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Politics

African software monitors US elections

Malte Rohwer-Kahlmann
November 6, 2016

The Kenyan non-profit company Ushahidi has launched a website which lets voters report irregularities on polling day. The creators want to promote transparency - with a tool they invented in a time of bloodshed.

https://p.dw.com/p/2SB9q

Kenya was in turmoil in late 2007 and early 2008. Mwai Kibaki had been declared the winner of a controversial presidential election which reeked of fraud and corruption on both sides. Violence erupted between different ethnic groups throughout the country that killed at least 1,000 people. It was hard for the media to keep track because many of the murders happened in remote regions.

It was then that a group of tech-savvy Kenyans got together and developed Ushahidi, a crowdsourcing software that let people report cases of violence and tracked them on a map. This provided a far more complete picture of the situation than any news outlet had given at the time.

Ushahidi, which means testimony in Kiswahili, has come a long way since then. It's now a multinational software enterprise headquartered in Nairobi with around 30 employees working in eight countries. Their technology has been used for all kinds of purposes - from earthquake response to journalism. And this year, it will help monitor the US elections.

From Kenya to the United States

USA Vorwahl Republikaner in South Carolina
Image: Reuters/J. Ernst

Ushahidi has put up a special website, where voters can report any irregularities or problems they may encounter at the polling stations. They can, for example, flag up that ballot papers have run out or that disabled people have a hard time accessing the polling booth - or that there's nothing wrong at all. Ushahidi collects and maps all this information to visualize the bigger picture.

"My real hope is that on Wednesday we look at the report and that 99.9 percent of reports say: 'Everything went great!'," says Nat Manning, Ushahidi's Chief Operations Officer who's based in San Francisco.

The existing structures to prevent voter fraud in the US already seem quite fail-safe. The different states and parties as well as outside observers all independently monitor the polling. But Manning thinks Ushahidi can still add to the process. "It allows regular citizens to raise their voice. It puts a lot more eyes out there. And importantly, it creates a feeling of transparency and engagement," he told DW.

Are the US elections 'rigged'?

There has been much talk about 'rigging' and 'fraud' in the upcoming presidential elections, mainly by the Republican candidate Donald Trump.

But in fact, there's only little evidence that large-scale fraud is an issue in the United States. A study from 2014, for instance, found there have only been 31 cases of impersonation fraud between 2000 and 2014 - out of one billion ballots cast. The difference between what's being said and what really happens spurred on Ushahidi's efforts to make this election even more transparent.

"We just couldn't sit by and let people put unfair doubt on to what is truly a miraculous and wonderful thing - that we all go out and vote and have this peaceful transition of power every four to eight years," Manning said.

Whatever the outcome of this year's election may be: Ushahidi - a tool sparked by crisis in Kenya - will help to keep elections fair in the United States.

 

Here you can see what election-related issues voters have reported to Ushahidi:

 

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