By Maira Magro
During the wave of violence in Kenya in 2008, that stemmed from conflicts among rival political factions, a group of friends created a system in which persons in various locations could send and share, via the Internet, news about attacks and killings. The Ushahidi (witness in Swahili) online platform became a model of success for participative coverage of news worldwide. Now the system has come to Brazil, with Voter 2010, an unprecedented election monitoring tool for citizens.
One of the more interesting aspects of the site is the visual depiction on a map of complaints or irregularities, using Google Maps. See below an interview with those responsible for Voter 2010: The creator, journalist Paula Góes; and her colleagues Diego Casaes and Thiana Biondo. They spoke with the Knight Center from London and Sao Paulo, where they work as editors for the international network of news blogs, Global Voices Online:
Where did the idea for the project come from?
Góes: I followed the use of Ushahidi in the elections in Mozambique (last October) and I had heard talk of other similar experiences in other countries. The idea of using it for elections in Brazil came at the end of last year, when I remembered, when I was working as a TV producer, the craziness of covering an election period -– we received a lot of complaints from the public but we never have the equipment to investigate all of them, not to mention the limitations from personnel, time and space on television, which resulted in frustration as much for the voter, who felt as if his testimony was irrelevant, as for the journalist, who felt useless in the face of so many complaints.
What is the main objective of Voter 2010?
Góes: The main goal is to observe the elections of 2010: to collaboratively create a picture of the electoral process in accordance with the voter's point of view, something that has never been seen in Brazil. Also, we want to create debate about the elections, especially among youth; to awake anti-corruption values; to promote citizenship and freedom of expression; and to serve as an information source for the media and authorities, like the Ministry of General Elections.
Why use Ushahidi?
Góes: To me, the platform seems like the perfect solution to satisfy the longing of the public to more actively participate in monitoring elections, giving voice to those voters who mostly live far from the capital, in places where the press doesn't reach or the media are dominated by certain political interests. Also for its crowdsourcing resources, the gathering and visualization of data, and for how simple it is to use. Of course, it counted a lot that it's free for us (besides being non-profit, Voter 2010 has no sponsors.)
How does the process of receiving and investigating complaints work?
Casaes: The Voter sends a report to the site to firstname.lastname@example.org via email, an sms message (although still not implemented), a hashtag on Twitter, messages on our social network sites, or on our own site. The reports are evaluated by a moderator that marks them as confirmed or not before publishing them. The moderator also will give a credibility grade to the source (for example, witness or victim). After publication, these reports will appear on a map and they can be searched by region or category. The information will be available to the whole world, in a transparent manner, even for the authorities and the mainstream media. Users also can confirm or deny reports through commentaries and positive/negative indicators.
Ushahidi has been used in various countries, under diverse circumstances. What are the most successful experiences?
Biondo: First on the list would be Kenya in 2008, for having created the platform, which now is being used in the whole world. Ushahidi returned to the action in Kenya this month with a platform christened Uchaguzi, that was used to cover the referendum on the new constitution, with a success that surpassed even the first time. We also can cite Madagascar, where the platform was installed to denounce violence by the government, which was selling land to South Koreans without revealing its true value and also promoting an increase in the price of food. The case drew the attention of the United Nations and Amnesty International.
Other successful cases were the coverage of the natural disasters in Chile and Haiti. Ushahidi was used to map areas affected by the earthquakes, which helped in the rescue of survivors, in the distribution of humanitarian aid, and reconstruction of the most affected cities. There were more than 1,000 reports. The platform is considered an excellent vehicle for collaboratively reporting tragedies, since there is a great effort from the public wanting to do its part.
And as for monitoring elections?
Góes: It was already done in Sudan, in Mexico, in Mozambique and in Bolivia, even though none of these was considered particularly successful and some were not open to the public (that is, it was done for official observation purposes). The expectation is that Brazil will be the first success case.
Have there been any especially interesting complaints so far?
Góes: I really liked the case of Coari, a city in the interior of the Amazons, maybe for being one of the first to be interesting and complete. The day Brazil debuted in the World Cup, the mayor handed out green and yellow shirts (the colors of the Brazilian soccer team) with the number of candidate that he supported on the back. His actions were reported on Voter 2010 the next day, with photos and everything. It's amazing the number of complaints about spam being spent to users who have not subscribed to receive those kinds of communications, which demonstrates that email addresses are being bought.
In another interesting case, we received a complaint about email propaganda. A member of a candidate's campaign team left a comment on the complaints page apologizing for sending the email to the person who filed the complaint, and that ended up being a confession to electoral fraud, as the database of emails had been obtained illegally: "Our emails are sent through a list provided by people from churches to charitable institutions that make up our database." Meanwhile, the law prohibits the use, donation or transfer of electronic records of customers, for candidates, parties or coalitions.
How does Voter 2010 interact with traditional media?
Góes: Voter 2010 can be a great source of information for the media, which can have access to the public's complaints in the zones they cover, and can carry out their own investigations to verify the complaints. Supplementing the work of the mainstream media, the platform is available to voters of all Brazilian cities, including those who do not receive a lot of space in the press, either because of distance or other factors. Journalists who are interested can register to receive alerts in their email specific to they the areas they cover.
Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.