Elections are important to Ushahidi

Angela Oduor Lungati
Mar 7, 2018

“A man without a vote is man without protection.” - Lyndon B. Johnson

The bedrock of any democracy is elections. However, recent outcomes of elections around the world have planted seeds of doubt in credibility, and it seems that democracy is on trial.  

In 2017, Venezuelans took to the streets following a decision to hold Constituent Assembly elections, despite criticism and indications that this would escalate tensions in a country that had been marred by protests and a constitutional crisis following the death of Hugo Chavez. The international community has refused to recognise the outcome and decisions from the Constituent Assembly.

Similarly, violence broke out after the Honduras General Election in November 2017. Opposition candidate, Salvador Nasralla claimed election fraud and called his supporters to take to the streets.

A protestor walks through a burning barricade in Honduras. (Photo | AP)

Some people don’t see the point in participating anymore, because there’s dwindling trust in the process. Lauren Tracy-Temba, a researcher with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) conducted a study to better understand what influences the decision to vote (or not) amongst young South Africans.

“The participants said that politics is full of corruption and self enrichment, and they see no reason why they should be interested in it, as they gain nothing from politics and voting.”

More studies have been conducted across the globe, such as by the Mandela Institute of Development Studies(MINDS), across 8 african countries, and James Sloam, looking into political participation of young people in the European union. The findings are unsurprisingly similar.

“Frustrated by lack of economic opportunities, young people have lost faith in political structures and processes. They have also lost faith in electoral processes in particular. Needless to say this last element could spell disaster as it implies that young people might, in their frustration, seek other ways of attempting to get the system to respond to their needs.”

Dr Nkosana Moyo, Founder and Executive Chair, MINDS

This is a pretty scary moment for human freedom - apathy and lack of trust in systems is breeding ground for chaos.

Students marching to protest outside ANC headquarters in South Africa (Photo | ENCA.com)

But I always remember a quote from Obama’s victory speech in 2012, saying that the role of citizens in any democracy does not end with a single vote. This speaks to citizens moving away from asking what can be done for them, and thinking about what they can do for themselves.

This is where we, as Ushahidi, jump in and try to infuse the system with trust, through technology.

We’ve been monitoring elections, since the inception of Ushahidi back in 2008. Ushahidi has been used in to monitor elections in India, Zambia, Mozambique, Nigeria, USA and many other countries over the last 10 years. Our strategy has evolved from being primarily reactionary, to proactively engaging with ordinary citizens and stakeholders to help foster transparency and accountability in elections across the world.

In 2008, the Ushahidi map was a response to a crisis, and the founders sought a way to give people affected by the crisis a voice.

Initial Ushahidi map, collecting info on the 2008 post election violence in Kenya

In subsequent years (the 2010 referendum, and 2013 general election), Uchaguzi (a customised version of the Ushahidi platform, specifically for election monitoring usecases), was set up as a strategy to prevent the widespread violence, death and destruction of property that occured in 2008 from happening again; Tapping into the collective intelligence of ordinary Kenyans, and empowering them to protect their own votes by sharing messages around the electoral process, and these getting escalated for response and action.

Volunteers in the Uchaguzi situation room in 2010, monitoring the Kenyan Constitutional Referendum in 2010
The Uchaguzi situation room at the iHub, monitoring the 2013 Kenyan General Elections: Photo credit & copyright David Sekiguchi 2013

In 2017, Kenya held elections, not once, but twice, in a span of three months. General elections were held on August 8th 2017. Presidential election results were declared null and void by a Supreme Court ruling in September 2017, following a petition by the opposition challenging the credibility of the results transmission process. The Supreme court annulled the presidential election, citing the Election Commission’s failure to conduct the elections in accordance with the constitution. A new presidential election was ordered to be held on October 26th, 2017.

Kenyan elections, in particular, hold a soft spot in our hearts. Ushahidi was born out of an electoral crisis, here in Kenya, and nearly half of our team is based in Kenya. Monitoring these recent elections was not optional; it was a personal responsibility for each and every one of us. And so, knowing full well the herculean effort it takes to run an election project with minimal resources (building partnerships, months of volunteer recruitment and training, simulations, software development and customization), we deployed Uchaguzi, in partnership with CRECO and Infonet, to help Kenyans protect their vote, both times.


I was privileged to work with amazing people, some of whom I get to work with on a daily basis in the same physical and virtual space (my colleagues), and others, who despite not being employed by Ushahidi, gave freely of their time and energy to monitor the Kenyan elections (the wider Ushahidi community and other Uchaguzi partners).

From Kenya, to Tanzania, Uganda, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Italy, Hungary, Ireland, Nigeria, India, USA, and Canada, it didn’t matter that all of us were not in the same physical space, or that we came from diverse cultural contexts. The effort involved over 150 volunteers, across more than 10 different countries. They woke up at odd hours of their mornings, and stayed up late at night to process thousands of reports received during both elections. We were all united in one cause: wanting everyone’s voice to be heard and for that voice to contribute to a peaceful and credible outcome.

Uchaguzi volunteers in our 2017 situation room

Projects like Uchaguzi, are the reason why I believe in the work I do at Ushahidi.

“Although at times stressful, I find myself in an online world filled with support and positivity. It’s such a stunning change from the acidic mudslinging associated with online politics today that it catches me off guard. Suddenly, I’m reminded that one individual is capable of making a difference; that the Internet can be a tool for mutual support; and that partnerships for social good make sitting at a computer and working with people around the world an experience filled with genuine humanity. It is an incredibly rejuvenating reminder”, Shadrock Roberts, Director of Resilience Programs Ushahidi.

It doesn’t matter that we’ve ran projects like these so many times before -- seeing the power that this platform has to rally people and bring them together at such a scale is something that will never get old for me.