Sudan Vote Monitor

Quick Look

The Sudan Vote Monitor helped citizens monitor the country's general elections in April 2010.

Beginning Date: 
September 1, 2009
Annual Budget 2010: 
Project Scale: 
Types of Tools: 
Specific Tools: 


Sudan is scheduled to hold its first multiparty elections in over two decades on April 11-13, 2010. The run-up to the elections has been rocky: the elections, originally scheduled to be held in March and April 2009, have been delayed multiple times, and most opposition parties are currently boycotting the elections, fearing possible vote rigging.

"There is a lot that's riding on this," says Fareed Zein, head of the citizen election monitoring project Sudan Vote Monitor. In addition to testing the country's democratic process, the election also serves as an indicator of how peacefully a referendum on independence for Southern Sudan, scheduled for January 2011, might run. April's election is "going to determine the future of the country as a single country," Zein believes.

Zein, head of the technology committee at the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy, began searching for ways to use technology to contribute to the country's development last fall. When he came across Ushahidi, he decided to use the tool to build a system where Sudanese citizens can report anomalies — violence, voter harassment, vote tampering, illegal campaigning — as well as what goes well in the elections.

Note: we followed up with Zein on April 29. You can read our post-election interview at Global Voices Online.


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Date of Audio: 
April 9, 2010


What are the biggest obstacles to your success?: 

One of the biggest challenges has been funding because we've done this all on a volunteer basis. We all have full-time jobs, so we don't have anybody who's dedicated full-time to this, and we couldn't hire anybody. It would have helped us to have funding upfront.

We haven't really had a serious challenge technically. The only serious challenge we face is the SMS shortcode. There are not very many organizations that are active in Sudan when it comes to technology, obviously it's under embargo*, so getting an SMS going in Sudan has been probably technically the largest challenge.

*Note: in early March the United States lifted a ban on the exportation of online services such as chat and media sharing to Sudan, Iran and Cuba.

How do you plan on overcoming those obstacles?: 

We are working down to the wire on the SMS. In fact just before you called me I was on the phone testing, so we're almost there.

What problem is your project aiming to overcome?: 

One of the biggest problems in a lot of developing countries and democracies that are trying to get off the ground is the lack of information. That in itself is the service that we hope to contribute to this — just getting access to information because the Sudanese people as well as the rest of the world have not had that in previous events. There was basically no idea what was going on on the ground.

What we're hoping to do is shine a light and give people access to events that are occurring at remote election centers. If there is violence or vote tampering happening in a remote corner somewhere, we are going to expose that. We're hoping to not allow this election to be a closed book where nobody knows what happened in these places.

Why did you personally become involved in this project?: 

Sudan Vote Monitor is a concept that came out of the Sudan Institute for Research and Policy (SIRP), which is the organization that I'm part of. I head the technology committee in this organization. Last September I was looking into utilizing ICT to facilitate knowledge about Sudan and contribute to its development.

I came across Ushahidi. Ushahidi, the word itself, attracted me because I know what it means. [Note: "ushahidi" means "testimony" in Swahili.] It's in Swahili but it's the same word in Arabic so I immediately began to look into it. The more I learned about it the more I was fascinated by the concept and how grassroots people can get involved in the political process and promoting transparency and open participation.

I got in touch with the Ushahidi team first here in the United States. David Kobia and Patrick Meier responded and they were very supportive and very interested. Back in September the election was still far away so we began to explore the idea and develop kind a concept. I put together a proposal and submitted it to the board of SIRP, and it was approved.

We were very quickly introduced to Selvam Velmurugan from the organization Selvam is one of the people that have been very involved in previous implementations of Ushahidi, specifically in Lebanon and in India and in Afghanistan. Selvam joined our team, and then we began to put together the pieces and came up with the concept.

Is there a freedom of information law in the country where this project is based?: 
How does the information published on your website turn into offline change?: 

I would say even if the election doesn't take place we've already made history, and that's not to say that that's where we'll stop, but this is a groundbreaking undertaking. We've already done a big service to just introduce the concept, introduce the possibility.

Other groups have specific activist motivations. They have a different tack. Ours is just getting access to information because the Sudanese people as well as the rest of the world have not had that in previous events. Others will take that to the next level and try to apply pressure for change.

How many people work on your project?: 
How many hours a week do you personally spend on the project?: 

It accelerated over the last month and a half. Probably an hour and a half to two hours a day, so maybe 10-12 hours per week

How many hours does the whole team spend on the project?: 

Different, not all the same. I'm kind of the central nerve, but my technical team guys put in a lot of hours until the web site was up and running. Selvam put in a lot of hours setting up the actual instance of Ushahidi. Instead of starting from scratch we took the India instance and we built on it and modified it, so Selvam was the one who did all of the upfront work. After that it was just a few changes. So each team member makes their contributions when they're needed.

What are the most time consuming tasks?: 

Setting up the web site wasn't really a big deal because we have extremely sharp people. It's the integration, putting the pieces together, and the translation to Arabic. That was a little bit of a challenge. We did the translation ourselves, so getting the translations done right and mapping the functionality to both English and Arabic versions was a challenge.

How do you extract value from large amounts of data? How do you build engagement around it?: 

We're not in the business of making a final report, but we have several groups that are already interested in doing just that. Our partners will make reports about the election, and we will be happy to feed the data. We're a data source for these organizations.

How do you verify the identities of participants on your website?: 

One of the first things that we've done and that we were very fortunate in is that we've linked with civil society organizations that are sanctioned by the National Election Commission (NEC). The NEC governs this election and certifies election monitors, whether that be the Carter Center, the EU, Japan or whoever. We are working with certified civil society organizations that have actually certified monitors, which means they are trusted sources and they are certified by the NEC to report out of the election centers.

The reports that we will receive from these observers are credible reports, so we'll obviously trust the source. As we are an open platform, we will receive other reports. If we are able to verify them, then we will say so, that they've been verified. If we're not, then we'll publish them as unverified so everyone can judge for themselves whether to believe the reports or not. Full transparency is our philosophy.

What has been the most effective method of spreading awareness about your project?: 

We started to get contacted by other groups that were interested in the elections. One of the groups we were introduced to is They introduced us to a conference that was planned in Nairobi for all the civil society organizations that are going to be involved in monitoring the elections in Sudan. We attended that conference and I presented — by then we had a prototype up and running — I presented the prototype and the concept to the civil society organizations in Nairobi and they were very excited and interested. They all agreed that this is the platform they would like to adopt as a way to send our reports out for the world to see.

The groups that were represented in Nairobi went back and spread that information, and we have plans for a public press release to coincide with the start of the elections.

What metrics do you use to judge your own success?: 

We are already getting reports even before we have the SMS up and running, so over the web we are already getting reports from people on the ground. That in itself is again a milestone for Sudan. The obvious proof will be in the number of reports we will receive during the election period and following that. But in terms of measures of success I think we've already done quite a bit just to get this up and running and bring Ushahidi to Sudan.

How do you plan on financially sustaining your project? : 

A lot of the work that we've done was volunteer time. Our main expenses are hosting and technical things that have to be paid for, so we kept the budget very low, and then of course travel expenses, things of that nature. Our initial budget was around $72,000, and the final funding that we've received is probably under $50,000. For now, that's probably sufficient, but obviously the scope of the project is going to determine what we need to do as we explore where to go from here.

What other organizations are you working with?: 

We've primarily been working through the civil society organizations, so we have a network of civil society organizations that have smaller organizations within them. One of the groups we're collaborating with is Sudan 365. They're a global campaign, so they're going to provide a lot of exposure to us. Other groups that are collaborating with us are Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group and Sudan Votes.

Has there been any communication between your project and government officials?: 

We've been rolling out our project and waiting to see what happens, although we have kept everything in the open. We don't take an activist view on this — SIRP is not an activist organization, we are a research and knowledge-based organization. Our commitment is to stay neutral and not to take any sides in this election. Our main purpose is to support the independent civil society organizations that are monitoring this election. As a result we feel that we're not a threat to anybody unless, obviously, somebody has something to hide. In our web site we will provide a platform to anyone that is independent. We don't take an anti-government position, so we don't feel that we will be on the bad side of the government.

If someone gave you $30,000 how would you use the money?: 

The priorities would be to build a team in Sudan, both in Khartoum and in Juba, the centers, because we have no capacity there. We're working with just a bare bones team, so we would like to establish a working team there.

We also want to be able to create a fall-back system. With Ushahidi you can set up your own SMS gateway for instance, but because of budget constraints we haven't been able to do that. Getting a back-up SMS gateway on the ground would be one thing that we could definitely do. We'd like to have a presence both in Khartoum and Juba and travel there to do the training on the ground versus doing it over Skype, which is what we're doing now.

What are your plans for 2010 and 2011?: 

We and other groups are interested in continuing this work beyond the single event of the election itself. We see this as a milestone, this has never happened in the history of Sudan, and so we are interested in leveraging this. We'd like to take this to the next step and collaborate with other groups that are interested in doing this long term in Sudan.

The referendum is definitely the next milestone that we're looking it. We will take a lot of learning from what we did now. What we're doing right now with the SMS gateway is groundbreaking. It will lay the foundation for what will come next, so we will harness a lot of the experience that we've developed now.


Reviewer Comment

This is an interesting project giving an open forum to alert on issues regarding elections which are crucial part of a democratic process. As far as the intentions of the project go its main purpose is to provide a channel to bring to the open what transpired during the elections so to a greater extent this has been met.However the veracity of the information cannot be seen as sacrosanct and it is laudable that distinction is being made between verified and unverified information.

The project though is working with a number of organizations to achieve its objectives, its not clear what contributions each of those bodies are bringing on board. It also seemed centered on elections and vote monitoring and do not show how post election focus for the project will be. I will suggest some elements of governance issues be incorporated to keep project vibrant after elections.

I think SMS Gateway is a significant dimension as more and more people are using mobile phones these days which will widen popular participation.

I think apart from organizations that the project is collaborating with they can also work with grass-root opinion leaders and organized community groups to have a wider perspective.

In all this is laudable as it succeeds in bring some information from and to the people.

More citizen media from Sudan

On Global Voices, we have a special coverage page on the Sudan referendum where we have also linked to this post.

Reviewer Comment

The effort you have put forth to get SMS going in Sudan is extraordinary. I would hope that over time more and more technology based companies will emerge in your region. Funding is obviously the major factor in getting a campaign like this going, but with the widespread use of mobile phones I feel that you will find it easier to get funded over time. SMS marketing is a major factor in business today and your campaign is geared in the right direction.

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