Sudan: Checking in with Sudan Vote Monitor

On the eve of Sudan's 2010 presidential elections, I interviewed Fareed Zein, who heads the citizen election monitoring project Sudan Vote Monitor, for the Technology for Transparency Project. Zein was hopeful that the project would bring greater transparency to the country's first democratic elections in more than two decades. “There was basically no idea what was going on on the ground” during previous political events, Zein said at the time. “What we're hoping to do is shine a light and give people access to events that are occurring at remote election centers.” On Wednesday I checked in with Zein to get his thoughts on the project now that the elections have ended.

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan.

An official from Sudan's National Elections Commission (left) assists a voter at a polling station in Juba, Sudan. Photo courtesy of United Nations Photo on Flickr.

Overall, how did things go?
It exceeded my expectations. I had such doubt that we were going to be able to pull it off given all the hurdles and challenges, right to the last minute. So to have everything worked out and to have the response that we received from the general public — and mind you we had no idea how the public was going to respond — it's just been great.

What were the biggest successes?
The quality of the reporting, the quality of the reports people were sending in, both in Arabic and in English, from all over the country. It was just really fascinating to see how quickly the public picked up the technology and was able to embrace it. They really were dying to have an avenue to express their views.

Were there any disappointments?
In terms of things that I wish had gone better, I would have liked to get more reporting from the south, as well as from Darfur. We got some, but not as much as we were hoping to. We got quite a bit from the central part of the country all the way up to the north and from the east as well, but from the west and from the south I wish we'd have gotten more. That probably has to do with the access people have to be able to send reports over the Internet or via SMS.

Another thing is the fact that I was not able to be there physically on the ground with the team that was working heroically to upload and verify the reports. It was my desire to be on the ground with them in Khartoum and in Juba, but I unfortunately wasn't able to join them. We had to do this over Skype and over the phone.

If you had another shot at monitoring the elections, what would you do differently?
We probably would try to work out the technology on the ground sooner. I would have wanted to be on the ground working out the SMS part of it, which took a lot of work. Our partner organization did a fabulous job in terms of trying to represent us with the telecom companies, but that would be something that I would have wanted to do.

We had to work down to the wire, to the last minute to get the technical pieces working. We got the short code running literally the night before, just enough time to do some basic testing. That's one thing I would have wanted to work out earlier, to do some SMS reporting both in the north and the south, so those are some of the lessons we learned.

One of the biggest stories coming out about Sudan Vote Monitor is that the site was blocked for several days during the elections. Was this a surprise, or was it something you were expecting?
I was expecting some disruption. I wasn't expecting complete a shut down, but we knew there were risks going in, so I wasn't totally surprised. I was pleased that it was allowed to operate after two days. Even during those days where it was blocked we still continued to receive reports. We were able to work, although in a reduced capacity. We were determined to work and operate in spite of the challenges — we weren't totally unprepared.

As of April 28, your site has received 257 reports. How many of these were you able to verify?
That number will probably go even higher if we add up the SMS reports. We didn't completely finish because we didn't have a way to reach the people that are doing the reporting to verify that. It's probably somewhere between 300 and 500 when you add it all together. Most of the web-based ones we were able to verify, and I would say less than half of the SMS ones.

Was there any public response to the reports on your site?
It was more of an avenue for people to get more information, which is precisely what we wanted to do. In previous elections it was all a closed door affair — nobody knew exactly what went on on the ground. The intention of this was to be able to get the information out to the public, internally and externally, about what's going on. Just being able to get the word out was enough for us. We didn't set out to try to urge anybody to take any specific action. Our mission was to get the information out and then let people judge and act for themselves.

Now that the elections are over, what's next for Sudan Vote Monitor?
We are evaluating several options. We're definitely interested in leveraging the experience. We're compiling a “lessons learned,” and we'll be publishing those. We think we're onto something here, and we believe that there is a very strong case for doing the same thing for the referendum [on independence for Southern Sudan, scheduled for January 2011]. Between now and the referendum there is a lot of need to get the public engaged, and we feel this platform is a valid and strong platform to do that. We're talking to some potential groups that are interested in collaborating with us, so definitely look for more. We will be tabulating and bringing this phase to closure and then publishing our final findings for this event, then setting the next phase very shortly.

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