When Iraqis went to the polls to elect a new parliament on May 12, 2018, it was the fourth parliamentary election since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 that toppled Saddam Hussein as the country’s leader.
Though civil society organizations had established a strong presence to observe election since 2005, the 2018 election was different in one key way: These observers had at their fingertips the power to instantly report threats or incidents of electoral violence or insecurity using the crowdsourcing tool Ushahidi.
Unfortunately, elections in Iraq have been marred by electoral violence and fraud, particularly in ethnically diverse areas where tensions rise amid elections, as well as in the Kurdistan region, where 93 percent of the population voted for independence in September 2017. The 2018 elections were originally scheduled for September 2017 but were delayed due to the ongoing civil war with the Islamic State, which ended in December 2017.
Under USAID’s Iraq Governance and Performance Accountability Project and in partnership with DAI, Creative Associates International led an election monitoring project with civil society focused on supporting a credible electoral process.
As part of this project, Creative’s Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area and the Creative Development Lab configured, deployed, and led trainings for Iraqi organizations on the use of the Ushahidi platform, a crowdsourcing, data collection, mapping, and response platform for citizen-led election monitoring.
Ushahidi, which is Swahili for “testimony,” is a tech nonprofit that builds an open source and hosted platform for the crowdsourcing and mapping of reports to support social activism and public accountability around the world. It was developed in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election and has since been deployed more than 150,000 times in over 160 countries, including in elections around the world to support citizen-led election monitoring efforts. Prior to this project, Ushahidi had not yet been used for election monitoring in Iraq.
By deploying and training election monitors on Ushahidi, we enabled Iraqi civil society groups to rapidly and securely share critical information surrounding the election. This project also supported the development of a new set of knowledge and skills among civil society organizations in use of election monitoring technologies, a major step forward for election monitoring in Iraq.
Explore the map below or check it out on Ushahidi here: https://iraqelections.ushahidi.io/
Knowing that the project would involve collaboration with up to 3,000 civil society organization monitors, our team sought a simple tool for collecting, storing, and sharing election-related event reports prior to, during, and following Election Day in Iraq.
As a platform for crowdsourcing (untargeted data collection) and surveying stakeholders to collect incidents or reports on the ground during a crisis, election, or other situation, Ushahidi perfectly suited this need.
The platform has been deployed for monitoring elections and crises around the world and provides a valuable real-time source of information for those who are monitoring situations and can organize response efforts. Ushahidi enables people to contribute reports anonymously through a range of sources – web form, mobile app, email, Twitter, and SMS.
Although prior to this project it had never been used for election monitoring in Iraq, deployments of Ushahidi in Iraq have included anonymous reporting of attacks against journalists through Tabeir Iraq and of human rights abuses by the Ceasefire Centre for Civilian Rights, demonstrating the utility of Ushahidi for crowdsourcing incident reports in the country.
Mitigating risks of real-time reporting during elections
Given the high level of risk for election monitors in Iraq, our team worked with Ushahidi to ensure anonymity of reports on the map, took steps to validate reports before publishing, and provided monitors with an option to keep reports private or share them through the public map.
We also set up the Ushahidi surveys to allow monitors to provide only minimal information regarding the event they were reporting. Nonetheless, most election monitors chose to respond to all questions, included images on the event they covered, and requested their submission to be made public.
As of May 15, 2018—3 days after the elections—651 reports had been submitted through Creative’s Ushahidi deployment called Iraq Elections, 631 of which are public. Reports were submitted by civil society election observers who participated in a series of cascade trainings led by Creative in six regions of Iraq.
These election observers were able to submit reports through web form, mobile app, email, and SMS to the Ushahidi platform through an account set up by Creative. The reports enabled Creative, partners, and news outlets to access and share near real-time citizen-generated reports of election-related events.
Future of crowdsourcing for election monitoring
What does this work mean for future elections beyond Iraq?
Creative is currently working with Ushahidi to deploy a similar use of their platform for the upcoming Libya general election. In Libya, Creative will work with local electoral security actors to use crowdsourcing to monitor potential threats to electoral security.
As in Iraq, Ushahidi is providing an invaluable resource for rapidly collecting and sharing information that can help prevent and mitigate electoral violence in the country while building the capacity of local election actors to use low-cost tools to support their work.
Tihana Bartulac Blanc is a Senior Associate and Project Director in the Electoral Education and Integrity Practice Area at Creative Associates International.
Emad Youssef served as Chief of Party for the Iraq Elections Support Program. He is currently Chief of Party for the Libya Electoral Security Planning and Implementation (LESPI) Project.
Giselle Lopez served as Technical Manager specializing in technology for peacebuilding and security for the Creative Development Lab.