Interview with Fareed Zain: Sudan Vote Monitor
The very first time the Sudanese civil society attempted to use crisismapping was during the April 2010 elections and for purposes of observing and monitoring the elections. Through what was then called the “Sudan Vote Monitor”, a Ushahidi-based platform was set up to receive information via SMS text, email and an online form. It’s noteworthy to mention that this was the first time Sudan was having national elections in 24 years. And hence, Sudanese citizens, not only inside Sudan, but also in the diaspora were anxious to lend a hand.
With us today is Fareed Zein an IT professional and the mind behind the Sudan Vote Monitor, who at the time was living in the US and still resides there. He acted as the technical architect for the project (www.sudaninstitute.org).
Sawtna: Can you tell us about your technical/professional background and why you thought this Ushahidi-based platform or the Sudan Vote Monitor was a relevant solution at the time?
Fareed: I am an IT professional, that’s what I do for a living, and that is what I came to America to do. I work as an IT manager for a major oil and gas company. I was looking for ways to help the first election in Sudan to go well and have chances of success. And I was looking for technologies, because that is the area that I know best, and where I can use my own skills to lend a hand.
Through my research about crisis mapping and using SMS technology to help civil society organizations. My objective was how to help civil society organizations from far away, since I live in the US. When I learned about the Ushahidi platform I did some research, and I was convinced that this is the right tool that we needed to could help the civil society do what they do best [during the elections].
Sawtna: Since the experts I have talked to so far tell me that a small part of the work of crisismappers is about the technology and a much bigger part is about the outreach on the ground and verifying the credibility of the information you receive, can you tell us about the partnerships with the Sudanese civil society in Sudan and what role they played?
Fareed: Our role was to support the civil society, so we were not the ones doing the heavy lifting; that was done by the people on the ground. Our role was to use technology as an enabler in order to improve their chances of success, and that is what Ushahidi gave us. It is a technology that is familiar and that people can adopt quickly – SMS is obviously [a technology] around the world that has been successfully used for many applications.
So what we did is, we tried to help civil society, both in Sudan and South Sudan. In the North the civil society organization that we partnered with is called Asmaa Society for Women, and in South Sudan it was the Community Empowerment for Progress Organization (CEPO)
They were already certified election monitors, so they had people on the ground and they were doing election monitoring and reporting using paper forms. We came in and took the paper forms that they had and then developed the online reporting system, and gave them the SMS codes that they can use to send us messages. Then we developed the website and the whole reporting mechanism. We acted as an enabler, but all the work was done on the ground by the civil society. We trained them on how to use the technology, how to report, and how to send us reports.
Sawtna:What were the biggest challenges both from the technical side and from the aspects linked to the environment in Sudan, be it, social, political or cultural?
Fareed: From the technology side there huge challenges, and because this is the first time this was done in Sudan we ran into issues that people haven’t experienced before.One of the biggest challenges we ran into was getting the SMS shortcodes.In SMS there is a technology called shortcodes which is a 5 or 8-digit code that you give to whomever wants to send you these coded messages. That code has to be gotten from the telecom operators, so we had to go and find the telecom operators. We ended up doing that through Zain and securing the access to the shortcodes, then paying for it.
Getting the infrastructure setup was a big challenge, because they were never asked to do something like this before. We worked with a company in South Africa, which develops software that takes the shortcodes from the telecom operators and aggregates it into the back-end, so that we can take it from there and report it on our website. We had to find another aggregator, where they sell these shortcodes, because in the case of Sudan they were not already there, we had to bring them in and introduce them to Zain and facilitate that process.
That was on the technical side. On the ground the big challenge was introducing the concept as well as mobilizing enough people to the remote sites. Sudan is very remote and spread out, so getting people mobile phones so they can report from wherever they have to be was a logistical challenge.
We also had a special challenge with security, because in the [monitoring of] the 2010 elections, this was not something that was welcome by the government. In fact on the second day of monitoring our website was shut down, and we had to go through all kinds of technical backdoors to get it back online again.
[P]artnering with a representative number of civil society and giving them the resources they need to deploy their monitors is vital. That all takes planning and starting early, which is key.
Sawtna: What would you do differently if you were to repeat this experience, say for the next elections in 2015?
Fareed: We would mobilize early and we would secure the shortcodes early, so we could give the [elections] monitors the resources they need.We would need to provide them with enough mobile phones so they can report from where they are. We would train them. We would also use some sort of technology to mask out their numbers, so they’re not easily detected, or risk disclosing their identity.We would mobilize the largest number of monitors that we can and train them early.
Overall we proved that the technology works, and that the civil society can adopt it quickly as well as the public. Once we publicized, on short notice, people were able to pick it up. From my perspective it was a very successful undertaking.
Sawtna: From what you’re saying, if people are interested to use crisis mapping for the next elections, starting early and planning early is key to its success?
Fareed: Absolutely. That is the key, as well partnering with a large number of civil society, because civil society is where the rubber meets the road, as they say. They are already on the ground, so partnering with a representative number of civil society and giving them the resources they need to deploy their monitors is vital. That all takes planning and starting early, which is key.