Thursday, November 11, 2010

Monitoring Guinea's Election from Laptops in New York

In the West African nation of Guinea, officials are still counting ballots in a very close run-off election for President. This vote could transform Guinea into a democracy after decades of dictatorial rule. And here in New York, a group of international volunteers called Alliance Guinea has found an unusual way to support the country's transition. They have asked Guineans to use their cell phones to send a text if they experience an election-related problem. And they are mapping the results at

It's the Guinean equivalent of, "If you see something, say something." But there, the official language is French. So the public information campaign in Guinea was this: Je vois et j'envois. I see and I send. 

"Je vois, if I see something, j'envois a text, an smsm, to the sytem," said Jennifer Swift-Morgan while taking a break from her day job raising money for Columbia University's Earth Institute.

Anyone in Guinea observing voting problems -- or successes -- can send a text that goes to the Alliance's Web site. Then the Alliance's members use a crowdsourcing program called Ushahidi to sort through and map the responses on a public Web site. Ushahidi was created in the violent aftermath of Kenya's 2007 election to track incidences of violence on a Google map.

Guinean graduate student Al-Houssaine Bah helped start Guinea's election monitoring project here in New York. On a recent visit to Swift-Morgan's office to talk about how the effort is going, he explained, "When you live outside the country, it's easier for you to fight." Bah said when he left Guinea in 2006, this project would not have been possible, and not just because of an oppressive government. Guinea is rich in minerals, such as bauxite and iron. But most of the people are poor. "It was very difficult to have cell phones in Guinea," Bah said. 

In 2010, people are still poor, but Bah said more have cell phones than don't. And the five service providers in Guinea even agreed to promote the vote-monitoring project: they sent texts to all customers encouraging them to participate.

Alliance Guinea got a $13,000 dollar grant from the U.S. State Department through the Embassy in Guinea, but that went mostly to technology, billboards and banners, and radio and television spots. The people running the Alliance are all volunteers. When Swift-Morgan took a break from work and stepped into a conference room with her laptop, she found other volunteers already logged in, on computers in France, Albuquerque and Philadelphia.

The voting was Sunday and international monitors have said it went relatively smoothly, but Swift-Morgan says she's still getting some allegations of fraud. Reading from a text message about allegations of ballot-stuffing, she said in one village someone claimed you could buy a blank ballot, fill it out, and put it into the ballot box ahead of time.

The Guinean Alliance was born a year ago, after a pro-democracy rally in Guinea resulted in a government massacre of more than 150 people. A 2009 Human Rights Watch report said security forces opened fire on tens of thousands of opposition supporters at a stadium in the capital and sexually assaulted dozens of women.

Al-Houssaine Bah was here in New York, and planning a protest at the UN the same day, September 28.

"At 8 in the morning, I'm leaving my house," he recalled. "They called me, they said, oh, they killed many people in Guinea."

Swift-Morgan says the next day everyone was calling each other.  "We just said, we've got to do something," she said. Swift-Morgan was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guinea ten years ago and continues to do research there. With Bah, she and other Guineans and non-Guineans started the Alliance to support the fight for democracy in Guinea. Their aim: to help ensure a free and fair election. "That's why the people died," Swift-Morgan said. "They sacrificed themselves so there would be democracy in Guinea." 

Guinea's elections this year have been plagued by violent conflict. The two main candidates are from different ethnic groups, and the campaigns have played up their differences. So suspicion between the groups is common. 

Between the general election in May and the run-off on Sunday, Guineans have texted more than 20,000 messages to the Guinean Alliance's Web site. Some accuse their opponents of fraud. But many of the messages have been positive. Another core Alliance member, Raul Rothblatt, says he wishes those had gotten more attention.

"I mean it's not exciting to talk about, 'oh nothing really happened here,'" he said after a check in with Swift-Morgan. "People are feeling kinda good," he said, "that's not very newsworthy."

Some of the texts cannot be mapped.  They may be love-letters to the Project's Guinean spokesperson, Ms. Guinea. Some are expressions of gratitude for being able to vote, or plugs for one candidate or another. It is the job of about 30 dedicated volunteers around the world to sort through the messages and map the 5 percent or so that actually identify a specific observation in a specific place. On election day, Rothblatt says, Alliance Guinea volunteers were able to tell their team members in Guinea's capital, Conakry, about specific problems and get them fixed.

In one district there weren't enough ballots, someone texted. The team in Conakry verified, and Guinea's electoral commission delivered more. In other areas, Swift-Morgan says, there were reports of tampering -- again verified and corrected by an electoral commission delegate. 

Swift-Morgan uses Skype to call her project coordinator in Conakry and try, on a fuzzy line, to arrange a steering committee conference call to plan their next move. With votes still uncounted in Guinea and the race very close, the Guinean Alliance is figuring out how to address the next challenge: what happens when the results are announced. 

"Either way, the losing side is going to react," Swift-Morgan said. "So that's what we're bracing for. We're hoping for the best, and we're bracing for the worst." The worst would be outbreaks of violence, and Swift-Morgan said she wants to make sure the site is able to carefully monitor any conflict, via text messages from Guinea's citizens.

Swift-Morgan and her team have decided to ask the country's cell phone companies to send out another mass text message, this one asking cell phone users to text if they see any instances of violence after results are announced. Al Houssaine Bah has been hoping the Alliance's civilian vote-monitoring project will ultimately help Guineans accept the election's outcome. "The best way is to show them here if you lose it's because people don't vote for you," he said. "If you win, it's that you have the majority of the population who voted for you."

Members of the Alliance Guinea say they can always use more help from anyone with an interest in promoting democracy, a computer and a little French. And they say, strangely enough, it often helps that many of their members are not from Guinea themselves. Bah said Guineans resist the idea that any of their countrymen, coming from one or another of the rivaling ethnic groups, can be politically neutral. But when Swift-Morgan reaches out to Guineans, she said, they are not so skeptical. "They don't question our motives," she said. "They know that we're not trying to get a job. We're doing it because we believe in it and want to provide this service."

Alliance Guinea is dreaming up ways to use crowd-sourcing technology in the future, maybe to monitor the delivery of public services as Guinea's democracy gets started. Or maybe the group can help track corruption, though Swift-Morgan predicted that would be tricky. Their plan, she said, is to ask the Guinean people: 'This is a tool. How would you like to use it?'


No comments:

Post a Comment