Cellphones Track Voting in Southern Sudan

Citizens report from remote places where international monitoring doesn't reach

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Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum's "This Week in Technology."

In Sudan, election officials are still counting the votes from this month's referendum on independence. The final tally won't be announced until February 14th, but based on ballots already counted, it seems certain that the predominantly Christian and indigenous southern Sudanese have voted almost unanimously to secede from the largely Arab north, a separation that will take place in July. The referendum was part of a peace agreement signed in 2005 between the Sudanese government and the Sudan People's Liberation Movement that ended a 22-year civil war.

Two million people died in that war, but the voting last week was remarkably peaceful, according to election monitors from the Carter Center—and a team of computer scientists in Texas, who kept a close watch on the voting process via the one technology that is ubiquitous in the Africa: cellphones. The Sudan Vote Monitor compiled and verified on-the-ground reports sent by text message or over the Internet. My guest today is Fareed Zein. He heads the technology committee for the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy, where he is also the project leader for the Sudan Vote Monitor. He joins us by phone from Houston, Texas. Fareed, welcome to the podcast.

Fareed Zein: Thank you, Steven.

Steven Cherry: Let's start with the text-messaging service monitoring. How did it work? People would text messages to a special phone number?

Fareed Zein: Yeah. So the way it works is that basically you provide one of two things: what's called a short code, which is a 4-digit number that people text to and they text basically whatever they want to say to this number. So that's called a short code, or alternatively, you provide what's called a long code, and that is an international number in case you're not able to secure a short code, and that has to be provided by the local telecom operator.

Steven Cherry: What happens once you receive all these reports?

Fareed Zein: So once you receive these reports they come into a central hub, so there is a back-end system that receives these systems. There's actually a company called Clickatell, which is based out of South Africa, that provides the aggregation of these messages, so they're the ones who provided us with the long code. And these messages come into their central computer, and then we have an account that we actually receive these messages. Then our team that's local—in-country—goes through, and they basically try to validate these reports, whether they're coming in through SMS or through the Web or through e-mail, so we have three ways to report. So they all come in through the central hub, and then the local volunteers who have knowledge of the area, they can go through and try and verify each one of these reports. If they're able to verify them, then they'll change the status from "unverified" to "verified," and that immediately gets posted out to the Google map. If they're not able to verify them, then they will leave them as unverified.

Steven Cherry: And then what happens after that?

Fareed Zein: So then once they're published, then they immediately show up in the Google map that shows the location of where this report came from. We also have a team of volunteers in the back end that do what's called geolocation. So if we get a report and we don't know exactly what city, then we try to geolocate it on the Google map, and that report usually about fits into a category. So we have categories that cover just about everything that you would want to know about from, you know, disturbances to violence to things that are going right. So once that's mapped into a category, it shows up in the Google map with the location and text and sometimes pictures, and just about everything that we can find. so people around the world who are monitoring or watching this are able to follow. And in the case of things like violence, for instance, obviously the idea here is that NGOs and authorities and people that are able to take action can immediately take action as they see necessary.

Steven Cherry: Looking at your Web site, it looks like you collected positive as well as negative reports, and in fact, most were very positive in this occasion. But there were several that described violence or arrests. Can you tell us about them?

Fareed Zein: Overall, you know, it was very peaceful. I was there myself, so I was in Juba on the ground and drove around and saw a lot of polling stations where people were very patiently waiting and no disturbances. And so some of these isolated places where these reports came from are really isolated cases.

Steven Cherry: Do you have any particular examples?

Fareed Zein: So there was an example obviously in the city of Abyei, which is one that, you know, most people were worried about where there were to be disturbances. This was highly reported by the BBC and other media organizations, and so that's one report that came in. Others were simple things like, you know, arrests of observers and a few things, but nothing compared to the incident in Abyei.

Steven Cherry: Now did this sort of crowd-sourcing monitoring turn up anything that the Carter monitors or the regular media outlets didn't pick up?

Fareed Zein: I would say that because it is crowd-sourcing, obviously the international observers are deployed at specific locations, so what this gives is it gives you the ability to complement what people are doing, such as the international monitors. Obviously, they can't be everywhere and they can't see everything. This gives the ability to average citizens, who are out there somewhere in the remote part of a city, to report about things as well as their own experiences. So this obviously gives a dimension that could not be covered by monitors, whether it be local or international.

Steven Cherry: Were the Carter Center monitors aware of the service, and were they prepared to change locations and go to a site if there had been multiple reports of violence, say?

Fareed Zein: No, the international monitors have a different sort of philosophy, if you will. They pretty much follow a very set strategy in terms of observing and then basically collecting all the data and then doing a final analysis and release their observations. So they're not really in the business of doing interim or real-time reports as such, so their focus is different than the focus of civil society organizations that we work through. So you know it's basically two different approaches, if you will.

Steven Cherry: Now I understand that there's an underlying technology platform—that you didn't build the system from scratch.

Fareed Zein: That's right. So the technology behind this is called Ushahidi. It's an open-source system that is developed by an organization called Ushahidi.com, and it's a great platform. It was started by a group of developers in Kenya after the elections in 2008 where violence broke out. And so there was basically a simple texting mapped into a Google map. And then later on it was developed by volunteers around the world, really, into this open-source system that's now available and has been used in many many instances, such as the earthquake in Haiti, or the floods in Pakistan, and other election events around the world. So this is the system that we have used, and we are supported obviously by the volunteers from Ushahidi.com that have done a fantastic job of supporting deployments around the world.

Steven Cherry: Very good. By the way, I understand that ushahidi is a Swahili word.

Fareed Zein: That's right, it's a Swahili word. It means "witness" and so obviously it's meant to convey that people are wanting to be witnesses to things that happen around the world, and in this case here, elections. So it's very appropriate and really describes what this is meant to be.

Steven Cherry: It really is very descriptive, and it's a wonderful service behind the word.

Fareed Zein: Indeed.

Steven Cherry: Thank you very much.

Fareed Zein: You're welcome, my pleasure….I do have one observation that if you don't mind changing the way that you describe the description, and this is just the way that I feel. There is a real—somewhat of a misunderstanding about the nature of the conflict. So in the description of the "south versus the Arab north," I would rather you just take the word "Arab" out and just call it the north.

Steven Cherry: Okay.

Fareed Zein: This is part of the reason why I got involved in doing this all along, is because it is important for people around the world to understand that there is really ethnicity differences, and there are people of all sorts of ethnicities in Sudan. It's a very—a lot of diversity. So it's not a simple "African versus Arab," "north versus south." So I just, I'm a little sensitive to that, and so I think it's better to leave the word "Arab" out.

Steven Cherry: Would it be fair to say the largely Muslim north?

Fareed Zein: That in itself is also not true, because there are Christians in the north as well—there are plenty, so that sort of boils down the division along religious lines where there are also lots of Muslims in the south as well.

Steven Cherry: So I'm just curious—how would you describe the—I mean, this country has had a civil war and it's going to split in two, so….

Fareed Zein: So that split is nothing unique to Sudan. It's actually a result of the colonial legacy that Sudan was left with that sort of drew an arbitrary line that divided Sudan into a north and south, so there is no such thing as a clear division between people. So there are people that belong to both parts. I personally, for instance, have family in both north and south, and this is just true of a lot of people. It's not a simple division between—it's an imaginary line, to be honest with you, between north and south.

Steven Cherry: Okay. It's going to be a real line pretty soon.

Fareed Zein: Well, it's going to be a real line if they can agree to the borders, which is the actual challenge that's coming up ahead. Hopefully, it will go peacefully.

Steven Cherry: Yeah, I was going to say—are you guys going to monitor the separation as well?

Fareed Zein: Yeah. So the system that we put in place was really to anticipate what's going to happen post referendum, and so what we are doing is really supporting civil society organizations that are, you know, local civil society organizations. So we don't have our own people deployed; we partner with civil society organizations and they are committed to the country, obviously, and they'll be observing not just this vote but the following one and the actual process of creation of the new state. So we'll support them in the work that they do using technology.

Steven Cherry: Very good. Thanks again for your time.

Fareed Zein: Okay, Steven.

Steven Cherry: We've been speaking with computer scientist Fareed Zein about the Sudan Vote Monitor, a crowd-sourcing tool that gathered on the ground reports via text messaging during this month's referendum in southern Sudan. For IEEE Spectrum's "This Week In Technology," I'm Steven Cherry.

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