Posted 15 February, 2012 by Susannah Vila

The Nascent Role of the Crowd in Electoral Monitoring

As we move into a new year – with a host of elections on deck – there’s no better time than the present to investigate whether or not hype around the use of mapping tools to crowdsource electoral monitoring can be distinguished from impact.

First, let’s get our terms straight. What’s the difference between election monitoring, election observation and citizen reporting? All involve the collection of reports from voting centers in order to instill public confidence in the democratic process. All often employ tech in some way (especially to take in, organize and distribute reports).  But the first two, roughly synonymous, gather reports from trained observers instead of average citizens. They denote a systematic and professionalized campaign to collect, organize and act on verified reports.  Most citizen-driven crowdsourcing efforts falls into the category of  citizen reporting, which is, as wrote last year:

useful to provide an impression of an election as experienced by voters and is a way to engage citizens in the election and manifest those impressions visually in close-to-real time…[but not] the same as the large-scale, multi-level process of election monitoring. Citizen reporting is not representative or standardized and thus can not serve as a trusted source about the conduct, validity or fairness of an election.

While there is clearly a difference between official and non official efforts, the reality is that most elections do spur informal endeavors. It’s worth, then, taking a look at the impact of such citizen reporting (or crowdsourcing…I’m using the two interchangeably here). What is – and more importantly, what can be – the role of the crowd in electoral monitoring?

At their best, crowdsourced efforts have two potential consequences. One, they can engage new citizens with the democratic process. Two, they can strengthen civil society by facilitating coalition building among formerly disparate organizations – and even the formation or growth of new ones. A good example of this is in Mexico, where a strong civil society landscape that was marked by established, institutional electoral monitoring organizations formed mutually beneficial partnerships with new kids on the block like Cuidemos el Voto.

If informal citizen reporting on elections can serve as helpful foundations on which more systematic programs can be built, then why, by and large, aren’t they? The impact of the crowd on electoral monitoring has to date been lackluster because the crowds simply aren’t big enough. Recent efforts have, notwithstanding the amount of international media attention many have garnered, been unable to collect a critical mass of reports from average citizens. Take a look at some of them:

Cuidemos el Voto: 1200 reports Sudan Vote Monitor 257 reports
Vote Report India: 203 reports Sharek 11 (Lebanon) 207 reports
Vote Report PH: 654 reports Burma Election Tracker 535 reports
Liberia 2011: 5673 reports Kyrgyzstan 2976 reports
Shora 2012 (Egypt): 56 reports U Shahid (Egypt): 2700 reports
Getting a critical mass of reports is a hefty challenge, but it’s also only the first one. Next, citizens have to tackle questions like: How can they turn each report into actionable information instead of mere red dots on a map? How can they forge strong feedback loops between citizens reporting information and the people who are tasked with acting on this information? If, after all, you reported something and never heard what  (if anything) was done with it, why would you report anything else?

The lessons learned in response to these questions should be collected, coordinated and distributed in a targeted way if we want the role of the crowd in electoral monitoring to evolve. As David Sasaki, who formerly headed up the Tech for Transparency research project at Global Voices, put it:

“multilateral and civil society organizations focused on election monitoring organize an international event to bring together the coordinators and technologists behind the various online election monitoring websites we have listed above to share experiences and prepare improved documentation for future implementations.”

Another hopeful trend is the increased frequency of merged formal/informal electoral monitoring efforts – this way, casual advocates can get more trained on important things like verification of citizen reports, and both groups can built a coalition together that will have a better chance of engaging more people and producing data that, because its verified, can be acted on. NDI has, I’m told, done this recently in Uganda and Nicaragua.

When Ushahidi, generally the most used and well known tool for citizen reporting, first began to generate buzz, it made sense that the novelty of average citizens engaging in advocacy for transparent, accountable electoral processes drew a lot of press. Now, however, shouldn’t we expect more from crowdsourced election reporting than just novelty?

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