Civic activists in Armenia used crowdsourcing and mapping technologies for the first time during the 2012 parliamentary elections to make electoral processes more transparent. The IDitord project, built on Ushahidi Open Source platform, became one of the main platforms which aggregated information on violations during elections.
Several organizations and dozens of internet activists used new media tools to monitor the election process during the Armenian parliamentary elections on May 6, 2012.
Geo-location services in Armenia are mostly used as a part of social networking; Foursquare is becoming popular in the republic and youth are using check-ins in Facebook. These services are generally employed for social purposes, but rarely called upon as a tool for activism. Projects in Armenia that have used geo-location for this purpose have not been very successful. For example, an ecological project called Kanach.am used as a crowdsourcing tool to detect illegal tree cuttings within Yerevan, but received only 7 reports from June – December 2011 and had to be shut down.
Parliamentary elections presented a new opportunity to use new media technologies for civic activism. In April 2012, Media Diversity Institute and Transparency International Armenia launched the project iDitord (“iObserver” in Armenian) to monitor the electoral process. The goal of the project was to monitor pre-electoral and election day processes by gathering information from civic activists from all over the country about electoral violations. iDitord was based on Ushahidi - a free and Open Source software for crowdsourcing and mapping which has been used many times used during elections in other countries. The Ushahidi platform was also chosen because it is able to receive information from multiple technologies. This system allows contributors to send reports via web-site interface, mobile applications (iOS and Android based), SMS and also Twitter (all tweets with hashtag #iditord automatically were catched by system).
To further increase responses, iDitord collaborated another crowdsourcing and mapping project: MyNews. MyNews is implemented by the Public Journalism Club and is collected reports by civic internet activists. It is based on a Drupal platform and also uses a mapping system. MyNews had already built a network of public journalists which were involved in elections processes observation and their feed was included in the iDitord reporting system.
There are several issues associated with activist reporting projects. Two of the main challenges with iDitrod were:
- How to involve enough people to make crowdsourcing really effective. There is a danger that crowdsourcing can become a closed flow of information when it only comes from a cluster of people.
- How to verify information when reports come in from a wide array of people. Once crowdsourcing is large enough to be effective, there needs to be a system of verification to ensure the information is accurate and trustworthy.
The first problem was addressed by involving a network of NGO’s, political parties and internet activists in trainings on how to use the iDitrod platform and then utilizing their connections to spread a public awareness campaign that helped to create the massive, grassroots effect that the project required to be successful. Facebook advertising and banners on media partner websites also made the project well known among socially active internet users.
The other question is verification of reports. From April-May, iDitord received more than 1000 reports from citizens, NGOs and political parties. Six hundred of these reports were received on election day and most were related to bribes, problems with the activities of local electoral commissions, violations of advertisement laws and mistakes in electoral lists. Police and the Central Electoral Commission officially reacted to some reports and claimed that others were not confirmed and misinformed. There was a strong need of a verification process for the reports to avoid accusations of spreading spam.
The Ushahidi platform allows for the verification process to be done by the administrators of the platform, but in the case of Armenia there were serious concerns that political forces could produce a massive flow of fake reports and have them approved as verified. This risk lead to creating a process of verification that was more complicated and protected. A rule that was created for iDitord included putting a “trustworthy” sign on reports that included video or photos that showed law violations. In order to earn a “trustworthy” sign, a report had to be approved by established journalists or observing NGOs. In the end, 887 out of 1141 reports were marked “trustworthy”.
From a technical point of view, organizers of iDitord took steps to handle high amounts of traffic during elections day. During the electoral campaign from April to May, the system got approximately 15 reports daily (about 500 reports were received before elections day) and 500 unique visitors. But on elections day the flow of users increased dramatically: by 3PM on May 6, iDitord had more than 5000 unique visitors and about 500 reports. However, after 3 PM a strong DDoS attack on the web-site started. Because of this massive attack (more than 10,000 zombie computers attacked web site), iDitord went down until 7 PM when anti-DDoS actions made it possible to work while attacks continued, finally subsiding at the end of the next day. The organizer of the DDoS attack is still unknown. Interestingly, during elections day iDitord was the only Armenian web site which came under DDoS attack.
The use of crowdsourcing and mapping during elections showed that with usage of strong verification system is very useful for media and NGOs involved in observations of elections and for official institutions that used iDitord as a source for information and took action based on dozens of the reports. Because of its success, iDitord will be used during presidential elections in Armenia on February, 2013.
Lessons learned during parliamentary elections:
- Civic activists are ready to contribute their reports, but there needs to be a coordinated outreach campaign to raise awareness about the platform. Otherwise, the involvement level is lower than necessary to make the crowdsourcing effective.
- Civic activists, NGOs and journalists should a not only be contributors but also work to verify reports from unknown sources.
- Organizers need to have a plan in case the website becomes a target of hackers. These kind of high-profile sites are likely targets and security is very important.