Using Ushahidi to monitor and map misconduct in federal and municipal Mexican elections.
Cuidemos el Voto
Posted by SusannahVila on Apr 27, 2010
Mexico officially transitioned to democracy in 2000, when the long ruling PRI party lost to the PAN's Vicente Fox. The role of Mexican NGOs, as well as the independent commission called the IFE, was essential to this transition. Ten years later, civil society continues to play an essential role in the Mexican political landscape. But how clean are Mexican elections today? In advance of the 2009 contest, Oscar Salazer and Andres Lajous set out to answer this question for themselves.
Their implementation of Ushahidi, which was originally created to track post-election violence in Kenya, highlights the importance of both adapting this open source platform to the local context and partnering with established NGOs. By doing this, the project has not only empowered citizens to document the misconduct of politicians and parties, it's also provided official election monitoring agencies with actionable evidence that they can use in the court room.
The first one was credibility--the main issue was how to gain credibility and sell the idea to traditional NGOs who were reporting with pen and paper. We had to gain trust from them and not only implement the pilot but also the ideal that an average citizen can become their own police and supervise elections.
We observed a lot of the Ushahidi implementations, and [we knew] that we had to adopt the framework to Mexican society. The challenge was to think of the right branding. I know how mexicans think and we new that the luchador was going to really appeal. So to create this identity was a challenge, but I think it worked.
The first email I got was from a guy asking how he knows that I'm not a government agent that is going to track him down. I said, you're right, you dont know. And he was right, so this is why we partnered with well known NGOS that are accepted in Mexican societies that have been working on these transparency issues for the past 10 years. We also partnered with local industry and universities, and showed this prominently on the web page. This helped a lot and was a good way to overcome the distrust issue.
Another important obstacle was in remaining apolitical. I was approached by a political party that told me I want to buy your site. So we said go ahead it's public information, and they said no we want to use it just for ourselves-- because every single party in Mexico has their own network of official electoral observers--and we said no, we can't sell it, either you use it publicly or not at all. They ended up creating their own version of it.
We were reading a lot of reports saying that elections in Mexico were not corrupt anymore, and that everything was transparent and democracy's pretty cool. We wanted to find out if that was the case or not. But the main goal wasn't electoral observation, it was to engage mexican youth politically. We noticed that Mexican youth was not as engaged as it used to be in politics.
The lack of accountability in the Mexican system: people are getting tired of reporting anything because nothing happens. They say 'OK everything is corrupt, so if I complain or if I report it's not going to change anything.' So my assumption was, if I provide a platform where people can report and tag and map these reports, but also provide the necessary media to support these reports, maybe the authorities can do something about it. And we were right.
Besides my company in Mexico, I'm also a consultant for UNDP and the Inter American Development bank, on the subject of technology and governance. I found out about Ushahidi, I got in touch with Andres Lajous, my partner. We wanted to make something, but we weren't sure what, and then I told him that we could use Ushahidi to map and monitor elections, and so we decided to do it.
The government had been providing a hotline, but apparently three weeks before the election they had 0 calls, whereas our system had over 200 reports already.
Credibility. When you call a number and report something you don't know what happened to your report. With our project you see the map, the location, the video, the photos and the written testimony. This lack of accountability [regarding the government hotline] doesn't motivate average citizens to report.
One of the most infamous electoral crimes is the buying out of votes. But now the local government and political parties cannot pay cash anymore because budgets are well monitored by both local and national NGOs. So the way they get around it is to use social programs to buy votes. So for example with the Conditional Cash Transfer program, [politicians] say 'okay, if you want to receive this Conditional Cash Transfer next year, just remember that this is the party that is providing you with it.' So that's very hard to track. For example a lot of citizens got flyers with the logo of the party saying things like 'I know you are receiving this program so you should vote for our party so that you can continue receiving it.' Citizens took pictures of those photos and put them on the website. So they were documenting the buying of votes, which has been very hard to track.
Then the special prosecutor, a well known Mexican agency, then took these reports and made them official. It was the first time that the special prosecutor had taken into account citizen reports. So they used Cuidemos El Voto as one of the official content providers. We got a call from them saying they were interested in being part of what they were doing, so if you go to the webpage you will see their logo.
Another example is the spillover: that was the federal elections. This year local elections are happening . Civil society organized and they are launching local version of Cuidemos El Voto. So from now on you will see whats going on in the entire country at the main page, but it will be feeding from the local implementations. And on sub pages [i.e. puebla.cuidemoselvoto.org] you will see what's going on in local areas.
So this is civil society organizing students and universities and using the platform as a tool. So that was our main goal--we engaged people--students and mexican youth.
When Andres and I were involved we probably investing from 3 to 4 hours again during the course of a month. The developers probably invested about 1 week.
The training sessions that we give to civil society groups that are implementing the platform.
In Puebla for example, Cuidemos El Voto is an important platform but we are working alongside a movement organized by civil society called Activate Por Puebla. Basically civil society is tired of the current governor who has been involved in different scandals, from pedophilia to kidnapping a journalist, so civil society organized--and universities as well as the Confederation of Mexican employers--are participating. Industry, Academia and Citizens are working together, going to universities creating a Cuidemos el Voto booth, giving away flyers and t-shirts tuff like that. So they're already creating a media strategy plan to engage young Mexicans. We are working with them to launch the Twitter campaign soon, and to create widgets and other tools to inform people about why they should participate and how they can help. Capacity building is one of the biggest challenges and that what we are targeting right now.
I cannot say yet for sure, but I will say that Twitter is a very powerful tool. It's not as big in Mexico as we might think, but it's good to reach influencers [such as] important journalists. We started to Twitter and then we got interviews in mainstream newspapers and on television, so we were able to reach people that we ordinarily can't reach.
The local implementations are sustained by citizens working for free and local NGO's adopting the tools for their own use. We have taken some small donations to cover expenses related to SMS short codes, but that's it. The whole project cost $500.
Ushahidi for election monitoring has so far been implemented in Bolivia, Colombia, and citizens in Venezuela are at work on one.
Ushahidi is great crisis mapping tool, but it wasn't conceived for election mapping in Latin America. In Latin America violence is not what we are most afraid of, there's less fear that the violence will scale up in Latin America than in Kenya. We are more concerned with transparency and corruption. In much of Latin America we have a well organized civil society so we have structure of election monitors.
Ushahidi's main design was to provide a common pool of reports. So if I started giving administrative access to everyone, everyone will see the same pools . What happen's if two NGOs that are associated with two different political parties get access to the same pool and start approving or disapproving the reports? I don't want everyone to have access to the same pool. i want to give special accounts to different NGOs, where they see only their own reports plus the citizen reports. Ushahidi wasnt designed for a lot of NGOs working together. So we are tweaking it for these local elections to make it work in this way.
Another way that we have adapted the Ushahidi platform for the Mexican elections context is that we created two different types of reports: official and citizen reports. Official reports come from well trained electoral observers. They don't have to pass through an approval process. They are approved automatically -- we tweak the system to allow that. Whereas citizen reports need some monitoring from administrators. The signal to noise ratio when you crowdsource is very high. This approach gives us better credibility.