The Need for a Tech Election Monitoring Toolbox

Erik Hersman
Mar 5, 2010

This week in Nairobi has been "Election Monitoring" week due to the NDI/DFID meeting on Tue/Wed and the HIVOS meeting on Thur/Fri. Interestingly enough, both meetings heavily addressed the uses, or lack thereof, of technology in the election monitoring process. One of the ideas that hit me was the need for a toolbox of technical tools that could be used by election monitoring groups and citizens both before, during and after the elections.

Understanding the Framework

Most of us think of an election as an event, I did too. Koki Muli provided us a with a great framework to understand the election process as a whole, using this visualization for everyone to see that it is indeed a long-term process, not an event.

The Election Cycle

Throughout the days of talk, a lot of information was given about elections, and specifically election monitoring as a practice and how it actually goes down in the real world. I'm not an expert in election monitoring, so there was a lot of education for me, but putting on my technology hat I (and the other tech guys present) were able to come up with some ideas for tactical-level solutions that might be useful to these election monitoring groups.

Starting with the Issues

I don't have time to run through all of the issues, but here are a couple that have a technology component that could be created to help with them. Legal Framework The legal framework for elections starts many years before an election happens, but might be the most important element in an election (in a law-abiding state). These are high-brow activities, where law professors and legal experts write in a format that isn't easily understood by ordinary people. The question then is, how could this legalese be translated into a format that is digestable by normal citizens, and how could they then give feedback on what they think of these new laws? I'm already thinking of a tool that can be built for this, having a lot in common with (oddly enough) digital Bibles and how they allow multiple levels of commentary by readers and scholars. Election Monitors Registration of election monitors is not rocket science. Many times, the election monitoring groups get funds at the last minute and they go out and recruit anyone above a certain education level within the different constituencies. There is little vetting, some training, and no understanding of their values and ethics for when election day actually arrives. It's no surprise then that when election day comes, many of these election monitors turn out to be little more than party infiltrators, sometimes abusing the system worse than normal citizens. What tool can we build to support creation of a database of known election monitors, with full information about them, so that when irregularities or criminal activities are done by or with them that it can be tracked. Having a historical database of election monitors will allow for pattern mapping and even a blacklist for the civil society groups when they go out to find monitors for the next elections. Real-time Data Collection During the campaigning and the election day itself, it's possible to collect information on irregularities from both trusted/known sources (including media, government and civil society), but also from ordinary citizens in the Ushahidi-style of crowdsourcing from citizenry. This includes media monitoring as well as gathering of historical and demographic data so that real-time analysis can happen. Tools like Ushahidi and Managing News can be utilized here, this is what they are built for. The different types of news sources are complimentary, allowing layering of new, real-time data on top of demographic and historical election data.

Onto the Toolbox

These issues and challenges throughout the election cycle cannot be set up and deployed in the last few weeks or months if they are to be effective. We all need to sit down now, come up with the tactical and strategic-level tools that are needed and deploy them within the organizations who can best utilize them in the election process.

What tools can be built?

What tools exist already?

How can we create a toolbox that election monitoring groups, and citizens, can choose tech tools from and deploy?

Has this already been started somewhere else?

Add your thoughts and ideas in the comments below. Let's see if we can come up with some ideas, as technologists especially, of tools that can work in conjunction with one another to strengthen the election monitoring and the election cycle as a whole. Reinier Battenberg had a good slideshow with examples of where tools are needed at different parts of the election cycle. I'm including that here as well as food for discussion. (click the image to download his Powerpoint presentation)

10 applications for use in election monitoring

Finally, here's a list of election monitoring-specific tools we could think of, what would you add to it?



Managing News




SMS Reception Center

Budget Tracking (app by SODNET)

International SMS gateways (Clickatell, Intellisms, etc)

Swift River

SMS Turks


NDI's election monitoring tool (ASP based)



CMS tools (Drupal, Joomla, etc.)

Freedom Fone