The Ushahidi Liberia team was up with the sun to prepare for what may be the most anticipated day for Liberia in over five years – elections day. I’ve said it before, but it doesn’t get old: this is Liberia’s first democratic electoral process that has been run by the Liberian people. After a 14-year civil war, this progress is, as Liberians say, “no small thing.”
Ushahidi Liberia’s election instance has been up and running since December 2010, displaying reports from a dozen partner organizations working on the elections. The Ushahidi Liberia team has trained these partners’ trusted reporters to submit information about everything from security issues to polling station logistics to voter education activities. In addition, the map displays all the polling stations, senate and presidential candidates and political parties by county, making the map a one-stop shop for election information.
One of these partners is the Elections Coordinating Committee, a coalition of 30 election-related organizations monitoring the electoral process. The ECC planned to send 2,000 monitors into the field for the elections that would call in critical incidents and polling station logistics to a Monrovia data hub. Because iLab Liberia already had the facilities, ECC has moved in for a couple weeks and bolstered iLab with additional computers as well as doubling the VSAT Internet connection speed. Twenty data operators were hired and trained by ECC and iLab last week and showed up bright and early this morning to get started.
The word soon spread beyond the ECC, as we hoped it would, that iLab was ready and eager to support other election trackers. Throughout the day, Ushahidi and iLab hosted a variety of guests, including: journalists from Guinea unable to call their colleagues when rain intercepted the phone lines (we connected them to Skype and they got their story home); the BBC, NDI, OSIWA and the ECC who set up in iLab’s conference room for an impromptu briefing; a film crew from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation that streamed their elections broadcast from iLab’s balcony, a feat otherwise impossible in Liberia without an expensive portable satellite connection.
The Chief Information Officer for the United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) called Ushahidi Liberia in the morning, saying she noticed UNMIL’s senior leadership viewing the Ushahidi instance and wanted to know more. By the afternoon, Ushahidi Liberia was presenting the election instance and this conflict-tracking instance to the Elections Crisis Management Team. Afterwards, we got a glimpse of the Joint Elections Operations Center – UNMIL’s own elections hub – where UN peacekeepers watched a large monitor toggle between the latest information on Google Earth and the election instance.
Several ex-pat colleagues dropped by to volunteer and we sent them out into the field to check on critical incidents. We couldn’t help but give them these T-shirts – inspired by the great crowdsourcer Patrick Meier:
The elections instance received more than 70 messages from trusted reporters on election day, the majority of them describing long lines of patient voters and relative calm nationwide. Only a handful of messages indicated inconsistencies or tension – such as a political candidate accused of busing in and buying votes for her county, a later-refuted report of 18 new polling stations, and illegal campaigning. But for the most part, the day was remarkably peaceful according to our partners and UN colleagues – a promising sign that Liberians are indeed ready for lasting change.
When the sun set and the ballots were cast, the Ushahidi Liberia team grabbed our official observer badges and walked to a nearby polling station to watch the ballot counting. The polling station was dark except for the small LED lanterns in three separate rooms, giving just enough light to read the unfurled ballots. Polling staff carefully sorted each ballot among the 16 political parties, counting out-loud to an attentive audience. After sorting the ballots, some observers requested the two major political parties’ ballots be recounted, and the polling clerk dutifully did – one by one. As a few members of the audience started to nod off, another polling clerk spoke up, “this is a human being working, not a machine! We beg you, please be looking!” And that drove home the point – Liberia’s democratic electoral process is starting from the beginning, and is working because humans are working long hours in dark classrooms and churches to count the hand-marked and finger-printed ballot papers received via canoe and truck and hardy porters.
As I write this, sometime after 2am, iLab is buzzing with 20 ECC data operators taking calls and recording vote counts from the field, one station at a time. These are human beings working and, while there are some machines and technical tools like the Ushahidi platform involved, the most remarkable part of this process is the people committed to a peaceful outcome.