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EXCLUSIVE: Kenyan-developed software raises hope for credible polls


NAIROBI – THE era of weakened democracy systems characterised by the intimidation of journalists, banning of public gatherings, speech and dissent as well as increased censorship and illegal surveillance particularly on critics of incumbents is becoming a thing of the past thanks to an innovation by Kenyan inventors.

Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) aims to prevent scenarios such as media blackouts witnessed in Uganda during the recent inauguration of President Yoweri Museveni, elected following a disputed election, as well as the media crackdown in politically-troubled Egypt.

Ushahidi, developed as geo-mapping software to pinpoint violence during Kenya’s disputed 2007-08 presidential elections, has evolved into a highly advanced open software provider and to date, the organisation has made possible the creation of more than 60 000 maps detailing environmental issues, elections and human rights abuses in 159 countries, reaching over 20 million people after over 90 000 deployments in over 31 languages.

“Ushahidi has helped make elections more transparent, helped save lives during crises and helped bring attention to serious human rights issues such as the abuse of women or the violence in Syria,” said Ushahidi Chief Operating Officer Nathaniel Manning.

The technology addresses such challenges as voting booths running out of ballots, faulty machines and corrupt electoral officials tricking voters. Such information can be picked up and relevant authorities alerted.

He revealed the technology, used in Benin where reputable elections were held in March, would be used in the upcoming elections such as Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and Kenya.

While elections in the DRC are set for November but are shrouded in uncertainty, Kenyans will hold polls in August 2017.

DRC engulfed in a political crisis after the emergence of prominent politician and businessman Moise Katumbi to challenge Joseph Kabila for the Presidency, innovators will use Ushahidi to document atrocities in hard-to-reach areas such as the restive eastern parts of the country that often go unnoticed because of the lack of accessibility due to poor infrastructure and to the fact that fighting makes it too dangerous to get close for nongovernmental (NGOs) and international humanitarian organisations.

That is according Voix des Kivus, which piloted the programme in 2011.

Nathaniel said Ushahidi is an open source software as a service, meaning it is freely accessible.

Users can access it and install it on their own servers if they have technical capabilities.

“In short, the tool is free, but organizations pay us for value added service like ease of use, customization, and support,” said Nathaniel.

Ushahidi has also been used to monitor elections in Mozambique and Nigeria.

In the Journal of Information Technology and Politics by Catie Snow Bailard and Steven Livingston cited that the use of Ushahidi increased voter turnout in the 2011 Nigerian election by 8 percent.

“When you start to think about it running an election is an incredible logistical and legal feat. Hundreds of millions of people need to be able to go somewhere locally, cast their vote, and have them counted, all in less than 24 hours, and all in a trusted and transparent process. It’s herculean. And of course there are many vulnerable points for failure,” said Bailard.

Analysing the election held in Nigeria in 2015, when the opposition won polls for the first time since the advent of democracy in 1999, Liesl Louw-Vaudran, Consultant with the Institute for Security Studies, said while social media was critical in enhancing credible elections, Ushahidi had an edge over such media.

“Lively activity on social media also has a downside, however, with rumours of violence, cheating and slandering of opponents being rife on Twitter.

“This is almost impossible to control, but data-gathering software like Ushahidi, developed in Kenya, can serve to provide early warning of potential election violence,” said Louw-Vaudran.

– CAJ News





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