Data Centric for Low (No) Cost

Data Centric for Low (No) Cost

Recent news out of Malawi has focused on the President dissolving her cabinet in the wake of arrests of several officials on suspicion of stealing state funds. The “cashgate” corruption scandal highlights the importance of accountability, and suggests an opportunity for citizens to play a key role. In this tense environment, the Malawi Electoral Support Network (MESN) plans to evaluate the conduct of the elections by the Malawi Election Commission (MEC). MESN is a network of civil society organizations working on democratic governance and elections.

An important component of that evaluation is the attention that MESN will pay to data collection and observer management. We’ve discussed many times the importance of high quality data in election monitoring, here.

Successful implementation of a common methodology includes preparing materials, staff, and tools. In order to keep costs low, and quality high, MESN has taken a simple and effective approach to communicating with their observers, and collecting and digitizing their data. Addressing key questions of cost (can users afford to keep the system running?) and capacity (does the organization understand how to administer and fix the system?) MESN is utilizing two tools in tandem: an SMS gateway called Telerivet, and Google Docs.

Telerivet requires a tool that most people already have – a standard mobile phone. Through a cloud-based management system, it routes messages to and from any number of mobile devices, allowing you to reach anyone who has a mobile phone with SMS. Unique costs to utilizing a system like Telerivet include the purchase of an Android phone, SIM card, and phone credit for text messages. As folks familiar with similar solutions, it’s incredible to imagine that user’s don’t need to set up servers, hire programmers, enter into expensive contracts, or acquire shortcodes. Currently, MESN is using it to communicate with staff and observers to provide instructions, and gather simple data.

Google Docs is an impressive application for collaboration, sharing, and business processes. For data entry and analysis, many organizations hire software or database developers to build customized forms, and provide statistical analysis through queries. However, a simple Google form that closely matches the paper forms used by observers takes a short time for to setup, costs almost nothing, and manages data in robust ways. We’ve highlighted the use of them here for massive data collection efforts.

MESN is well on its way to producing data focused statements based on their evaluation activities strengthened by the use of trained observers, supplemented by clear communication channels and significant care given to their data.