Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Elections 2011: Now that we have all this data, what do we do with it?

select_vote4There is some serious data out there and we may be missing an opportunity to gather it, curate and use it to significantly transform the way the Nigerian nation functions.

Nigerians have taken to mobile technology like fish to water. Initially, it was just voice and SMS data. Information that is locked up in the data stores of the telcos. Over time, Nigerians began to adopt the mobile web and systems like Facebook, Twitter and the Blackberry with the eponymous blackberry messenger. The explosive adoption of this across the country was debated by many as a great opportunity for business, education and social change, while others sneered at social media in particular as having no real power to change the status quo – especially politically.

Then the 2011 general elections began to draw near and various groups began to strategise. Politicians Like President Jonathan opened Facebook Pages ostensibly to engage young Nigerians. BRF greeted me and thousands of Nigerians “Good morning” from his twitter page everyday. At the other end of the spectrum, Gbenga Sesan gathered bloggers, developers and social media experts together to figure out how to get the word out to people to register and vote. The discussions also included how to use technology to make sure the wishes of the people are recorded and honoured. Similar groups developed and developed tools and systems, including Enough is Enough (EiE) Nigeria’s ReVoDa, Google’s Nigeria Elections Monitoring Map, and other Ushahidi-based solutions such as Reclaim Nigeria.

Almost by magic, Nigeria became an information nation with millions of reports being pushed to the public internet via tweets, Facebook updates, ReVoDa reports, BBM messages, photo-sharing sites, YouTube, voice and SMS. INEC itself, amazingly, impressively, is using the tools, particularly BBM and Twitter to publish and collect information and reports on the elections. In one short week, between April 2nd and April 9th, Nigeria became a nation in which digitally generated and distributed information actually became at the centre of the people’s psyche. With almost no governmental expenditure we have the richest data set this nation has ever created existing in structured databases. The possibilities are limitless.

The problem is it could all very well be wasted.

Information generated needs to be analysed and curated for it to be useful and it is unclear that enough effort is being made to corral this data into a form that can be usable. Specifically, there are two ways to gather and use the kind of data being generated almost every second.

The first is real time response. On the 11th of April reports flowed via the Twitter stream giving up to the minute reports of events. Everything from missing ballot materials, violent attacks, procedural violations and requests for clarifications. All are things INEC and the security services needed to respond to immediately. It would be ideal if INEC had personnel analysing this data real time, pushing intelligence up to decision-makers who are initiating immediate responses to the situation on the ground. I did read some responses to Twitter queries from INEC’s Twitter account (@inecnigeria), but there is  much more that could be done with the tools. After all, Ushahidi-powered solutions have been used for rapid deployment of rescue and relief materials in the midst of natural disasters. Indeed the app was born out of the Kenyan election crisis. It is unclear whether INEC are equipped to respond to this flow of information or not, but this was a vital opportunity that should have  been taken advantage of.

Having gathered the data, it can be used to plan for the coming polls. Much of this data is from the point of view of voters which will differ from that of electoral officers and security agents. This will give a unique perspective that can be used in the deployment of security agents, avoid errors (like the one in my polling booth where our records were sent to another booth further down the express) and develop more efficient methods for accreditation.

When the elections are all over, the data can be used to validate published results, pursue legal disputes, prosecution of criminals, demographic studies, sentiment analysis, and planning of the next set of elections (LGAs, the inevitable reruns and 2015).

Aside from the electoral process, the information that has been generated thus far and will be created over the next three weeks is an opportunity for scholars, businesses, historians, rural and urban planners, journalists, technocrats and many more to obtain actionable information.

However very little of that is going to happen unless we the tech community do something about it. We are not yet a nation that knows how to handle and respond to large flows of real time information. Nor are we a nation with laws that can make use of and respond to crowd-sourced, digitally generated data. However, this election is our learning opportunity and while the traditional institutions may not be prepared for this (the independent observer was writing the results from my booth on paper, while I tweeted the same results and had it worldwide in seconds), the Nigerian people have gone digital.

It will be a riotous, tumultuous process. We will make mistakes. People are using the tools to spread as much disinformation as they are spreading the facts. The fisherman in the remote village doesn’t have the digital tools, nor the literacy to report online how everyone was intimidated into voting for a specific candidate, nor could the cattle herder affirm the validity of the results via email. The farmer doesn’t know to send an SMS to an Ushahidi app reporting the failure of INEC officials to show up. A lot of this is focused around the major cities, around a demographic, around a certain educational minimum. Still it is a start. A huge one, and I for one am glad to be along for the ride.