Web based election monitoring in Liberia: a failure

Usahidi LiberiaFor the past three days I have been following the coverage of the Liberia elections on liberia2011.ushahidi.com (the elections were held on 11 October). Unfortunately, I’m far from impressed. To be clear: this is not the fault of Ushahidi: After all, Ushahidi is just the technical platform and it is the responsibility of others to feed the system information, but it shows the limitations of crowdsourcing information.

In total, only 23 reports were submitted to the web platform on election day for all of Liberia. Many of these reports were of dubious news value such as “Not many voters left at Nancy Doe Market” or “Voters have already started arriving @E J Good Ridge High School waiting to cast their vote”. I would say that only seven of the 23 reports had any news value at all – but that might be a matter of personal opinion.

Misleading or fake reports?

The bigger issue is that a large number of reports were automatically posted on 11 October at 00:00 by the Elections Coordinating Committee (see an example here). All of them were marked as “verified” and included lines like: “Did the polling place open on time (08. 00 am): Yes” and “Did the counting start after polling closed: Yes”.

Obviously these reports are wrong: either, they really were published before the polls opened, in which case they are completely fabrications, or the posts were backdated, which is a serious mistake. In either case, it is confusing, hurts the credibility of the whole monitoring exercise and might even give rise to allegations of manipulation. For a project like this, that is a disaster. (Update: See response from Ushahidi in the comments section)

Finally, I noticed at least one report that was shown in a completely wrong location on the map, which ain’t great for a mapping project.

Where are the results?

On October 12, only two reports were posted to the platform. This shows how thin the network of contributors really is. While the results of many polling stations had already been posted on the doors of the local police stations, none of this information made it onto the web platform. Obviously, there were not enough monitors in the field to report that information.

No infrastructure, no crowd, no crowdsourcing

I had been very curious to see, how well the Ushahidi platform would work in a country with as limited an infrastructure as Liberia. Unfortunately the answer is: it doesn’t work.

The success of any crowdsourcing initiative depends on the size of the crowd. As I mentioned before, many Liberians don’t have mobile phones and even those who have one, frequently don’t have credit on the phone or the electricity to charge it, or they are living in one of the many areas which have no mobile phone reception. Of the remaining people, I doubt that many were even aware of the monitoring initiative.

Internet access is even rarer and for many people the concept of a web based monitoring platform must be something terribly abstract and not very relevant to their lives. All of this limits the size of the crowd almost exclusively to the nine partner organizations that were supposed to feed information to the platform. Some of these organizations, like UNMIL, would certainly have been able to contribute something of value. But in the end they didn’t – UNMIL for example did contribute a single report.

Last but not least, the low quality of maps of Liberia certainly posed an additional challenge for Ushahidi. Many villages, and even towns, simply cannot be found on Google Maps and most places, and even districts, can be spelled three or four different ways.

Potential versus reality

Don’t get me wrong: the potential for crowdsourced tools like Ushahidi is enormous. But in order to fulfill that potential, we have to take a critical look at what the problems are. Any database is only as good as the information that you put into it and in Liberia neither the quality nor the quantity were good enough. Admittedly, my perception would probably be slightly different if the polling station reports I mentioned above had been published after the polls closed and not before they even opened. But these things are important and those reports were even published as “verified”. However, none of that shouldn’t stop us from trying to do it better in 2017.

For the time being, let’s enjoy that everything been peaceful and hope that everything will remain calm.