Matt Berg, Director, Modi Research Group Africa Lab, explaining how to use Formhub to participants at the FW: Tunisia #ElecTech Un/conference on 4-5 March 2013

Matt Berg, Nairobi, Kenya – March 7, 2013.

I had the great privilege of being invited to participate at the FW: Tunisia #ElecTech Un/Conference hosted by Democracy International on 4-5 March in Tunis. There I had the opportunity to speak about how tools like formhub, which facilitate the collection of structured data, could be used to improve the election observation process. As good events usually go, I ended up learning for more from fellow participants then any knowledge I was able to impart.

Over the course of the un/conference, I met with election observation groups from civil society in Lebanon, Tunisia, Egypt and Iraq along with inspiring youth hacktivist groups including Lamba Labs, who are working to create the first hackerspace (“open knowledge library” in Lebanon-speak) in Beirut and I Watch, a Tunisian youth movement using social media to fight corruption and promote transparency in political life. In between, I got to spend a few invaluable days with the DI team, Ian Schuler of New Rights Group , Jorge Soto of Citivox, Brenda Burrell from Freedom Fone, and Eric Gunderson of Development Seed and Mapbox, all pioneers and leading proponents of using open data and technology to promote democracy. Coming more from an international development and global health background, this was my first real exposure to the tech4dem space and I couldn’t have had better guides.

Overall, I found that, while technology is being used in concrete ways to make an impact, the tools and the strategies around using them, in particular, are still in a nascent stage and ripe for disruption. Some key takeaways from FW: event on how technology and open data could affect democracy moving forward include:

Use the past to prepare for the future

Real-time data is sexy and serves an important function during the election process. It’s important, however, not to overlook the stories, often hidden in election data, that can provide important insights when preparing for an upcoming election. This is the powerful case made by Eric Gunderson of Development Seed & Mapbox. Past election data can highlight areas of low voter turnout or high voting irregularities where electoral commissions should focus their resources to increase voter education and participation and reduce costs, time, and errors. This is particularly important in post-revolution countries like Tunisia, which recently had an election and remains in democratic transition. Tools like Mapbox, make it easier to investigate and then tell stories through interactive maps, providing a spatial context to data that’s hidden in CSVs. This ability to be better prepared highlights too the importance of open election data.

Crowdsourcing requires a tailored response

Jorge Soto’s work at Citivox highlighted to me that to elicit the necessary civic response to make crowd sourcing effective, you have to be completely invested in understanding the problem you are trying to address and gain the support from the necessary civic institutions. Jorge’s group Citivox has done inspiring work, including raising awareness to prevent an Internet tax in Mexico, to monitoring the recent Mexican elections, to helping the citizens of Monterey plot a safe path to work. While their work has not gained a lot of exposure outside of Latin America yet, Citivox, due to their approach of being a civic organization first and technology firm second, represents to me what the next generation of crowdsourcing will look like.

Growth of structured reporting

The use of SMS reporting systems in election observation, an approach pioneered by people like Ian Schuler, has gone mainstream with local observation groups demonstrating effective use of SMS reporting in the last Egyptian and Tunisian elections. Election observation reporting will increasingly shift to smartphones, especially for International observers who jump between polling centers. This is being demonstrated in the current Kenyan election with the Carter Center equipping international observers with Open Data Kit-enabled smartphones. As smart phone penetration grows, the ability to have structured SMS and smart phone based reporting flow into a single platform and form will grow increasingly important.

The next frontier, as Ian Schuler identified in his keynote presentation where innovation is still needed, is figuring out ways to enable more structured forms of citizen reporting. The ability to launch a mobile friendly form, via a QR code or social media link, enabled by tools like formhub, might offer one such opportunity. Another includes the growth use voice driven systems like Freedom Fone, to capture the voice of those non-literate, a group that is disproportionately poor and female.