Page last updated at 12:23 GMT, Wednesday, 19 August 2009 13:23 UK

Web tool oversees Afghan election

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

Kabul campaign posters (AP)
Crowd-sourcing information on the election could ensure its fairness

Any attempt to rig or interfere with Afghanistan's election could be caught out by a system that allows anyone to record incidents via text message.

The Alive in Afghanistan project plots the SMS reports on an online map.

Citizens can report disturbances, defamation and vote tampering, or incidents where everything "went well".

Their reports feature alongside those of full-time Afghan journalists to ensure the election and reporting of it is as "free and fair" as possible.

"We hope to enable people to report on what is going on in the country," explained Brian Conley, who helped set up the project.

"In the rural areas there are not going to be monitors, and it is questionable how much international media coverage there will be in these areas."

Additional text and video reports will be added by a network of 80 reporters from the Afghan Pajhwok news agency, he said.

Some will be willing not to eat that evening [in order to be able] to tell the international community what is going on in the country
Brian Conley
Alive in Afghanistan project

Mr Conley said that he hoped the results would be used by national and international media along with members of the international community.

In addition, he said, they may also be sent to the Electoral Commission if there are reports of tampering or rigging.

Content of crowds

The system relies on two established open-source technologies to gather the election reports.

The text messages are collected via a free-platform known as FrontlineSMS, developed by UK programmer Ken Banks.

The system was originally developed for conservationists to keep in touch with communities in national parks in South Africa and allows users to send messages to a central hub.

It has previously been used to monitor elections in Nigeria, and has now been combined with a "crowd-sourced, crisis-mapping" tool known as Ushahidi, which plots the reports on a freely-accessible map.

The system was developed in Kenya when violence erupted following the disputed presidential elections between Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga.

Since then, the platform has also been used to document anti-emigrant violence in South Africa and problems in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Duplicate Afghan voting cards (FEFA)
Thousands of duplicate voting cards were discovered in an investigation

Together they allow reports to be gathered from any part of the country with mobile phone coverage.

Mr Conley hopes "hundreds of thousands of people" will use the system, which has been promoted by distributing "thousands of leaflets" and radio reports.

"I am confident that because of Pajhwok's support we will see a good amount of content coming in," he said.

However, he added, the project had to be "realistic about what is possible".

"In a lot of parts of the country - for whatever reason - people don't use SMS," he said. "It is still a developing technology."

In addition, he said, each text message is relatively expensive, costing the equivalent of two minutes of talk time.

"Even though that is the same amount of money it costs to buy bread for your family people have told me that some will be willing not to eat that evening [in order to be able] to tell the international community what is going on in the country."

'Government pressure'

Any content that is sent to the service is cross-checked, he said, to ensure its authenticity.

Reports that are not verified will be marked as such.

In addition to the citizen reports, the map will be populated by reports form a network of journalists from Pajhwok, he said.

The reporters would report "every aspect of the election, good and bad," he said.

The National Security Council of Afghanistan has asked all domestic and international media agencies to "refrain form broadcasting any incidence of violence during the election process".

The Foreign Ministry has reportedly told Afghan media organisations that any domestic group defying the ban will be shut down.

"There is lots of pressure from the government not to cover these things," said Mr Conley.



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