Leila Dal Santo of Souktel presenting on how to use mobile technology to safeguard elections at the FW: Tunisia #ElecTech Un/Conference on March 4, 2013

By Leila Dal Santo, Community Projects Manager, Souktel

As the Arab Spring gave way to groundbreaking democratic elections in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya in 2011 and 2012, voters young and old had a first-ever chance to share their views on the political process. It was an exciting but difficult period for Arab citizens: As many voters had never taken partin elections, questions abounded: What exactly are the rules for voting? Where’s my nearest polling station? But amid this uncertainty, one truth rang clear: with mobile penetration close to 100% in all three countries—an 87.1% penetration rate in Egypt, 171.5% penetration rate in Libya, and 106% penetration rate in Tunisia—cell phones had strong potential to help ensure that these landmark elections were free and fair.

Since 2006, Souktel has leveraged the speed, security, and cost-effectiveness of mobile phones to connect communities with vital information; in the case of elections, our work has ranged from pre-election opinion polls, to election-day SMS incident reporting, to post-election ‘exit surveys’. Working across the Arab World, we’ve had the privilege of being on the ground during some of the region’s most crucial votes. Here’s a look at three of the most seminal campaigns we’ve been involved with in recent years—and our thoughts on some key best practices that have emerged from this work.

By all accounts the 2011 elections in Tunisia were a success, with international monitors hailing the process as fair and accurate—thanks in part to a hotline that let citizens ask voting related questions and report suspicious activity at polling stations via SMS. Created by Souktel and implemented by the Tunisian Bar Association (with support from the American Bar Association), this service was rolled out across the country on election day, giving average citizens the power to make voting-related inquiries from their mobiles—and, as a result, promoting real-time electoral participation and transparency: If a voter had a question about casting their ballot, or witnessed perceived illegal activity at a polling station, he or she could instantly send a text message to the monitoring hotline. SMS reports were directed to a team of volunteer lawyers from the Tunisian Bar Association, who tracked the incoming data through a custom-built web platform. The lawyers then verified the claims, called voters to confirm details, and pursued follow-up action where needed. In a time-limited event like a one-day vote, quick responses to voter reports were crucial. To ensure that incoming text messages were handled quickly, Souktel designed the Tunisian Bar Association’s software platform to let individual lawyers “tag” and claim incoming messages by trending topic or keyword (like “violence” or “fraud”), and then mark a case as closed right after they’d responded to the sender’s question. This let the 80+ lawyers at the service’s call center process thousands of voter reports in a matter of hours.

The following year, in July 2012, Souktel and Al Jazeera TV partnered to roll out the Libya Speaks campaign, a new mobile service that empowered voters to have their say on that country’s historic elections as they unfolded. Al Jazeera sent out text messages to citizens across the country asking if they planned on taking part in the vote, and why. More than 5,000 Libyan mobile users were polled; real-time SMS responses were then mapped on the news network’s website, to give audiences a clear picture of local community views by region of the country. The SMS feedback was candid, and revealed a wide spectrum of opinions: “No, I won’t vote,” responded a participant in Tripoli. Meanwhile, voter Abdul Aziz from Tobruq texted: “Surely I will take part [in the elections]. I’m hoping security and freedom will be achieved.” For many Libyans this campaign offered the first genuine opportunity for them to share their views on the vote in a safe space—a key step toward building a strong civil society.

Similar campaigns were also rolled out in Egypt; there, Souktel ran a range of mobile services to educate and empower women and youth about voting rights and the democratic process–including the launch of a Tunisia-style text-in hotline for incident reporting. To foster grassroots participation in the national dialogue and electoral processes, community-based partner organizations also used Souktel’s platform to send educational content, real-time election updates and opinion polling surveys to tens of thousands of women and youth across Egypt.

Looking back at these three momentous campaigns, here’s what we’ve learned:

First, training of local partners is crucial: In-person orientations for staff at the Tunisian Bar Association and community non-profits in Egypt helped ensure that these partners hada comprehensive understanding of all software components, well before the actual campaign launch dates. While the software we create is designed for non-tech specialists to use—and use easily—in time-critical cases like a one-day election, advance practice is incredibly helpful.

A second key lesson is that partnerships matter: Securing the support of mobile network partners in each country is critical to campaign success. Setting up text-in or call-in hotlines can take days of coordination between mobile networks and Souktel’s tech staff. When mobile network partners understand a campaign’s goals, and are invested in its success, the testing and launch process is typically much more rapid and hassle-free.

Finally, even with ample training and great partnerships, the message itself is what truly matters: With only 160 characters in English, or 70 characters in Arabic, creating clear and concise SMS alerts and poll questions is challenging but critical. In sensitive times like elections, instructions for service users need to be easy to understand, and help empower communities–rather than creating tension.

While the initial elections have ended in Libya, Tunisia and Egypt, the role of mobiles as catalysts for promoting democratic governance and facilitating election monitoring may just be starting. Mobile citizen reporting services are growing in number, and data mapping tools—from Ushahidi to MapBox—are becoming more sophisticated with every new vote. If the power of mobile technology is harnessed productively, it stands to become a real game-changer in election processes—ensuring new levels of transparency, accountability, and grassroots participation.