SMS to Help Monitor Elections in the Arab World

Cairo — Civil society organisations in Egypt and Tunisia are investigating quicker, more effective ways of monitoring elections using text messaging (SMS).

Tunisia is expecting an election in six months, and the Egyptian government has promised to hold a presidential election "very soon".

In one new system tested in three African countries, SMS monitoring is carried out by hundreds of observers who send a stream of coded reports from polling stations via text messages from their mobile phones. The information is fed into a "situation room" where it is converted into a map that automatically updates as more data are added. Where problems are spotted, officials can be alerted.

The map uses symbols to represent real-time information on, for example, where poll centres have not opened, whether they are fully staffed, lack security personnel, or where there are instances of intimidation or misconduct of officials. The system can also keep track of vote tallies.

After hundreds of volunteers used SMS messages to monitor voting in Senegal last year, the Coalition of Civil Society Organisations for the Elections (COSCE) issued a statement confirming that the official tallies "faithfully reflect the will expressed at the polls during the second round of voting in the presidential election".

Such statements "are critical for ensuring that losing candidates are not able to exploit unfounded rumors and suspicions to inflame tensions," says Jeffrey Allen, of the London-based NGO OneWorld.

The mobile phone election monitoring technology developed by his organisation has been used in Mali – reporting from 1,730 polling stations – as well as Senegal and Sierra Leone.

Allen says the technology will again be deployed in the second round of Mali's legislative elections in December.

He emphasises that his organisation's 'rapid reaction platform' improves observer response times. In the past, teams have sometimes taken weeks to submit their reports, whereas this technology updates instantaneously and enables monitors to focus on particular issues that are considered likely to arise.

"Civil society networks can take action to remedy problems on election day as well as informing the public immediately about the trustworthiness of the election. This helps minimise corruption, but also to help ensure that elections are judged on their real merits, rather than on anecdotal evidence or rumours," he says.

Arab countries have limited experience in this type of monitoring, says Nizam Assaf, president of the Election Network in the Arab Region based in Amman, Jordan.

"It would provide an instant view of how elections are being conducted, and increase public trust in the polling process," Assaf tells SciDev.Net.

Michael Baldassaro, innovation director at the US-based consultancy firm Democracy International, also welcomes the technology.

"The use of information and communications technologies such as mobile phones, smartphone apps, and data visualisation platforms can significantly enhance election observation efforts by increasing the speed, efficiency, and impact of communications," Baldassaro says.

In March 2013 Democracy International organised a conference in Tunisia for election entrepreneurs, monitoring groups and technology developers to promote innovative approaches and tools to safeguard elections.

In 2009 the Lebanese Association for Democratic Elections was reportedly the first election observation group in the Arab world to use SMS messaging to collect reports from the field.

The group deployed more than 1,700 trained volunteers to report from polling stations and encouraged ordinary citizens to use SMS, e-mail and Twitter to report incidents.

In 2011 real-time monitoring was used during the Tunisian national constituent assembly elections by the US-based nonprofit National Democratic Institute (NDI).

"Observer groups in Egypt and Tunisia have also emerged as innovators in the use of technology, particularly because of the tech-savvy populations and strong social media culture," NDI's senior programme officer Meghan Fenzel tells SciDev.Net.

"More interactive visualisation and mapping of the findings was added to the electronic monitoring to share with the broader public throughout the entire election cycle," she says.

Rehab Abd Almohsen currently holds an IDRC/SciDev.Net science journalism internship award.