Text 3018 – Kenya votes in referendum on new constitution
Today Kenyans are voting in a referendum on a new constitution, a key step in an effort designed to reform the country’s politics. Most significantly the document if approved limits the powers of the president and sets up a commission to settle land disputes that fuelled past violence.
The referendum was part of a deal that ended clashes after a disputed election in December 2007. Both the president and the prime minister are backing the Yes vote and opinion polls suggest the new constitution will be approved. That said, there is tension leading up to this event and President Mwai Kibaki has appealed to Kenyans to vote peacefully. The government reportedly also sent out an SMS yesterday encouraging Kenyans to stay calm.
In 2007 we saw how these events unfolded and unfortunately few were prepared. I remember working at Africa Interactive, the publisher of AfricaNews.com, in September of 2007. We set up the Kenya Elections platform in partnership with Media Focus on Africa. Remember the Nokia N97 reporting toolkit? We spent our savings on these phones and trained several Africa Interactive journalist on how to use them for text, photo and video production. Spread across the country they would thengo out and produce reports, editing them on the phone or computer, and upload them to our server where we could screen them before publishing to the Kenya Elections website. It was already possible to do this via GPRS but the network proved slow. When events escalated the situation quickly went from bad to worse and it was increasingly difficult to get reports out of the country. Our reporting nearly stopped when the Kenyan government stepped in to shut down the mobile networks. This left us calling frantically and our reporters spending hours upon hours in internet cafes. As police brutatlity escalated so did the risk for our journalists.
For African news reporting this was a critical period of time where we could really see a media landscape changing before our eyes. Mobile was already on the rise and new technologies were begging to be tested. At the same time we could see how governments were responding to crises situations meaning we had to advance and innovate even further. Most importantly the reporting loop needed to be closed. The idea that getting reports out of the country was only the first step in a much larger process. This raised some important questions mainly how do you get the information back to the people who need it most. And how do people living in rural areas even know there are information services they can tap into and especially when it comes down to a crisis situation when seconds or minutes can change lives.
Ushahidi emerged in a growing effort to tackle some of these challenges. The genesis of Ushahidi was a blogpost by now Executive Director Ory Okolloh, after violence erupted following the 2008 Kenyan elections. Together with core team members Erik Hersman and David Kobia, they built and deployed a platform where they tagged citizens’ and news reports of violence on a google map. They were joined by another digital activist, Juliana Rotich, to found the organization and never looked back since.
Needless to say a lot has changed since these early days of crisis reporting. This time around much more time and erergy have gone into the preparation needed to establish a proper infrastructure. Anyone in Kenya can now send in a report via the shortcode #3018. As reported on the Ushahidi website, ‘The Ushahidi platform is able to accept SMS text messages from the “crowd” or any person with a cell phone or computer to record events happening at any location instantly. People are also able to call in reports by voice or via email and Twitter. However, the SMS feature remains one of the most powerful communication tools for developing countries. In Haiti, it was reported that the first thing people would do when they regained power or found a battery was to charge their cell phones.’ It is also significant to mention that there are 600+ Uchaguzi volunteers ready to map concerns and a national network of professional monitors in place to report on events.
The Ushahidi team explains, ‘The Constitution and Reform Education Consortium (CRECO) is providing 500 monitors located at various polling stations around the country as well as administrative support. The Social Development Network (SODNET) is offering Uchaguzi its total partnership and the shortcode #3018 that is being used for SMS messages countrywide. With the support of Uraia, HIVOS and Twaweza; Uchaguzi is the most collaborative deployment of the Ushahidi platform to date.’
Speaking yesterday to Philip from Sodnet, one of the partners working with Ushahidi on this years referendum efforts, he told me, ‘All systems are a go. We have Hivos partners visiting from Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda around for observation and learning processes. We have three sites! One main control center and two mirror sites. SMS servers and gateways mirrored and all call back services are active. Action points are ready and Media monitoring are up and running.’ See a live streaming of the situation room located at the iHub.
In my view one of the biggest changes from the past is the integration of a media campaign in lead to the actual day of voting. This has been crucial in creating awareness for the short code people can use to report events from anywhere in the country. Here is a photo showing an in-store promotion during yesterday’s crazy shopping spree as Kenyan’s ran to the store to stock up before today’s events. The campaign has also been in the papers and on radio.
Granted, there is always more that can be done but this goes a long way in showing the potential for these kinds of services. It is only a matter of time before print media, radio, television and other media pick up on these initiatives and integrate them into their own programming. Not because its a source of revenue but because its vital information critical to their audience. An instance like this becomes a service just as a news program reports on the weather.
We all hope for a peaceful process and I am confident the referendum will run smoothly and Kenyan’s will be able to celebrate this important milestone in their history. At the same time it is great to see people and organizations come together in a mutual interest to give people a voice during such important political events. Even if it’s only to know the first ‘referendum’ baby has been born as reported this mornig on Twitter:) #Uchaguzi SMS report: “Woman goes into labour at Kabete polling station. Voters have pre-named the baby ‘Red Wafula Green” #kenyadecides.
Here is a nice video that gives some insight into the team behind these efforts and their thinking on these important events and the role these information services have to play in the process. Working at Hivos I know we strongly support these efforts and hope to replicate some of the effective tools and strategies in other African countries.