Sharek961 used Ushahidi to help monitor Lebanon’s 2008 elections.
Posted by Anas Qtiesh on Jan 19, 2011
Sharek961 [based on the Arabic word for “participate” and the international calling code for Lebanon] is an Ushahidi-based election monitoring project focused on Lebanon’s 2008 elections. Preparation for the project began just three weeks before the election — two weeks of which were spent on implementing the platforms, leaving only one week to publicize its efforts. The project received only 200 reports. Despite this short time frame, the project’s founders were able to translate the Ushahidi platform into Arabic, enabling those who did not speak English to both report and receive news in their native language. The project also raised interest in other countries in the Middle East; the founders were contacted by non-profit organizations in Jordan, Egypt and Iraq interested in using the localized platform they developed. Founder Abdallah Chamas explains.
The idea was conceived during Lebanon’s parliamentary elections in 2008. The purpose was to promote accountability and transparency, and empower citizens to report on the elections. It’s built on Ushahidi, which is a crowdsourced reporting software platform. It allows reports to be sent via SMS, email, Twitter, or a web form. We had a partnership with non profit organization Meedan. What we did was provide them with a stream of the reports we received and they would translate it through their global network of translators.
We hope to promote transparency in all Middle Eastern countries, as far as the elections go. The platform can be used for any crowdsourced reporting, so we can report on environmental issues or anything that can be reported on by regular citizens. We were asked to help build an Arabic Ushahidi instance like Sharek in several other countries, like Egypt and Jordan, but we simply don’t have the resources to do that. We can’t. It would be very interesting for us to be able to report on Egyptian elections. I’m not sure when exactly they’re coming up, but that would be our next step if we were to continue. The problem is that it requires a lot of follow-up and building partnerships and so forth, and we can’t do that right now because of the lack of resources. [Note: an independent group of activists worked to implement the platform in Egypt for the parliamentary elections in November 2010. ]
Well, we received around 200 SMS reports and over a thousand retweets when we were reporting on the elections live. We turned these into a report and circulated it among different NGOs. But that was about it, because the fact was that we didn’t have enough reports to make a real impact and this was just a pilot project. For any crowdsourced project to work, you need about 10,000 data points, and since we only had 200 it wasn’t really worth much. However, it did prove that the system was working and that people were getting engaged in it, because we got reports from everywhere. There were just not many of the same reports.
We had a very short timeline; Katherine and Sasha were here about three weeks before the elections. We had two weeks to get the site up and running and one week to advertise it. The main barrier before that was the development of the site and having it up and running. That was the major obstacle. The second major obstacle was that we didn’t have any funding to actually advertise it. What we did was print out business cards and talk to NGOs, our friends, and network through RootSpace [a Lebanese technology incubator where Chamas works]. The partnerships went really smoothly. We were expecting them to be much harder. As far as third-party partners we used, like meedan.net, it was a very simple process to work with them. We also worked with Demotex, that was also very smooth.
Another challenge is funding: basically, we need funding so that we can actually stop doing other things like our daily jobs, for example, and free up time to work on the project. We also have expenses for SMS and travel and other things like that. We need a little bit of funding and we also need human capital, but we kind of have that with a minimalistic theme when we built the original site, which was functional and did the job really well. We also need money for advertising.
As far as the Arab world goes, it’s probably because the project was in Arabic. Ushahidi exists as a software platform on its own, but it’s in English and it allows for multiple translations, but not for the reports. The reports themselves always had to be in English. So what we did was enable Arabic and English reports at the same time. We had two feeds: one showed the reports that were coming in English, the other one in Arabic. That meant that Arabic speakers were able to contribute and get news. That was really the most important thing; we used the functions of Ushahidi and added the value of having Arabic and English at the same time.
We were not adversarial and we were not in support of anyone. The whole point of Sharek was complete transparency and accountability. We could not be seen as members of any party, or linked to the government, any government. We were on the sideline. We were just reporting, and we did it for free. Since we did not receive funding from anyone, we could not be perceived as having biases.
Not that I know of. We’re finding that people in the Arab world aren’t really interested in reporting all that much, especially in crowdsourcing, since it’s viewed as unreliable. The only reason that it works in other countries is because there’s a critical mass. Once you get a critical mass, it becomes reliable, according to the theory behind crowdsourcing and data points. There haven’t been people trying to mimic us, but there have been offers made for us to setup Sharek instances in Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. We can’t pursue these offers right now because we don’t have the funding or the necessary human resources. If we had minimal funding, we would coordinate with grassroots movements in other countries.
[Note: an independent group of activists worked to implement the platform in Egypt for the parliamentary elections in November 2010. ]