Nigerians went to the polls last month to determine their next president in a tightly contested election between sitting president Goodluck Jonathan and retired Major General Muhammadu Buhari. In support of democratic processes for these elections, NDI conducted an International Election Observation Mission and supported the work of a citizen observation mission with Nigerian partner organization the Transition Monitoring Group (TMG). On election day, NDI and TMG observed Nigerian citizens’ patience and strong commitment to the democratic process, and pursued strategic initiatives to share that story through innovations in digital information collection, data visualizations, and database development.
Tablets for Information Sharing
This is the second country in NDI’s history of election support where tablets were used as the primary means of form-based data collection during an international observation mission, or IOM, (the first was the international observation missions for Tunisia). In Nigeria, tablets were used to send information back to headquarters, provide a repository of information for observation, update delegates with documents and news relevant to the IOM, and to keep delegates secure by increasing their access to information and communication. Their fundamental role - and the reason NDI first started using tablets - was to send real-time observation reports back to the data center. NDI was able to collect same-day, and for the most part hourly, data and updates from observers throughout election day and during their pre-election meetings.
Beyond a more robust real-time data collection system, the tablets facilitated much richer information sharing. Observations and information such as regular updates, photos, videos, emails, and checklist data were sent in through the tablets. Tablets were connected to email and text messaging with headquarters and staff contact information readily available to facilitate easy direct communication. For broader information sharing among deployment teams, an internal communication application Yapp was included on tablets as well as voluntarily downloaded to many delegate and staff phones. Throughout the observation, hundreds of messages were sent among delegates via Yapp to share status updates and photos immediately. The security and programmatic teams also used the application to send and share news and other information central to the observation.
Delegates’ tablets were dynamically provisioned with important docs thanks to their integration with Google drive, providing offline documents of reporting times, briefing documents, security reports, and training materials. In addition, thanks to Google’s cloud-based system, documents were updated and added on-the-go while delegates were deployed. Delegates also had access to a customized news feed on the Nigerian elections through Feedly, a real-time news-streaming application. One of of the most interesting applications was the dual mapping feature which allowed delegates to see online and offline maps of polling stations, safe havens, hospitals, and pre-planned polling stations through My Maps and Maps.Me.
There were significant challenges to the implementation of a tablet-based program, including limitations in GSM access due to the telecommunications infrastructure in Nigeria, as well as the need to design a concise but comprehensive training agenda for delegates and coordinators on using tablets and submitting forms that would be suitable for individuals of varying prior experience with tablets and smart phones. Consequently, intensive training was a core component of this program as well as back-up training and support of local coordinators. While deployed, delegates were encouraged to contact headquarters to help troubleshoot any problems they had. In the end, every delegate team successfully used their tablets and sent in digital forms.
Through the use of tablets, NDI received more than 3,000 (!) pictures from delegate groups, over 100 observation forms, and almost 200 Yapp updates, greatly enhancing the quality, quantity, and timeliness of the information received. In the data center, incoming data flowed into NDI's private, secure platform for data collection, Formhub, providing headquarters with aggregated, mapped out information from observations throughout the day.
Throughout the last few years, significant effort and thought has gone into the development of NDI’s Election data management tool. These efforts, a joint combination of the NDItech and NDI Elections teams, have led to a stable and relatively reusable tool that can serve as a functioning database for domestic observations in multiple country contexts. The Elections tool was used by TMG for their Quick Count, or parallel vote tabulation, an election observation methodology employed by nonpartisan citizen observers to independently verify election results and gather statistically valid, representative nationwide data on an election process. Similar to other parallel vote tabulations this year, the development time and cost of the election's database was greatly reduced by the stability and flexibility introduced to the system. Thoughtful customizations for the Nigerian context, and in-person support by Nigerian developer Tim Akinbo, resulted in a database that functioned well, with minimal interruptions or challenges on election day. While difficulties emerged with the text messaging platform, a backup SMS Gateway provider was procured and challenges addressed.
Data from the international and domestic observation mission were visualized through recent NDItech investments in DKAN, an automated data visualization platform. For the PVT, 28 core questions were visualized in 84 dynamic visualizations. This system was connected to the Elections tool by a sophisticated script that allowed for up-to-the-minute updates of observer data in easy to understand and interactive charts and maps. These served as a useful tool for enhanced internal analysis and as interactive and ready-to-go visuals for TMG's press conference.
Redundancy in technical support was a core theme for both the IOM and PVT. Multiple internet systems were in place to prepare for a variety of challenges that might arise. The Elections database was connected to a backup text-blasting system, Nexmo, as well as a backup aggregator, and several technical professionals were on staff before and during the election to troubleshoot problems.
A focus on reusability is a core component of all NDItech’s work, and these initiatives are suited for customization and scaling across regions so that Nigeria’s innovations can be shared globally.
These efforts supported messages that were shared world-wide on the democratic quality of Nigeria’s elections. TMG’s statement on results verification can be found here and their preliminary statement on the election process here. Their incredible work has been mentioned in the Washington Post, on CNN International, and other major news sources. The IOM’s election observation findings and recommendations can be found here, and the commentary from elections and Nigerian experts on the delegation was picked up by major global media outlets.