Freetown, Sierra Leone - Harry Kargbo barely slept the night before Sierra Leone's recent election for president. "I was so excited," he said. "I was up until 1 AM the night before. I was thinking, 'What will happen tomorrow? What will tomorrow look like?'"
Four hours later, Kargbo was up and out the door. Armed with nothing more than a mobile phone, he spent the next 10 hours navigating his way through a vehicle ban and police checkpoints, observing voting at polling stations around this West African country's capital, Freetown, and reporting on what he saw using the basic text messaging function on his phone.
"It was an inspiration for me to cover the election of my country," Kargbo said. "People's perception of Sierra Leone is to know it as war-torn - the place of blood diamonds... So it was to change perceptions."
The 24-year-old student was one of 45 citizen journalists who filed reports for Radar, a UK-based organisation that ran a training and monitoring project for Sierra Leone's election on November 17. The text messages sent by volunteers such as Kargbo were directed by a Google Labs project to a Gmail account, where they were received and analysed by Radar's team in the UK. The reports sent via SMS - the technology on which text messages are carried - were then posted to a Tumblr website, pegged to a Google Map, and disseminated on Twitter.
"I think it [SMS] is one of the most powerful tools that we have for transparency and accountability," said Libby Powell, Radar's founder.
Radar's project is one of many examples of how a diverse range of information in sub-Saharan Africa - on everything from elections to regional drug shortages - is increasingly being monitored electronically. SMS and web-mapping services such as Google Maps are favourite tools for these efforts.
A larger project similar to Radar's is the "Citizen Situation Room", which mapped reports from more than 9,000 observers spread out across Sierra Leone. That initiative, implemented by National Election Watch (NEW), drew on technologies previously deployed during elections in Senegal in February 2012 and Liberia in November 2011. And those efforts drew on the experiences of earlier observation missions in Nigeria, Uganda, and Kenya, among others.
There's a growing list of high-profile supporters for these types of activities. Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, described the Senegal initiative as "perhaps the most sophisticated monitoring program ever deployed in Africa or anywhere else". And media critic and Twitter all-star Jay Rosen called the Radar project "incredible".
Perhaps the best-known example of a crowd-sourced SMS-mapping project in Africa was also one of the first. In a story told and retold in media outlets around the world, a Kenyan blogger worked with a small team to develop an open-source piece of software called Ushahidi - Swahili for witness - which was originally designed to track 2008 post-election violence in Kenya. Ushahidi has since been adapted for a variety of projects that range from mapping Wi-Fi hotspots in India to corruption in Macedonia.
Ushahidi's founder, Ory Okolloh, is now Google's policy manager for sub-Saharan Africa. On the phone from Johannesburg, South Africa, Okolloh said that the goal of Google's participation in election monitoring is to present information in a way that reduces uncertainty, and therefore promotes stability.
"What we've seen recently - in Liberia and then with the election in Sierra Leone - are projects where people are finding ways to use SMS and plug into tools like Google Maps and Fusion Tables to help visualise data," she continued. "It's an interesting example of combining high tech and low tech."
Okolloh noted that more advanced technologies are also being employed. Ahead of December 7 elections in Ghana, candidates engaged voters using video services such as YouTube and Google Hangouts. “The quality of the data can be fantastic,” she said. “We had 50,000 people on a live stream for the first presidential debate for Ghana.”
Mobile phones for mapping
Some of these countries are among the world's least developed. Within them, there are significant disparities in rates of internet penetration. According to data made available by the World Bank, Nigeria and Kenya, for example, have roughly doubled the percentage of their populations online as the sub-Saharan average, and more than 10 times that of Sierra Leone and Liberia. But a similar data set for mobile phone users in Africa shows that populations' access to simple technologies such as SMS is more equal.
At the core of these election monitoring projects are Nokia or Samsung handsets that sell for less than $30. It's thought that more people in Africa have a mobile phone than access to electricity. And in 2012 - which happens to mark the 20th anniversary of the SMS - the proportion of the world's population that owned a phone exceeded two-thirds.
Sierra Leone's Citizen Situation Room (SaloneVote.com) is an enhanced version of the Senegal project praised by Hillary Clinton. At that website, thousands of detailed reports that all originated as a simple text message are presented on a Google Map and available for citizens to explore.
James Lahai, national coordinator for National Election Watch, explained how the system works. Trained observers were deployed to nearly 3,000 polling centers across the country, carrying checklists that listed numerical codes for specific observations, such as whether a polling centre opened on time. Those reports were accompanied by codes representing observers' identities and locations, and sent to NEW's head office in Freetown. The text messages were then digitally analysed for irregularities or conflicts with other reports. If a problem was identified, the message was directed to a "panel of experts" for investigation. If the software found no issue with the information, it continued on to a database and from there, was translated into a format that would see it displayed on the website and embedded in a Google Map.
"We were able to capture data rapidly from the field, and be able to inform the public about what was happening at every individual polling station across the country," Lahai said. Information presented on the website was also communicated to local newspapers and radio stations so that it was available in areas of Sierra Leone where internet is not easily available.
NEW's monitoring efforts were conducted in partnership with a number of organisations, including One World and SMAG Media, which were previously involved in similar projects in Senegal and Liberia respectively.
Jeffrey Allen, a programme coordinator for One World, explained that the organisation launched an SMS-based program in Senegal in 2010 that let people anonymously submit and receive answers to questions about reproductive health. They combined aspects of that model with monitoring activities focused on the February 2012 election, and the result was Sénégal-Scrutin (SeneVote2012.com).
"We didn't want to do anything with smart phones or tablets," he said. "We wanted to work with the phones that people already know. That's why we used basic SMS. So it was out job to build a complex system that allows people to keep things simple."
"The penetration of mobile telephone technologies - including smart phones - is a great equaliser."
- Pat Merloe
Pat Merloe, director of electoral programs at the Washington-based National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), described such efforts as an "advance in transparency in Africa and around the world". But he called attention to the limitations of web-based efforts to monitor elections.
"People who don't have access [to the internet] don't get to see it," he noted. "So the digital divide remains an important factor. But the penetration of mobile telephone technologies - including smart phones - is a great equaliser."
Google's Okolloh also emphasised the shortcomings of both low and high-tech resources. While the basic mobile phones ubiquitous in developing countries give people the ability to contribute to crowd-sourced websites, they do not provide access to the visual and dynamic representations of data that those contributions become.
Okolloh added that that is something Google is working on. Kenya is scheduled to hold general elections in March 2013, and Google is planning on lending support to monitoring efforts.
"The focus for us will be on our strengths in terms of making information more accessible, but doing it in a way where it is more accessible to local developers, media, and civil society groups who can then build more localized tools," Okolloh said. "I think this contributes to the story of Africa for the last few years, where we are getting better at adapting technology in ways that make sense for us as African users."
Follow Travis Lupick on Twitter: @tlupick