As reported on physorg.com Liberia, a country that only recently emerged from a brutal civil war, is having presidential elections. A Georgia Tech professor is experimenting with a novel idea: Crowdsourcing reports on how elections are running and making available timely reports to prevent any dangerous situations from occurring.
During the election, Georgia Tech Associate Professor Michael Best provided technical support for a Nigerian group that wanted to use social media as a means for tracking the election process and identifying any problems that cropped up. Best and his team of researchers designed a social media aggregator tool that could pull content from about 20 different sources (including Twitter) and analyze the data in real time using keywords.
At the peak of activity, the aggregator tracked about 50 reports per second and analyzed them based on keywords and (sometimes) location data. The Nigerian Social Media Tracking Centre, formed just before the election by the organization Best was supporting, forwarded along confirmable reports of election irregularities and ultimately reports of violence to Nigerian authorities.
Tangibly, Best and team want to produce open-source software that can be used to monitor major events as a complementary tool to traditional monitoring techniques. For example, the National Democratic Institute and the European Union both sent observers to Nigeria for its April elections, and today Liberia will likewise see international teams on the ground, monitoring and reporting on the country’s electoral processes. How can crowdsourced election data compliment the work of trained formal observer missions? What impact will that data have? And what impact will Friday’s announcement that President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf will receive the Nobel Peace Prize have on the election?
“The nongovernmental organizations [NGOs] that do election monitoring are understandably leery of formally using this technology right now, because they don’t want to risk their data being tainted with unreliable citizen reports,” said Thomas Smyth, a Ph.D. student in Best’s lab. “However our research could open up new understandings of how social media function in election-like situations, and as the explosion of social media causes NGOs to refine their policies, it could be of interest to them.”