring agency to have a presence on Facebook and give out updates using its Twitter feed. But it is not only through CMEV’s Twitter feed that I have given critical updates during elections.

On the 27th of January, I tweeted on Groundviews from 3am throughout the day giving updates that at the time were some of the first eye witness reports on the situation unfolding on the ground, and served to dispel false rumours to boot. My article, Updates capturing aftermath of presidential elections, is a detailed look at how Twitter aided election monitoring and reporting and how its use by Groundviews was unprecedented in Sri Lankan media to report on, what was at the time, a very disturbing situation on the ground.

Photos

Instead of using a custom CMS or uploading them to WordPress, I opted to use Flickr to catalogue CMEV’s photo documentation of election violence and its work. This aspect of CMEV’s work need to be strengthened, but the photos received from the field are all catalogued here, and embedded as appropriate on CMEV’s WordPress blog (often linked to CMEV’s press releases).

Of course, that I haven’t or can’t use the tools mentioned in Ushahidi’s blog post, including the Ushahidi platform itself, is no reflection on their ability to efficiently nod effectively support election monitoring processes. It’s just that in the absence of any funding, and with my limited technical knowledge, I have almost single-handedly demonstrated in Sri Lanka without the use of any of these tools that the violence of political parties and some politicians in particular can be mapped and archived for posterity, to be leveraged by concerned citizens in civil society in on-going agitations for greater democracy.

But is technology alone enough? Even if all these tools and those in Ushahidi’s blog are used, it is any guarantee of a better, more transparent and accountable electoral process and democracy? As I note in Mapping violence during elections and voter education, albeit from a Sri Lankan perspective,

… unless awareness campaigns before an election, and advocacy campaigns after which bring to light, including name and shame, perpetrators of elections violence, these exercises alone, including my own, have little chance of really strengthening democracy. The problem with raising awareness before an election is that NGOs can never match the reach of an incumbent government’s propaganda, or even that of a political party, both of which have vested interests in keeping the public ignorant about the history of candidates and their violence.

The problem with post-election advocacy is that placing the violence of winners in public scrutiny will almost always be (a) seen as a conspiracy to undermine the legitimacy of their victory (b) cast as a rival party political bid to discredit the electoral victory and the ‘will of the people’ (c) be seen as some sort of NGO / civil society campaign to discredit the winners.

Technology alone then is no guarantee of cleaner elections. But technology can be part of the solution.

Update: An election monitoring SMS template is a blog post that expands on the points here by linking to a SMS template I designed for election monitoring.

8 comments on “Election monitoring using new media: Notes from my experience in Sri Lanka

  1. Erik
    March 14, 2010 at 5:45 pm #

    Hey Sanjana, just saw this piece, thanks for sharing it!

    One point, I was trying not to be Ushahidi-centric in my post, but I guess it just bleeds through…🙂

    I’ve just penned another blog post looking deeper into election monitoring as a whole, as it often gets compared to crowdsourcing. Like you said at the end, this is a process, not an event, it’s time we started treating it holistically.

    • Sanjana Hattotuwa
      March 15, 2010 at 1:53 am #

      Agree in toto.

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