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This case study centers on the use of crowdmapping by Ukrainian civic activists during 2012 parliamentary elections. An overview of three projects considers the similarities and differences between them and the mechanisms used in each one. Key findings from project websites and reports show how these civic engagement efforts contributed to transparent and accountable coverage of the Ukrainian elections.
> > The internet has augmented the way people perform citizenship and engage in politics, but the reasons for these transformations remain uncertain. The debate revolves around the nature of the Internet itself and how it is interpreted by citizens, governments, corporations and academics.
In many post-Soviet countries the internet is perceived as a liberator of sorts, an alternative platform to traditional media co-opted by the elites (Fossato et al. 2008; Oates 2010). Goldstein (2007) notes that during the Orange Revolution in Ukraine in 2004 the internet, unlike major traditional media, was an independent, uncensored medium, where dissenting opinions could be disseminated freely along with information to help citizens enforce their rights as voters and to protest rigged elections.
Crowdsourcing allows civic participation to be augmented through the use of online tools, and is powered, fed and checked by the crowd. The “Digital Activism Decoded” glossary defines crowdsourcing as “a distributed labor practice wherein a job that is usually done by one person is given to a large group of people who each do a smaller piece of the task, usually as volunteers.” (Joyce 2010, 218) A subtype of crowdsourcing, crowdmapping uses interactive maps as primary mechanisms of citizen engagement. Activists compile live maps based on witness reports to create, distribute and improve shared situational awareness. Dozens of live maps (powered by the Ushahidi platform) were created to monitor the events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen (Meier 2011). This increasing use of live maps points to the possible rise of a “mapping reflex,” ascribing to each event not only sounds and images, but also a concrete geographic location (Sidorenko 2011). Apart from bearing witness and providing location anchors, crowdmapping can provide a different frame or narrative — a crowdsourced one — that can counter official state propaganda or false election results.
While the use of crowdmapping in countries like Kenya (where Ushahidi originated) and the MENA countries is more widely documented by scholars, crowdmapping as a tactic in the Eastern European developing democracies has received less attention. The case study considered the features and content available on the three Ukrainian election crowdmapping websites, in particular the kinds of tools that enable citizen participation, accountability, real-time updates and report verification. Analysis included each website’s visuals, opportunities for engagement, mechanisms of submission, filtering mechanisms, categories of violations, rules and verification procedures, reports of results, and action taken by activists after violations were submitted. This provided a comparative perspective, and, coupled with the number of violations reported, shed some light on the relative and overall success of each initiative.
The civic network OPORA used an interactive map based on the Google Maps API with information about all the 225 electoral districts and 33,000 polling stations, including contacts of the local commissions overseeing the vote. The monitoring was conducted by 3,800 professional OPORA observers. When violations were recorded, they placed them on the map, along with photo and video evidence. Regular citizens were also able to submit information about violations via a hotline or an online form, with reports posted on the map after verification. While OPORA required fairly detailed information about violations, including users’ contact information, there was no detailed description of the filtering or verification process.
Online citizen activism hub Maidan.org.ua launched a crowdsourcing project called “Maidan-Monitoring”, which visualized the violations on an Ushahidi-based map. An additional project — the “People’s CEC [Central Election Commission]” — asked election commission members and ordinary voters to submit electronic photographs of the final voting protocols that were later posted online in order to prevent any manipulations of election results. This project provided detailed submission guidelines and verification rules, and gave users multiple ways to report violations: website, email, Twitter, Facebook, text message and phone calls. Each report was verified by in-house lawyers, who then appealed to the CEC.
Another election-monitoring project, Elect.Ua by Internews-Ukraine, used OpenStreetMap to visualize reported violations, and employed both professional reporting and crowdsourcing to do so. Elect.UA had 36 journalists around the country reporting during the elections, while three groups of electoral monitors reported to the same platform using SMS, online forms and emails. Citizens could report about violations using social media, mobile phones, an online form or email. Information coming from journalists and electoral monitors was automatically tagged as verified, while messages from the crowd were vetted by administrators. For these messages, there was a verification protocol based on the source of the information: mobile, social, online form or email, but it was not disclosed to the website users.
As a result of the crowdmapping initiatives, hundreds of violations in all regions were reported, with photo and video evidence enabling multiple appeals to CEC and the Ukrainian courts by the NGOs’ lawyers. ElectUA claimed over 1700 verified violation reports, while Maidan-Monitoring boasted 1670 verified reports, out of over 7000 total (OPORA network did not reveal their quantitative results.) The largest share of reports came from volunteers and citizens, who provided locally sourced evidence of elections violations and voter fraud. All projects verified submitted information, but only Maidan-Monitoring revealed their protocol to the public. All three visualized the situation in real-time and provided additional evidence for international observers, allowing them to proclaim the elections only partly free and conditionally honest.
As the internet continues to be the field of battle in a heavily coopted and contested Ukrainian media space (with Russia remaining a huge player), civic engagement efforts augmented by crowdmapping will play a key role in inclusive democratic development. Crowdmaps become essential tools for election monitoring projects, reporting on community issues, corruption investigations, and protest coordination. Ease of use and transparency of outputs make crowdmapping an ideal civic media platform for organizing even the most reluctant citizens.
Fossato, Floriana, John Lloyd, and Aleksandr Verkhovskiĭ. 2008. “The Web that Failed: How opposition politics and independent initiatives are failing on the internet in Russia.” Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. Available athttp://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/fileadmin/documents/Publications/The_Web_that_Failed.pdf.
Goldstein, Joshua. 2007. “The role of digital networked technologies in the Ukrainian Orange Revolution.” Berkman Center Research Publication 14 (2007). Available at SSRN:http://ssrn.com/abstract=1077686.
Joyce, Mary C., ed. 2010. “Digital activism decoded: the new mechanics of change.” IDEA.
Meier, Patrick. P. 2011. “Do ‘liberation technologies’ change the balance of power between repressive states and civil society?’.” A Thesis Presented to the Faculty Of The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
Oates, Sarah. 2010. “From Parent to Protestor on the Post-Soviet Internet: Locating and Evaluating Political Web Spaces for Families of Children with Genetic Disabilities in Russia.” Presentation at the Political Communication Section Pre-Conference, American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, September 2010, George Washington University, Washington, D.C.
Sidorenko, Alexey. 2011. “Russia: Unexpected Results of Radiation Mapping.” Global Voices Online, March 25, 2011. Available at http://globalvoicesonline.org/2011/03/25/russia-unexpected-results-of-radiation-mapping/.
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