Election & Technology

Technology and Elections

Elections have to be conducted in a free and fair manner, they must be administered in such a way that they are transparent, credible open to public scrutiny with little room for errors. In recent times, it has become more apparent that technology is an essential part of conducting activities related to electoral processes because technology based systems can be introduced gradually, tested extensively and implemented within schedules to eliminate chances of jeopardizing the entire election.

Technology has been used to conduct voter education campaigns, compile voter lists, manage and train staff, print ballots, to record, count and consolidate cast votes as well as publish election results. Technology when applied appropriately can effectively increase the efficiency, transparency and credibility of electoral mother bodies as well as civil society organizations working in the electoral sphere.

The Open ESR technology is one such tool that has been used in various African countries during elections using digital mapping tools, Internet and mobile device based solutions that carter to the needs of a large scale project such as national elections. The introduction of information and communications technologies (ICTs) has made it easier for practitioners, citizens and voters to engage on electoral processes and get a response in real time to emerging issues that may affect the outcome of an election.

The aim of using such new technologies is to improve the electoral process by using sophisticated data processing tools, such as data base management systems, optical scanning and geographic information systems to compliment traditional methods of conducting elections. Even though using technology in elections is not an end in itself, it offers new possibilities for administering electoral processes, especially when implemented appropriately and timely.

Some of the technologies currently being used for electoral processes include but not limited to;



Short message service (SMS) is a mobile phone system which is considerably cheap and user-friendly. It works in such a way that messages can be stored, retrieved and answered at a user's convenience and transmission is as quick as that of a phone call. It is an effective technology for reaching a large population with electoral related activities because a mobile phone is considered an essential tool used by people to communicate on a day to day basis. The high rate of ownership and frequent use makes mobile phones the number one communication tool.

The ESR toolkit comprises of an SMS reporting tool which allows users to send an SMS to the Election Situation Room database to report an incident or emerging issue pertaining to the electoral process. This enables the Election Situation Room to be a real time responsive system that allows fast reaction time and fast data analysis. The SMS platform is usually setup with an SMS short code e.g 2323, which is a toll free code that allows people to use the service for free it and all their reports are displayed on a dashboard within the system for real time analysis and response.


USSD (Unstructured Supplementary Service Data) is a Global System for Mobile (GSM) communication technology that is used to send text between a mobile phone and an application program in the network. Applications may include prepaid roaming or mobile chatting. USSD is similar to Short Messaging Service (SMS), but, unlike SMS, USSD transactions occur during a particular session only. With SMS, messages can be sent to a mobile phone and stored for several days even if the phone is not activated or within range.

When a user sends a message to the phone company network, it is received by a computer dedicated to USSD. The computer's response is sent back to the phone, generally in a basic format that can easily be seen on the phone display. Messages sent over USSD are not defined by any standardization body, so each network operator can implement whatever is most suitable for its customers.

The USSD technology can be used in the ESR platform to collect survey data with predefined answers or answers that can be grouped for further analysis and digestion. An example of this is an SMS Observer Check List can be embedded in the USSD framework and the data can be quickly analysed and disseminated for better understanding of electoral patterns and incidences. The data is received and analysed in real time to effect real time analysis and rapid response.

Mobile Applications

A ‘Mobile App’ is basically an application developed to make communication, access or creation of information easier. Examples of this include, Skype, Mozilla Firefox or Microsoft Excel. Its purpose can vary from that of business, communication or entertainment. Thousands of apps have been developed and made available in recent years due to the rise of smartphone use. Mobile apps differ from simple note-taking apps, to news and game apps. More recently, the use of tablet computers increased following the release of the Apple iPad at the beginning of 2010. The tablet computers have one major advantage of a bigger and wider screen, opening up more developing possibilities for app developers and publishers. In terms of operating systems, the existing brands in the mobile app market at present are Apple’s iOS and Google’s Android. Apple run their own iOS system which only works on apple devices while Google’s Android system, which runs on various devices such as Samsung and HTC.

The ESR technology utilizes the flexibility of the mobile applications to collect detailed information in various formats such as audio, video, image and GPS. Depending on the functionality of the phone used, textual data captured via mobile phone can be combined with data in other formats such as photographic images, audio, and video, as a way to substantiate the information provided by text. In addition, GPS or geo-location data can be passively collected and transmitted along with survey data. This can be used to help map locations and validate that the reporter of an incident is actually present in the area where he/she claims the reported incident took place. This is also great way to collect data at low cost because of the advantages that smartphones brings to the equation.


This is a crowdsourcing platform that enables effective data collection, visualization and interactive mapping, allowing anyone to submit information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web format. Ushahidi, which translates to “testimony” in Swahili, was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election violence in 2008. Since then, many have used the crowdsourcing tool to raise issues and amplify the voices of marginalised communities. The open source component of the platform makes it an efficient platform for individuals or organizations to share their map story, collect information, visualize topics over time with location and interact with their communities.

Rapid Pro

Rapid SMS is a free and open source framework designed to send and receive data using basic mobile phones, manage complex workflows, automate analysis and present data in real-time. In Zambia, for example, Rapid SMS was used to facilitate communication between clinics and community health workers to significantly reduce the amount of time between collecting blood samples for early infant diagnosis for HIV and the return of test results to the originating health facility. Rapid SMS has also been used widely in international development with many organisations contributing to the Rapid SMS codebase, which is built with Python and Django. From youth engagement programs like U-Report to education monitoring systems like EduTrac, Rapid Pro has become UNICEF’s common platform for developing and sharing mobile services that can be adapted for different contexts and sectors. This open-source platform can be used to thereby aid the development of a robust tech component for the ESR.

Google Maps

Google Maps is a web mapping service developed by Google. It offers satellite imagery, street maps, 360° panoramic views of streets (Street View), real-time traffic conditions (Google Traffic), and route planning for traveling by foot, car, bicycle (in beta) or public transportation.

Google Maps was launched in February 2005. The service's front end utilizes JavaScript, XML, and Ajax. Google Maps offers an API1 that allows maps to be embedded on third-party websites, which offers a locator for urban businesses and other organizations in numerous countries around the world. Google Map Maker allowed users to collaboratively expand and update the service's mapping worldwide but was discontinued from March, 2017. However, crowd-sourced contributions to Google Maps are not ending, as the company announced those features will be transferred to Google's Local Guides programme.

Google Maps' satellite view is a "top-down" or "birds eye" view; most of the high-resolution imagery of cities is aerial photography taken from aircraft flying at 800 to 1,500 feet (240 to 460 m) and other imagery is from satellites.

The Election Situation Room (ESR) system uses Google Maps for mapping events and incidents in the system. It uses the Map markers, colour co-ordination and labels to distinguish event and incident types. These Maps dynamically enable zoom in and zoom out functionality without a complete page reload. This is done through the Ajax umbrella it sits under.


iCharts’ patented cloud technology allows data grouping and visualize it on the systems, all without the need to export, invest in middleware or embark on a lengthy implementation process. These provide a wide range of chart types giving the ESR system a more precise representation of system information to make quick analysis on decisions.


Real time data collection is readily available in the iCharts and reflected as the data comes in to give accurate and up-to-date information. These features are utilised well within the ESR to enable real time quick event and incident responses.

SMS Gateway Android Application

This application turns your android phone into a powerful SMS gateway. The ESR uses this to minimise the cost of setting up a full blown SMS gateway but using this simple application, it redirects incoming SMS reports to the system for real time analysis. The system allows ShortCode and normal number configuration e.g. 0888471259.



  1. Periodically checks for e-mails via POP3 and send them via SMS.
  2. Send SMS by HTTP GET request on its internal webserver.
  3. Forward received SMS to desired e-mail via SMTP.
  4. Forward received SMS by calling remote webserver via HTTP GET.

Example PHP code: http://pastebin.com/h8eAkjMN


  1. Application Program Interface (API) is a set of routines, protocols and tools for building software applications.