In NDI’s 30 years of existence, the Institute has observed more than 200 elections around the world. The Institute’s international election observation missions draw on a network of senior experts and politicians from around the globe as observers and examine all phases of the election processes. On election day, observers visit polling stations to witness the voting process and report findings to the mission’s headquarters in the capital city, where they are analyzed and incorporated into the mission’s preliminary statement on the election. With the advent of new mobile technologies, the process for transmitting observers’ findings on election day is starting to shift.
To take a deeper look at how NDI is using ICTs to streamline the election day data collection process, we sat down with NDI-Tunisia’s Resident Program Manager for Elections, Nicholas Collins. Nicholas recently managed NDI’s missions to observe the October 26 legislative elections and November 23 first-round presidential election in Tunisia, and is leading preparations to observe the run-off presidential election anticipated in December. He was kind enough to take some time out of his busy schedule to chat:
Q: What is the typical process of collecting data and information during an international observation mission (IOM)?
A: Data would typically be collected via a combination of paper forms filled out by the observers, phone calls between observers and a call center in the capital, and a computer-based form sent at the end of election day. All of this information is subsequently compiled and analyzed at mission headquarters in the capital. This process, however, has limitations--paper forms are often not received by the headquarters until observers return in person to the capital and it is challenging to quickly scrutinize these forms for trends and patterns.
Q: Compared to this traditional methodology, what were the similarities and differences of the recent data collections efforts in Tunisia?
A: Our overall strategy was the same in terms of the type of information that we trained observers to gather, but we changed the way they transmitted it to our headquarters. For the first time in an NDI-organized IOM, observers used Android tablets for several of the reporting forms that used to be paper-based. The tablets were 3G- and WiFi-enabled, and had geo-location capability and a camera. Observers filled out forms on the tablet and submitted them throughout the day. Regardless of how we collected the information, it is important to note that international missions tend to be small and could not offer a statistical sample of data. The tablet process simply helps us to more efficiently receive and assess the information that observers are seeing. It’s also important to gather qualitative impressions from observers through phone calls throughout election day and a post-election debriefing in the capital.
Q: Before the mission, how comfortable were the observers in using tablets? If they lacked familiarity, what process did you use to train them?
A: We found that most observers were familiar with smartphones, but many had not used tablets or weren’t as familiar with Android technology. And for all of them, the idea of using an app for an election observation was a completely new concept. So in our observer briefing, after our staff led trainings on election observation methodology and Tunisia’s election day procedures, we first introduced observers to the paper forms, which we were providing them in case there were issues with the technology. The paper forms allowed the observers to see all of the form’s questions in one place. Our tech team, led by ICT’s Christine Schoellhorn, then led a hands-on training for observers on how to use the tablets to fill out the same forms. Observers were divided into teams and practiced filling out and sending a test form.
Q: What were the biggest difficulties in using the tablets during the observation?
A: We were fortunate in that we didn’t see many tech-related challenges with the tablets on election day. Any issues were pretty minor, and while it can sometimes be challenging to resolve glitches remotely from the mission headquarters for observers who are on the move, we were able to address these issues quickly. Perhaps our biggest issue was that in some polling stations tablet use was not permitted, at the discretion of the polling station president. In these cases our observers used paper forms and then uploaded the information through the tablets while traveling to the next polling station. In general the delegation had a very positive experience using the tablets, finding them intuitive and easy enough to use.
Q: What were the greatest benefits of using the tablets? Did the tablets allow you to expand your data collections efforts in any meaningful way?
A: The main benefits of the tablets relate to speed and organization. They allow the team to receive and visualize real-time information from the observers and to consider the broader trends when drafting our preliminary statement on the elections. By visualizing the incoming data in all sorts of ways, it allows us to quickly comprehend what our observers are seeing, which was impossible with paper-based forms. It was nice to see how the observers were moving during the day using the geo-location feature.
Our tech experts also came up with range of additional uses for devices. For instance, polling stations were stored in an interactive map on the tablet, and a live news feed was providing observers with updates during the day. We could also send information to the observer teams using a shared email account.
Q: Moving forward, what would you change about how you collected data for this IOM?
A: We received feedback from the observers on particular forms and are making minor adjustments on how questions are structured on the tablet. We will also redesign our training to focus on areas that tended to be more confusing for observers, and have observers send a test form once they arrive at their deployment sites. These tweaks will help to build the observers’ confidence in using the tablets on election day, and should enhance the clarity of the information transmitted by the tablets. Overall, we are extremely pleased with how capably the observers used the tablets, and are eagerly looking forward to seeing how these technologies can be used in the upcoming elections, both in Tunisia and in other countries.