Thinking global, living local: Voices in a globalized world

Crowdmapping the First Election of the Arab Spring

Written by on . Published in Syria - an outcry for democracy on , , .

As the year 2011 has passed, it is not out of place to look back at what the internet has meant to Africa’s growing democracy and the effects that will remain for a long time to come. It is turning out that crowdmaps are taking Africa’s election accountability a notch higher.

From the late months of 2010, the Arab Spring was birthed on an internet revolution that run through this year and toppled the age-old governments of Egypt and Tunisia. Future Challenges blogger Mehdi Lbadikho explains quite simply the events that led to the success of the revolution in his piece ‘From Rabat to Damascus: Arab Spring Blues’. The Arab Spring has spread to Bahrain, Yemen, Syria and Libya, motivating a spontaneous worldwide #Occupy movement. Hashtags like #Tahrir, #Jan25 and #ows have defined the realities of this year, throwing major economies off balance, while leading to loss of lives, property and rulerships.

African countries that benefitted from these internet revolutions have not thrown their mobile devices away. In the aftermath of these landmark events, these countries are counting on crowdsourcing tools and crowdmapping technologies to cover their first parliamentary and presidential elections. They are refusing to let their new-found freedoms go. The two ideas of increasingly putting mobile internet-enabled devices in the hands of the people while denying them basic freedoms have proved incompatible.

One crowdsourcing tool that has proved popular in the revolution is Ushahidi. Ushahidi, meaning ‘witness’ in Swahili, is a crowdsourcing tool invented by Kenyans after the disputed Kenyan elections of 2007. The tool collects SMS, tweets, Facebook and web entries from people who engage with it and report these on an online map. It is worth noting that civil society groups in all the beneficiary countries of the Arab Spring have set up Ushahidi crowdmap instances online. This effectively takes a significant portion of the press out of the hands of the state, with some of these groups doing well to have back-up servers hosting their maps from foreign countries, just in case the internet gets shut down in their own countries again.

But revolutions are uncontrollable. It is getting increasingly worrying that Egyptians may not have the patience to wait for the new government to strengthen state institutions. Many protests have slowed down the new government’s ability to settle down. In Libya, there are very weak state institutions, just as in Syria. The chaotic revolutions just mirror the more chaotic internet that enabled them. With so much unregulated data online, only social media is holding the fragile internet structures together. Beatrice Jeschek reporting on the Net Reality Barcamp in Berlin, calls social media ‘a connecting substance, a catalyst for political activism’. In reality, social media is the only way to have a networked meaning to the internet.

The Egyptians hosted one of their several crowdmaps at while the Tunisian crowdmap was hosted in French at a site named ISIE. These maps were set up in the early days of the revolution and have stayed to see the first democratic elections. The Libya Crisis Map was also used during the revolution and has now developed a team of ready mappers who are waiting to deploy for the country’s expected first elections.  The interesting development happens to be that those countries that did not have to go through revolutions have learnt from the revolutionaries nonetheless, setting up their own crowdmaps for monitoring elections. The recent Liberian and Congolese elections employed useful maps while Ghana, due to have elections in December 2012, has already started seeing crowdmap activity in its preparations.

‘Fast change won’t be sustainable – and may instead destroy the glue that is holding Syrian society together today’ according to Syria-an outcry for Democracy. This statement applies to the African revolutionary countries too. Regardless of this fact, the Arab Spring has bequeathed to African democracy a growing online awareness that is making digital democracy possible. Will there be an increase in crowdsourcing activity in Africa’s total infobahn as democracies mature? Only time will tell.

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