During the 2008 U.S. elections, voters were drawn to an array of data-rich websites to get raw information about the campaign. This thirst for unfiltered news reached Afghanistan during this week’s tense and high-stakes presidential elections.
A volunteer project called Alive in Afghanistan has been tracking developments on the ground through user-generated reports that are displayed as links on a digital map of the country. A website allows humanitarians, peacekeepers or everyday people to report via cellphone or laptop on what’s happening in real time. In the digital world, this concept is known as “crowdsourcing.”
The technology behind this site is built by Ushahidi, a Kenyan nonprofit that developed a user-generated reporting system in the violent aftermath of the country’s presidential elections in late 2007.
Subsequently, Ushahidi’s technology has been used to document the humanitarian crisis in eastern Congo, war in the Gaza Strip, and outbreaks of swine flu around the globe. It has also been used to publicly monitor elections in India and in Mexico.
Another website, called GeoCommons, displays information on Afghanistan’s unfolding presidential elections, including security concerns and 2004 presidential election results by province. GeoCommons, which allows users to create their own online maps to store, organize and share geographic data, also picks up reporting feeds from Alive in Afghanistan’s site.
The growing importance of social media
Online hubs like GeoCommons can be valuable communication tools where traditional media channels are being censured by government or nonstate actors. In Iran, for instance, social media sites like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube carried messages from opposition supporters during a massive government clampdown following the June 12 presidential elections.
These Web pages are, of course, only as reliable as the people submitting data. In tense political situations, inaccurate or misleading information can be spread on crowdsourcing sites.
Then again, it may be possible to cross-check information posted by multiple users. And some systems, like the one created by Ushahidi, allow users to rate the accuracy of information posted by others.
Some of the data on the GeoCommons Afghan elections page were made available through the U.S. Agency for International Development’s Global Development Commons initiative, which aims to use Web technology to share information about international development with a broad audience. Other data comes from the United Nations Development Program and other aid organizations.
USAID has allowed the use of its name and data. The agency is “informally partnering” but there “are currently no formal funding linkages” between the agency and the partnering groups, said a Global Development Commons staff.
From idea to implementation
The mapping project began as an initiative of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Fab Lab. A hard drive was set up in Jalalabad, the capital capital of Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province, where people could come by and upload data, said a source familiar with the project.
A U.S. company, Fortius One Inc., created the GeoCommons online community mapping site.
The firm donated hard- and software to Synergy Strike Force, a technology volunteer group, according to Sean Gorman, CEO and founder of Fortuis One. Other software was provided by OpenStreetMap, a mapping site hosted by University College London; Stamen, a design firm; and Development Seed, a technology nonprofit. Internet firm Google has donated a fusion computer server.
“Some of the technologies have formal partnerships, but the spirit is working together to provide better technology for humanitarian support,” Gorman said. “The idea is to build it, solve a problem, then put it out there for folks to use and provide feedback.”
SSF and Development Seed did a test run of a mobile reporting system during a disaster response exercise at Camp Roberts, a U.S. Army National Guard base in California. The exercise for local and international emergency and first responders was coordinated by Star-Tides, a nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between business, civil-society and government stakeholders for relief and development work.
Volunteers from SSF are now on the ground in Afghanistan to help collect, share and disseminate local data onto the GeoCommons site, according to USAID. Anyone can submit data by sending a text message to +93-79-404-0569.
By election night, Aug. 20, more than 200 user reports had been posted to the Alive in Afghanistan site, including one titled ”Jalalabad - Ballot Stuffing” from an anonymous “poll worker.” GeoCommons carries additional statistics and reports from the field.