SMS reporting is becoming an increasingly common means for election observation groups to collect data.  The primary advantages for using SMS reporting are that it increases the speed of data collection while reducing burdens on central level staff.  It is also may be useful in reducing overall communication costs.  However, using SMS in observation reporting requires, at a minimum, an evaluation of the telecommunications infrastructure, a cost-benefit analysis, and a review of the electoral framework.

The first documented use of SMS in election observation dates back to 2005:

During the 2005 Indonesia local elections, observers of LP3ES, Yappika and  JAMPPI were assigned with unique ID numbers and asked to send their ID numbers via SMS to a phonenumber when they were ready to report.  Each observer received a reply generated from a central server indicating the approximate wait time before they would receive a call back from a central data center clerk.

The following year, during the 2006 Palestinian legislative elections, National Democratic Institute (NDI) observers were asked to send an SMS with the code number of the polling station upon arrival.  The message was received by a mobile phone connected via USB to a laptop in Jerusalem.  A customized database recorded the code and established the location of the observer.

In both cases, SMS was used as a communications tool, but for limited purposes.  In 2006, SMS was used as a means of conveying election results datafrom the polling station level to the central level to help verify the accuracy of election results.

The first time SMS was used as aprimary tool for such purposes was during the 2006 Montenegro constitutional referendum.  A Montenegrin NGO, the Center for Democratic Transition (CDT), relied on SMS to help gather results data to verify the outcome of a key referendum on the future of the country.

A similar approach was employed during the 2006 Bahrain parliamentary elections, which were contested by dozens of political parties and candidates.  Observers from The Bahrain Transparency Society (BTS) reported the election results through a series of messages using a sophisticated coding system, compiling election tallies with near accuracy.

Since these early applications, election observation efforts worldwide have employed SMS as a means of collecting data from observers, for both traditional and statistical-based observation efforts.  SMS is now commonly used transmit data in all areas of election observation, including pre-election and post-election processes.

The most obvious benefit to using SMS is that it allows for real-time reporting and, in turn, rapid data analysis.  On Election Day, when the public is waiting for information about the electoral process, time is of the essence!In some circumstances, using SMS may enable a group to issue of regular, evidence-based reports throughout Election Day to calm tense situations and promote confidence.

A related benefit is that SMS reporting can facilitatedata management. An SMS reporting system coupled with a user-friendly database can help to ease the burden on individuals whose job it is to review, clean, and analyze data for the purposes of drafting statements.  (In futureposts, we’ll talk about the various complementary components for an SMS reporting system in place and provide case studies.)

Another possible benefit is that SMS reporting can sometimes reduce overall communications costs, particularly when large numbers of observers are deployed.   Cost-efficiency varies depending on the complexity of the SMS system used and the related components utilized, including developing a database to receive the messages and setting up an SMS gateway to enable message transmission.

However it is not always necessary, practical, or cost-efficient to incorporate SMS in an observation exercise (and, in some places, it may be illegal to use a mobile phone inside a polling station!).When determining whether and how to employ SMS as part of your communications plan, many factors must be considered, including:

  • Telecommunications infrastructure: There may be parts of a country where mobile coverage is weak or doesn’t exist, or where one or two providers may have coverage gaps.  An observer trained to send SMS reports, but deployed to an area that is outside his/her mobile coverage area is a waste of resources.  At a minimum, it is extremely important to consult with major mobile providers and obtain coverage maps beforehand.
  • Cost:The costs of deploying an SMS reporting system will vary depending on the price of sending an SMS, developing a database, setting up a gateway, SMS aggregator, etc.   In some countries, local gateways are not available and an international gateway will need to be used, possibly skyrocketing costs.  Increasingly, free or low-cost services are being made publicly available, including FrontlineSMS and Clickatell.  (In future posts, we’ll examine various approaches, tools, and techniques that can help keep costs down).
  • Timing: how quickly do you want (or need) to be able to say something?  It may not be practical to use SMS if you are not collecting time-sensitive information or planning to issue a statement quickly.  You may want to develop a staggered reporting schedule to facilitate data management and/or prioritize certain types of data that need to be transmitted rapidly.  Character limits (often between 140 and 160 characters), costs, and complexity for observers must all be factored into the decision-making process.
  • Legal Framework: SMS reporting should always be applied in accordance with the electoral laws of the country.  Some countries prevent individuals from using mobile phones in polling stations.  Furthermore, the law may prevent groups from issuing statement until the electoral process has finished, making SMS data collection for rapid reporting purposes irrelevant.

This is just a partial list of considerations and needs, costs, benefits, and challenges may vary greatly from country-to-country, group-to-group, and mission-to-mission.

In future posts, we’ll provide examples, case studies, data analysis, helpful tips, and various tools that can help you to use SMS or other mobile technology for election observation purposes (smartphone / tablets apps, mobile money, etc.).

If you have a question about anything above or have first-hand experience using SMS to collect data, please leave a comment below – we’d love to hear from you!