Tunisians cast their online votes for a new constitution

On January 3rd, Tunisia’s National Constituent Assembly (NCA) began voting on a constitution long in the making and, within a few days, citizens started to cast their votes. Not via referendum, but with an online voting platform that allows citizens to read and vote on each article simultaneous to the NCA. The site, thrown together over the weekend by members of Tunisia’s civil society and open gov movement, gives Tunisians a unique way to participate in the historical drafting of their constitution, and in turn allows the government to receive real-time feedback from the public.

Although Tunisia’s constitution is in its fifth draft and has been in-process for more than two years, it came as a surprise to many when voting began last week and a completed constitution was expected in 10 days. Achref Aouadi, founder of the anti-corruption non-profit I WATCH, has spent the last several years cultivating a national grassroots network of young people dedicated to transparency in Tunisia’s democratic transition. With this active and online community, Achref was able to quickly organize an interest around the constitution voting process and how thousands of eager citizens could get involved.

Achref called on Radhouane Fazai, ICT Officer for Democracy International's Tunisia office and member of Tunisia’s #OpenGovTN – an independent group advocating for transparency, open government and open data. Achref had learned about DemocracyOS, an open-source platform for voting on political proposals, and asked Radhouane if he could customize and launch it for Tunisia’s constitution. By the end of the weekend, Radhouane created the beta site vot-it.org that lists the constitution’s articles and allows viewers to vote and comment on each one.

In collaboration with another civil society-driven project, each article page on vot-it links to the original text provided by Marsad.tn, a project of the Tunisian non-profit, Al Bawsala. Marsad.tn monitors the NCA and provides Tunisians with access to information about their elected representatives, including a full listing of the constitution’s 146 articles. As the NCA votes on each article, I WATCH representatives are in the Assembly’s hallways, and when possible in the room, holding a banner that displays the latest citizen votes on the article at-hand. More than 3,000 votes have been cast on vot-it since its launch a few days ago, the numbers increasing every hour. Whether or not NCA members consider these voices as they vote, Tunisians are making sure they are heard with a savvy combination of online participation and offline activism.

The Election Monitoring Innovation Network in Tunisia and Lebanon

To support free, open, and fair elections in the Middle East and North Africa, Democracy International (DI)—with funding from the U.S. Department of State’s Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI)—is partnered with organizations in the region to develop, test, and support the adoption of new technologies for domestic election monitoring to increase transparency and citizens' participation to the electoral process. The Election Monitoring Innovation Network program has been operating for a little over one year, with partners in Tunisia and Lebanon; despite delayed elections in both countries, the pilot projects listed below are well underway. Take a look at these project summaries and follow us in the coming months as we share our partners' progress.

Tunisia: Mapping Polling Centers with Mourakiboun

Mourakiboun has mobilized its nationwide network of volunteers to map the 4,800+ polling centers that were used in the 2011 National Constituent Assembly (NCA) elections. The goal of this project is to generate a dynamic map to be used for a range of purposes, including: 1) providing election officials with a valuable tool for allocating human and financial resources more efficiently in future elections; 2) offering political parties, civil society organizations, and other stakeholders a resource to facilitate strategic planning and outreach efforts; and 3) facilitating data visualization of data at the local, polling center level to promote greater transparency, accountability, and understanding of the electoral process. As a byproduct of the mapping project, Mourakiboun will map thousands of kilometers of road and nearly every elementary school in Tunisia, then making it open so that everyone - from the government to Google - can benefit from the data.

Tunisia: Tunisia Election Data platform with: OpenGovTN, Mourakiboun, NRG & Development Seed

The Tunisia Election Data project will collect, open, visualize, and analyze election-related data on an ongoing basis. The goal of Tunisia Election Data is to provide a range of stakeholders - electoral officials, political parties, civic organizations, media, citizens, etc. - with better information that enables them to make better decisions that lead to better outcomes regarding the electoral process. Specifically, the platform will: 1) serves as a centralized hub of election-related data, maps, and analysis that facilitates data-driven decision-making; 2) presents information in a highly accessible format so that stakeholders can measure progress and identify trends from one election cycle to the next; and 3) provides a meaningful lens through which electoral developments and observation findings can be contextualized and understood. The polling center map being created by Mourakiboun will be layered with other maps to visualize voter turnout and results trends at the smallest unit of analysis.

Tunisia: Hybrid Election Observation & Crowdsourcing with: I WATCH, Souktel, Modi Research Lab, Citivox  & NRG

This pilot will combine traditional domestic observation methodology with crowdsourcing tools and techniques to provide a new way of engaging citizens in the electoral process. Citivox will develop an online platform enabling I WATCH’s accredited observers to: 1) register online; 2) select the polling centers at which they will observe; 3) receive voter education and training through videos created by I WATCH; 4) report findings via SMS, Interactive Voice Response (IVR) systems developed by Souktel, and Formhub , a web-form and smartphone app developed by Modi Research Lab. These online registration and educational tools will also be available for citizen observers who will provide supplementary feedback to their accredited counterparts during Election Day. The platform will visualize observer and citizen reports on maps and graphs in real time throughout the electoral process, as well as provide other ways for the public to engage with the platform, such as quick surveys and online election-related games. I WATCH will recruit citizen and accredited observers via a series of citizen engagement initiatives, including animated videos and a guerrilla publicity campaign.

Lebanon: #LebOnline Citizen Engagement Platform with: Social Media Exchange (SMEX), Lamba Labs, Sign.al/Completure, NRG

#LebOnline applies a bottom-up, community-driven approach that enables citizens to identify and report on issues related to democracy and human rights, such as access to information, internet freedom, data privacy, etc. #LebOnline aims to reduce barriers to citizen participation in, and awareness of, these and other issues. The #LebOnline platform built by Lamba Labs aggregates information from Twitter and Completure, a smartphone application that enables ordinary citizens to create systemically-verified content through geo-tagged time-stamped images and allows the community to vote on the significance of a story. #LebOnline will aggregate information around key issues that emerge from the platform’s forums and discussion groups, and then create timebound petitions to appeal for change on major issues. #LebOnline will then curate and package citizen feedback to political parties, media, civil society, etc. in a highly accessible format, using maps and charts, to highlight national concerns about access, connectivity, privacy and other issues that affect Lebanon’s growing online community. The #LebOnline platform has the flexibility to track trends and public concerns around other major issues and events, namely the upcoming elections, and it is anticipated the platform will be used to increase citizen participation in Lebanon’s electoral process.

Lebanon: Lebanon Election Data with: Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections (LADE), Lamba Labs, NRG & Development Seed

The Lebanon Election Data project will collect, open, visualize, and analyze election-related data on an ongoing basis. Lebanon Election Data will make previously inaccessible data on the electoral process - obtained by LADE from official sources – open and available to the public to promote greater transparency, accountability, understanding and reform. This data will be used to create visualizations that demonstrate trends at the district level in voter registration, turnout and more. As new electoral datasets become available, they will be layered on top of the existing geospatial visualizations to illustrate longitudinal changes. Non-election-related, but contextually useful datasets – demographic, socio-economic, infrastructural, etc. – may be added as reference layers to existing maps.

Mapping Tunisia’s polling stations

Written by Kate Cummings (DI-MENA's Program Director) and Rim Othman (DI-MENA's Interpreter)

As Tunisia gets closer to selecting an elections commission and finalizing its electoral law, Democracy International (DI) is taking to the streets to test out our mapping tools. DI’s partner, Mourakiboun, an independent observation network in Tunis, will soon be creating the country’s first map of all 4,800+ polling stations, using both online mapping technology and conducting field visits with GPS-enabled tablet computers. Mourakiboun’s goal is to provide election officials, political parties, civil society organizations and other stakeholders with a dynamic map to efficiently allocate human and financial resources, as well as promote greater transparency and accountability for the upcoming elections. The final product will be published on the forthcoming Tunisia Election Data web platform, a centralized hub for election-related data where anyone can navigate the polling station map and freely download the raw data.

Before handing the tablets and training manual over to Mourakiboun’s 54 long-term observers, DI-MENA’s team conducted a test run to see what difficulties, opportunities and surprises our field mappers might face. First, we carefully selected our testing grounds - some of western Tunisia’s most undermapped governorates: Kef, Beja and Jendouba. We picked these 3 governorates out of the country’s 27 because they present challenges we think are representative of many governorates: 1) large rural stretches where elementary schools (which will serve as polling stations) are scattered far and wide; 2) rugged terrain that slows down the mapping process; and 3) schools without street addresses that require creative searching.

Packed into the car, the team set off early in the morning with tablets in-hand (we’re using Samsung Galaxy Tabs). We started by recording our primary road track using OSMTracker, a fun byproduct of the project that allows us to map Tunisia’s roads as we travel to each school. With our list of schools and MapsWithMe Lite app, we started with the low-hanging fruit – schools along the road. There are sure signs of a school that can help any mapper – the flagpole, fence encircling the grounds, and usually an L- or U-shaped building with a courtyard. But not all schools will be polling stations, and we quickly found that we had to go off the map on unmarked roads to find the more remote schools on our list (with OSM Tracker on, of course!).

Early on, we switched to MapsWithMe Pro, a mere $4.94 and a big upgrade; with Pro, we could drop pins for each school that automatically recorded the GPS coordinates and the points can be downloaded as a KML file. We made sure to record each school’s coordinates on our physical list as backup. Without street names or clear signage in the most rural areas, we relied entirely on roadside assistance – passersby made our search much more efficient. But not everyone was well-informed – such as the shepherd on his cell phone below who ended up pointing us in the wrong direction. We came to rely most on school teachers, who we’d find outside schools in the early morning, at lunch time and the end of the day; they would advise us which school on the list we should find next, and we’d ask the same at the next school to determine the most efficient route.

Another lesson that can only come from testing: school teachers, students and neighbors are protective of their communities, and while very willing to help appreciate seeing an ID and adequate evidence as to why you’re inquiring about elementary schools. We’ll be sure Mourakiboun’s mappers have ID badges indicating their role as mappers and observers.

Mapping schools in Jendouba, Kef and Beja took – on average – 30 minutes to map a rural school and about 10 minutes to map an urban school. But that’s with a rental car and mappers operating at full-tilt without breaks; which brings up the question of transportation. In rural areas, local shared taxis often double as teachers’ collective ride home, and can be rented out for the day at a fraction of a car rental’s cost. In cities, taxis can also be a better option as they often have unbeatable local knowledge, though their pre-designated routes may prevent them from leaving certain areas, even if hired for the day. Mourakiboun’s observers will be mapping the governorates in which they live, ideally minimizing the chances that they will be in unfamiliar terrain, though they’ll be limited to weekends (because of the work week) and at a time of year when the days are at their shortest.

Next up: in December, DI will prepare 54 observers to complete our online mapping efforts with field visits to those hard-to-find schools. Tune in soon for the latest on what Mourakiboun’s observers find when they go off the map!

!Cuidemos El Voto!: Crowdsourcing & Observation Platform

A presentation by Jorge Soto, Co-Founder of Citivox, on the use of !Cuidemos El Voto! Crowdsourcing Platform for the 2009 Mexican elections.


Afghanistan Election Data Browser to Collect and Visualize Data

A presentation by Eric Gundersen, Founder and President of Development Seed, on how open data regarding the Afghanistan elections was processed, collected and visualized to enable the public to evaluate the quality of the electoral process.

Completure: Citizen Reporting Smartphone App with Geolocation and Photos

A presentation by Mark Malkoun, Founder and CEO of Completure, on how observers and citizens can use Completure to create, upload, and share their own reports with geolocation and photos with a smartphone or tablet.

Mobile Phones: The Key to Fighting Election Fraud

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.

Reflections on the FW: Tunisia #ElecTech Un/Conference, Tunis – 4-5 March 2013

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.

WebRadar: How Online Media Monitoring Can Improve Elections

Watch Jazem Halioui, Founder & CEO of WebRadar, present on how WebRadar can be used to identify sources, collect content, and provide tools to monitor and analyze digital media.

A presentation by Jazem Halioui, Founder & CEO of WebRadar, on how WebRadar can be used to identify sources, collect content, and provide tools to monitor and analyze digital media.

To watch other presentations from the FW: Elections Un/Conference please click here or visit our YouTube channel.

To find other presentations from the un/conference, please visit our Speaker Deck.

Souktel: Leveraging Mobile Technology to Give Citizens a Voice During Elections

Watch Leila Dal Santo, Community Project Manager of Souktel present on how this platform can be used as a tool for election monitoring through the use of SMS/IVR technology.

A presentation by Leila Dal Santo, Community Project Manager of Souktel about how this platform can be used as a tool for election monitoring through the use of SMS/IVR technology.

To watch other presentations from the FW: Elections Un/Conference please click here or visit ourYouTube channel.

To find other presentations from the un/conference, please visit our Speaker Deck.