19 March 2013

Kenya: How Technology Transformed Kenyans Into a Nation of Election Monitors

analysis

Kenya has so far avoided repeating the post-election violence of 2007/8. This is thanks to many factors, one of which being the use of popular technology and clever apps.

Two weeks ago, on 4 March, millions of Kenyans lined up to vote in the country's first national elections since the disputed poll of December 2007.

Back then, allegations of rigging triggered months of post-election violence in which 1,400 people were killed and half a million were displaced.

To the relief of many, this year's election has not seen a repeat of this inter-ethnic violence so far, and many have been attempting to examine why.

Some have pointed to the public calls for peace by candidates themselves; some credit the International Criminal Court's indictment of high-level figures implicated in the 2007/8 violence; some see the new constitution in 2010 which reformed electoral laws and reformed the judiciary as crucial; some thank Kenya's self-censoring media; and some see the ethnic coalition of presidential victor Uhuru Kenyatta and his running mate William Ruto as key.

The truth is no doubt that all those factors combined, alongside some other issues, contributed to the relative lack of violence. But one other crucial issue should also be credited: the use of technology.

As Angela Crandall, Research Manager at iHub Research and leader of the Umati project, told Think Africa Press, "much of traditional media became controlled by the state machinery [in 2007/8]. There was no way for the citizens to get the truth from the ground." Five years on, Kenyans made sure things were markedly different.

Beware the haters

Kenya has a mobile phone saturation rate of 93% and is famous for its innovative mobile applications such as mobile money platform M-PESA and agricultural apps iCow and M-Farm.

The widespread dissemination and use of technology in the county can be seen in Kenyans' considerable presence on global social media platforms and by the fact that the Twitter hash tag #KenyaDecides was trending worldwide on Election Day.

Tapping into this, technological innovations in 2013 helped foster civic participation, transparency, and accountability. Non-governmental initiatives bolstered the reporting process; while citizens across SMS, Twitter and the internet were involved in proactively disseminating information and messages of peace.

During the 2007/8 violence, Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, and David Kobia created Ushahidi ('testimony'), a platform that allowed Kenyans to report incidents of violence using their mobile phones.

The Ushahidi platform went on to be used around the world in various crisis situations and also formed the basis for the development of similar initiatives such as Umati ('crowd').

Umati is hate speech monitoring tool that started six months prior to the Kenyan elections in September 2012. According to Crandall who heads the project, Umati aimed to "increase people's awareness of why speech is potentially dangerous and aims to give people guidance around what hate speech is".

Umati worked by aggregating potentially dangerous language then using human monitors (speakers of English, Kiswahili, Somali, and five local Kenyan languages) to search for instances of real hate speech.

Once found, cases were categorised as 'offensive', 'moderately dangerous', or 'extremely dangerous' based on their potential to incite violence.

Umati then countered such messages through various means such as the Twitter hash tag #NipeUkweli ('give me the truth') which was aimed at educating citizens on how to combat hate speech, and the dissemination of online and printed materials detailing how to document, deal with, and debunk messages of hate.

The truth will out

However, when an 'extremely dangerous' or 'critical incident' dialogue was identified, the incident was forwarded to another platform: Uchaguzi. Uchaguzi ('election') is an IT platform which enables collaboration among citizens, civil society organisations, election observers, law enforcement, and humanitarian agencies in monitoring the election process and any incidents in real time.

By encouraging citizens to monitor events via their mobile devices, Uchaguzi promoted transparency and accountability. Under the motto "Protect your vote", the platform encouraged citizens to take control and hold officials and politicians accountable.

Anyone could become involved either through reporting or volunteering directly as members of 'digital humanitarian teams' in which individuals were trained to process reports.

These reports were submitted via SMS, Twitter, mobile apps, email, or directly through the Uchaguzi website where the reports were filed.

On-the-ground civil society partners then attempted to verify the reported incidents. This helped prevent online rumours from running rampant, and allowed vigilant citizens and organisations to immediately address misinformation.

In vast numbers, Kenyans proactively reported irregularities, local polling and security conditions, positive events, and other information.

Another initiative that promoted peace was PeaceTXT Kenya. PeaceTXT Kenya worked by sending SMS messages to people living in areas where altercations or other incidents were reported.

Safari.com, Kenya's largest mobile service provider, donated 50 million free messages to the service. The tailored messages were sent directly to subscribers in identified communities, emphasising the need to maintain community cohesion and concluding with the phrase "Tudumishe amani!" ("Let's keep the peace!").

While these were relatively low-level initiatives that operated at local levels using ordinary citizens from tech-savvy urban elites to rural farmers, the effect they made in contributing to an environment of transparency and accountability cannot be under-emphasised.

They played an unquantifiable though undoubtedly significant role in engaging millions in a movement promoting peace, and involving them in mutual processes of information-gathering, knowledge dissemination and mutual monitoring.

As Crandall notes, "there is still the need to continue strengthening Kenyan civil society". But for now, Kenyans can be relieved and proud of the fact that the violence of 2007/8 has so far not been repeated, thanks in no small part to the citizens who, armed only with mobile phones, served their country as election monitors and peacekeepers.

Amendment note 19/03/13: the second and final paragraph have been slightly amended to reflect the fact the post-election period is ongoing.

S.I. Stone is a development professional currently based in Nairobi, Kenya.

Her career has covered the fields of international politics, security, and development, and has spanned from think-tanks to international organizations on several continents. Follow her on Twitter @LaneyStone.

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