I spent last week in Senegal at a board meeting for Open Society Foundation, meeting organizations the foundation supports around the continent. Two projects in particular stuck in my mind. One is Y’en a Marre (“Fed Up”), a Senegalese activist organization led by hiphop artists and journalists, who worked to register voters and oust long-time president Abdoulaye Wade. (I wrote about them last week here, and on Wikipedia.)
Documentary on OSIWA’s Situation Room project in Senegal, featuring Y’en a Marre
The other is a project run by Open Society Foundation West Africa – OSIWA – with support from partners in Senegal, Liberia, Nigeria and the UK. It’s an election “situation room”, a civil society election monitoring effort that focuses less on declaring elections “free and fair” than on reacting quickly to possible violence, mobilizing community leaders as peacemakers. OSIWA’s method has been used in Nigeria and Liberia, as well as in the Senegalese election where Y’en A Marre was such a powerful actor, as portrayed in the documentary above.
Elections are a moment where civil society often shines. Holding elections has become a major priority for governments, bilateral aid organizations and civil society organizations, and there’s been a good deal of creativity around monitoring elections using parallel vote tabulation and social media monitoring.
But elections don’t always equal development, or even a democratic process. Economist Paul Collier notes that elections in very poor nations often spark violence, and sees evidence that 41% of elections are marred by significant fraud. Elections work, Collier tells us, when governments are evaluated on their performance, not on their propensity for patronage. Citizens need to watch whether governments keep their promises, and oust those that don’t measure up. (See MorsiMeter, developed to monitor the first 100 days of Morsi’s presidency of Egypt.)
One question colleagues and I had for the remarkable activists at Y’en A Marre was what they were planning to do now that Wade had been ousted and Macky Sall elected. The bloggers and journalists I spoke to had a number of answers that centered on ensuring the Sall government benefits the rural poor and helping Senegal reduce dependence on international food suppliers. While it’s great to see activists thinking about macroeconomics, it was also clear that the intense focus of the movement – ousting a president who’d overstayed his constitutional mandate – had significantly dissipated, and that new foci hadn’t generated the same energy amongst the hundreds of community leaders who make up the Y’en A Marre movement.
I was thinking about this question – what do election-focused movement do once an election is over? – when I stumbled on this paper from colleagues and friends at Columbia’s Earth Institute. The Columbia team document a system they’ve built for government-hired enumerators in Nigeria, who are using mobile phones equipped with cameras and GPS to conduct a census of the nation’s essential infrastructure: boreholes (wells), schools, health clinics, etc. The teams rapidly mapped over a quarter million points of data, one of the larger extant sets of information on the Nigerian government’s efforts at service delivery.
As the Columbia authors explain, mapping using mobile phones is less a clever gimmick than a technical necessity – make a map with paper surveys and you’re transferring long GPS coordinates by hand. A simple application that stores a GPS reading, a picture and a human report allows for a large set of “human sensors” to rapidly build a data set.
People involved with the Columbia project have worked on version of this idea that are more expressive – Matt Berg (who took over some of the Geekcorps work I’d helped start in Mali) worked with a nonprofit in Kolkata to help children map trash and public health issues in their neighborhoods, overlaying data on maps they’d drawn by hand of their home communities. And other projects have focused on helping communities map their infrastructures and needs through a combination of digital and analog means, notably Map Kibera, which has worked to create accurate maps of one of Nairobi’s largest slums.
It strikes me that a major opportunity for groups like Y’en A Marre to remain active between elections is to take on a role as citizen monitors. If the key to a successful democracy is a government that delivers services and is elected based on its performance, then documenting whether campaign promises get met is a critical step towards responsive government. In most African nations where I’ve worked, campaign promises center primarily on building infrastructures: “Name me to Parliament and I will ensure we’ll have 20 new primary schools and clean water in every village.” Citizens need to be able to verify those claims. Even in developed nations, those are hard claims to verify – ProPublica memorably turned to crowdsourcing to determine whether US federal stimulus money was being put to work, or sitting in local government coffers. (Most of it was put to work quite quickly.) If it’s hard to understand the local impacts of federal spending in the US, it’s really hard in nations that have a weak press, a culture of government secrecy or little ability to collect on the ground data.
I’d like to find ways to help groups like Y’en A Marre, Enough is Enoughhttp://eienigeria.org/ and others collect and share data, creating open data sets useful to activists, journalists, governments and the development community. The same data could help governments document their successes, journalists monitor government spending and activists demand equitable resource distribution in their communities. I can imagine projects that incorporate low-cost CO sensors that talk to phone to monitor vehicular and cooking stove pollution; projects that invite people to document their favorite and least favorite parts of their cities and villages; projects that enlist broad cooperation by compensating participants for their time with mobile phone minutes, as Esoko does to collect agricultural market information. Other monitoring projects could focus on rapid response. My friend Tunde Ladner of Wangonet began a project in Lagos that encouraged people to report dangerous construction underway, a critical dataset that would demand quick response to protect against building collapse.
I’m thinking about putting some of Center for Civic Media’s resources towards exploring this idea, probably first in Nairobi with friends at Ushahidi and the iHub. If you have ideas about partners, about questions to explore, pushback on the concept of citizen monitoring, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.