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Mobile phones: Transforming the electoral processArticle written by Harrison Alechenu Akoh, special Prize of the jury at the PIWA "Information Societies" Prize 2008.
Tom Regan, staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, in January 2003, in an article entitled ‘Cellphones Change How People Hang Out – Protest’, writes how Howard Rheingold, the writer of the book ‘Smart Mobs’, on a visit to Japan noticed how everyone had a mobile phone, but most people were looking at it, and not talking into it. The article quotes Rheingold as saying, “As they walked along, they used their thumbs to type in text messages.”
Mobile phone technology in the world today has made it easy for information to be transmitted instantly across borders using features such as Short Message Service (SMS) or Text Messaging, and Multimedia Message Service (MMS), away from its traditional call making function.
While SMS is a communications protocol that allows for the interchange of short text messages between mobile telephone devices, MMS is an embodiment or a standard telephone messaging system that enables subscribers to compose and send messages with one or more multimedia parts that include images, audio, video and text.
With the advancement of technology, latest mobile phones come with camera, voice recorder, video camera, high storage capacity and other digital features that make it easy for one to take pictures, record voices, have short video clips, etc; all these features have revolutionized mobile phone usage in the world.
But in contrast to their use in the developed world where mobile phones were exclusively designed for, this technology tool in Africa is used for a wide variety of tasks, such as sending money to family members, buying a fish from the market, banks notifying customers when a withdrawal or deposit has been made or during promotional offers. Whatever mobile phones are used for, they have certainly added to the growth and development of people’s lives today, especially in Africa.
Ask the businessmen in Africa, the farmers and even the laborers what they think about mobile phones and you will get a unified response of “It has made things better”.
If there is one continent the benefit of mobile phone service has been felt greatly, that continent is Africa.
Today, subscribers in developing countries now represent the majority of the over 2.4 billion mobile phone users worldwide, which might increase to about 3.3 billion by 2010, and Africa with Nigeria at its forefront, is currently the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world followed closely by the Middle East and South and Southeast Asia.
This technology tool has transformed how Africans and users in the world relate and deal with situations as well as events happening around them or faraway.
There are definitely a lot that mobile phone brings to the world today. Its usage is no more limited to just making calls, with text messaging and web-enabled phones it is now possible for individuals to make financial contributions or even donate via their mobile phones and with this hand-held tool, one can now conduct fund raising activities. But one use of the mobile phone technology today that is gaining recognition is its role in elections from pre-election campaigning to post-election reaction.
As the world matches on the path of democracy, and with questions being raised, particularly in developing countries as to whether elections can be free and fair and done in a transparent manner, what technological tool can provide a considerable solution this problem or add credibility to elections?
Mobile phone is being used in many countries today to promote democratic governance and transparency in the electoral process. Political parties around the world use this small device in campaigning; electoral bodies use it in sending election messages, notices, lists of poling stations and election results; while election monitors or observers use it for monitoring the election to prevent fraud and irregularities, and the electorate use it for post-election demands which might include peaceful protests or demonstrations. How is mobile phone used in elections in various parts of the world?
Media Focus on Africa (mediafocusonafrica.org), a Kenyan registered foundation whose goal is to promote improvement of media standards in the interest of creating a better informed society, and the Arid Lands Information Network, ALIN, in collaboration provided mobile phones to “Community Information Volunteers” or CIVs, to use as reporting tools in the December 2007 general elections in Kenya.
Linda de Kooning, a media consultant at Media Focus on Africa, in December, speaking to MobileActive about the initiative, said that the program was conceived as a way to bring civic education to rural communities in Kenya and promote electoral participation. She said that people in these rural communities are given a voice through short video interviews filmed on Nokia n73 mobile phones.
Political ringtones, wallpapers, and SMS election updates are part and parcel of election campaigns in countries around the world from Spain to Kenya to the Philippines and from Argentina to Ukraine.
In India’s 2004 general elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party did set up a team to generate campaign slogans to be transmitted via mobile phones. A leader of the rival Congress party said that by using SMS, candidates can directly target urban voters who may otherwise be apathetic. Normally in India, elections are like a festival adorned with colors, posters, banners and party theme songs that people can mime to, but with the growing number of mobile phone users parties are now using it as a new campaign platform; some political parties used it to send catchy text messages to voters.
In the US, political party contenders are bracing up to the fact of using mobile phones for campaigning. For the political party primaries going on, the candidate with the most comprehensive mobile phone strategy is Senator Barack Obama of the Democratic Party, who is currently leading on pledged delegates to be the party’s candidate in the upcoming US presidential elections in November.
Senator Obama, in an effort to get out younger voters, has a mobile page that allows supporters to download ringtones and wallpaper, sign up for Twitter updates, and receive text messages about policy and campaign events. Users can even receive issue-specific updates on subjects such as health care policy, education, and the war in Iraq. By signing up for Obama Mobile at http://www.barackobama.com/mobile/, users “can expect periodic updates from the campaign, as well as advance notice about local Obama events and important updates about his public appearances,” says the site.
Hillary Clinton is not left behind in using mobile phone features for campaigning. By texting JOIN to short code 70007, Clinton supporters can receive campaign updates, photos, and send feedback.
In Sierra Leone’s national election held on 11 August 2007, about 500 observers were posted at polling stations around the country to report on irregularities or fraud. These observers were armed with mobile phones to check on any fraudulent act and report via SMS to the National Election Watch, a coalition of over 200 non-governmental organizations in Sierra Leone in tandem with the US-based National Democratic Institute, NDI. And at the end of the election process, both local and foreign observers declared it to be free, fair and transparent. And Sierra Leone is now used as an example for other African countries to follow.
Chris Spence, director of technology at NDI, in a statement about the conduct of the 2003 elections in Nigeria, explained how difficult it was for data to be entered into the data centers. “We had 24/7 shifts of college students in five locations across Nigeria entering data from paper forms that were faxed or hand-carried into the data centers. Timeliness and quality control were huge issues when nearly 15,000 forms containing dozens of responses each had to be manually entered into a database.”
But today, according to Spence, in the elections where SMS have been used, one can watch data flow into the database directly when it is time for the monitors to report. “The system automatically sends confirmation messages back to the observer in an interactive exchange of SMS messages, so accuracy increases. At reporting time, it is quite amazing to see the numbers change on the screen as the SMS messages pour into the database.”
In the May 2005 parliamentary elections in Ethiopia, voters used their mobile phones to call the attention of the Coalition for Unity and Democracy, CUD, party when it appeared that their votes were being stolen at that polling station. That single action prevented fraud.
Howard Rheingold in his book ‘Smart Mobs’ describes how effective the proliferation of mobile phones can bring together groups at a moment’s notice to protest. He believes that mobile phones are catalyst for change and that anonymity of users makes these protests unusually difficult for police or other authorities to stop. Citizens or Smart mobs, brought together by text messages, have led to political change in the Philippines and Ukraine.
In 2001, SMS messages about political corruption by President Joseph Estrada of the Philippines led to SMS-organized street protests that eventually ousted him from power.
SMS messages in Ukraine helped mobilize tens of thousands of young demonstrators in the streets of Kiev in late 2004 to protest election fraud and demand a revote in what was termed as the Orange Revolution.
Similarly, SMS was blocked in Ethiopia during post-election protests in June 2005 after bus drivers sent messages to each other calling for a ‘stay-at-home’ protest that lasted for two days crippling the economy of the country. At the time, two days after the protest was called off, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation, ETC, defended the SMS system shutdown, saying it needed to carryout maintenance work; it took months for the SMS system to be reactivated.
The way forward
It is evident that mobile phones in election as a tool for campaigning, awareness, monitoring and protesting is very vital for any country to have free, fair and transparent elections, but despite strides made thus far, by the use of mobile phones and other technology tools, without the political will by all stakeholders pushing for fairness and transparency to augment this achievement, all efforts will seem wasted.
Perhaps the situations of Kenya and its neighbor Ethiopia, where post-election reactions destroyed lives and properties, should sound as warning for all to participate fairly, openly and transparently in future elections.
Author : Harrison Alechenu Akoh, Nigeria
Publication date : March 2008
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