Texting it in: monitoring elections with mobile phones

Texting it in: monitoring elections with mobile phones

Making elections work right: the use of mobile phones for monitoring

The future is bright for innovative ways in which cell phones are used by citizens to participate and engage in their countries as the mobile revolution unfolds. This article discusses the pioneering method of using text messages for election monitoring in various countries. This method was first used in Montenegro in 2006, with support from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in the United States.

Key points made:

  • Election monitoring is a highly technical discipline and involves the reporting of both quantitative and qualitative data. The speed and accuracy of reporting is important and SMS election monitoring can contribute to this end.
  • In order for large-scale SMS election monitoring to succeed, a number of conditions have to be in place, for example, the presence of reliable NGOs, cooperation of phone companies and good wireless coverage.
  • An important consideration is the cost of a wide-scale program. To date NDI has found this method of reporting much more economical than other strategies.In the Albanian election, for example, the bulk messaging costs for a total of some 41,000 messages received and sent from 2100 monitors was $2400 US Dollars -an extremely inexpensive way to receive such massive amounts of data.
  • A number of strategic issues must also be taken into account. The NGO partner on the ground needs to be experienced in electoral monitoring, the information collected needs to be suitable for the limited text messaging format of 160 characters, and text messaging needs to be commonly used and part of the local culture.
  • As election monitoring via SMS becomes standardised and NGOs gain experience, there is no reason for mobile phones and SMS not to play a greater role in other areas of civic participation.
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