African Elections project has just concluded another successful election coverage with the deployment of a Social Media Tracking Center (SMTC) during Ghana's just ended general election held on Friday, 7th December. The SMTC run for a total of 10 days and nonstop over the 72-hour period from voting to the eventual announcement of the winner.
A group of student volunteers from the Meltwater Entrepreneurial School of Technology (MEST) staffed the center along with teams from Penplusbytes, Georgia Tech, and EnoughisEnough. Penplusbytes and the African Election Project, with funding and technical support from DFID, organized and managed the Ghana SMTC.
The Ghana SMTC is the culmination of a process that grew out of Nigeria's national elections in 2011, where a coalition of Nigerian CSOs led by Enough is Enough, teamed up with the Yar'Adua Foundation, Harvard's Berkman Center, MIT's Center for Civic Media, Georgia Tech's Technology and International Development Lab to successfully deploy an SMTC.
The technology at the middle of Ghana's SMTC was the Aggie social media tracking software, developed at Georgia Tech. For Ghana's election, Penplusbytes identified social media sources from Twitter, Facebook, Ushahidi, and individual blogs, which were streamed in real time to Aggie. The entire SMTC team then brainstormed an initial list of keywords relevant to the election that Aggie could pick up from these social media source feeds. As the election and subsequent vote tabulation carried on, sources and keywords were added or revised based upon activity. Any mention of a keyword across these sources would then appear as a real time report. Analyzing and visualizing the populated reports, Aggie then identified trends. Trends were grouped into broad categories such as: Biometric Verification, Delayed Logistics, Violence, Political Parties, Riots, Long Queues etc. The SMTC team watched what was trending and could quickly detect possible election irregularities or occasions of violence that warranted further attention; these reports were then categorized as incidents.
Before the start of the elections a cadre of 40 student volunteers from MEST went through a crash-course training on Ghana's election dynamics and landscape, elections observations and operations of the SMTC including the Aggie software.
The SMTC was operated with a center supervisor and three teams looking at different phases of the same continuum. One team of MEST volunteers was tasked with scanning through the trends and identifying and categorizing critical reports as incidents. Another team then went to work on verifying these incidents to test their veracity and confirm any necessary details. A final group of volunteers and managers then communicated verified incidents to relevant stakeholders either for action or further verification. Penplusbytes also placed embeds at Police Headquarters, the Coalition of Domestic Election Observers (CODEO), the Ghana Media Center, and the Electoral Commission and these embeds were the main point of contact, moving SMTC incidents into the hands of the relevant actors.
In all, more than a quarter-million reports were monitored by Aggie and nearly 350 incidents logged. While many of the reports featured large trends, such as problems with some of the biometric voter verification technology, a significant number of the incidents related to singular events that had escaped the attention of the traditional media, police, or electoral commission were also logged by the system. Such SMTC incidents, which ranged from information on closed polling places to occasions of violence, were followed up directly by the relevant Ghanaian authorities.
In just one example during the morning of the election, trending social media reports revealed chaos and a halt to voting at a particular polling place in Accra, the apparent result of misunderstanding as people jumped the voting queue. Working with police personnel SMTC embeds were able to alert the National Elections Security Task Force who sent a re-enforcement team to the particular polling station to restore order whereupon the voting exercise continued peacefully.
Penplusbytes is in the process of going through a systematic debrief and analysis of the SMTC in Ghana in order to produce a full report, with the hope that this technology and underlying process can be refined and improved for easy deployment in future elections and beyond.