Zambia Elections: Scaling Local Tech Rapidly

Zambia Elections: Scaling Local Tech Rapidly

Presidential elections in Zambia were called after the death of President Michael Sata last October, and were won in January by Defense and Justice Minister Edgar Lungu of the Patriotic Front. While the second-place candidate called the election “stolen”, based on the findings of the Christian Churches Monitoring Group (CCMG), the official results as announced by the ECZ reflected the ballot casts at polling stations. Lungu was inaugurated shortly after, and the opposition are already looking toward the next round of elections in 2016.

Systematic citizen observation can be an important stabilizer in tightly contested elections. To collect the necessary evidence to be that stabilizing agent, NDI’s partner, CCMG, needed to scale it’s local technology and data systems rapidly, and also needed for them to work flawlessly.

In a data collection and internal communication exercise sufficiently large and complex, NDItech helps our partners to integrate globally state-of-the-art tools within local communications and technology infrastructure. The intermediate goals being analysis of over 20,000 messages from 800+ people, the ability to shift data collection priorities immediately, and consistent communication between decision-makers and implementers.

For local technology infrastructure that includes:

1) Connecting with Telephone Network and Aggregators

In Lusaka, several local message aggregators improved their service to CCMG after several days of robust testing and feedback. Often, local aggregators have not had their systems subjected to such specific requirements and traffic load. This can result in significant down time, problematic for incoming data and responses back to observers. CCMG conducted multiple simulation exercises to test and perfect the communications infrastructure. In addition, given unexpected failures in one method of aggregation, CCMG identified and implemented back-up message collection solutions, including another local aggregator, an international aggregator, and was prepared with hyper-localized single/multiple device solutions. Beyond receiving data by SMS, these systems were used to blast messages out to staff and members.

2) Setting up a Communications Center

Even with a sophisticated cloud database and redundant telecommunications infrastructure, data collection and cleaning often requires human brute force. This often takes the form of a data center staffed by data clerks. CCMG was able to get up and running with 20 computers and phones used by 40 data clerks, who were extensively trained. These staff members, through a series of simulations, throughout the election period, became well-versed in processing forms, evaluating SMS logs, and coaching observers from afar.  The infrastructure necessary to support the center included three redundant Internet connections with more than sufficent bandwidth, and a standby generator for back-up electricity.

Both of these key local technology components, scaled well-beyond what CCMG uses on a daily basis, contributed to response rates over 98% for the exercise. Given their performance in this cycle, CCMG will be ready in 2016 to conduct a similar independent assessment.

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