Tuesday, July 25, 2017

The election’s digital challenge

For the first time in Myanmar’s history, election information on candidates and voters has been moved into digital databases.

But while the modernisation push has yielded apps, SMS campaigns and a voter list website stacked with millions of names, it has been also been confronted by capacity challenges – still an issue in a country transitioning from offline to online, with errors persisting on paper and mistakes difficult to avoid.

Residents of Thingangyun township check the voter list at a ward administration office. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar TimesResidents of Thingangyun township check the voter list at a ward administration office. Photo: Aung Htay Hlaing / The Myanmar Times

Helping to address and overcome these concerns are international organisations, which are collaborating with the Union Election Commission to make information from physical forms available on the internet. The Asia Foundation mainly digitised candidate data from forms that aspiring politicians filled out themselves, while the International Foundation of Electoral Systems (IFES) worked with the government to compile and modernise the country’s first digital nationwide voter list.

The Asia Foundation, which established an office in Myanmar in 2013, had previously worked in Indonesia to incorporate technology into the 2014 elections. Though the two countries didn’t originally seem to line up in terms of potential – Indonesia has more experience with electoral races and harbours a more developed tech community – The Asia Foundation saw the process of digitisation could be “inherently useful”, according to Kim Ninh, its Myanmar representative.

Connectivity in the country has exploded by way of mobile phones – many of them “smart” – and Myanmar’s tech community has taken shape, she continued.

“Increasingly there is a leapfrogging effect going on, so perhaps it would make sense for The Asia Foundation to look at this particular project,” she said, referring to its digitisation efforts.

She said the official response to their endeavour was welcoming.

“With traditional approaches to voter education still so much needed, this one aspect [digitising election information] seemed a little farfetched ... We weren’t quite sure how the UEC would receive it, but we approached them and they were surprisingly open.”

To get the information into a database, The Asia Foundation assembled a Unicode-friendly data entry team – an issue in itself – to type in candidate information and scan photos from candidate registration forms. The modernisation process had to be flexible and able to tackle issues far from the digital realm, however: The foundation’s program and operations officer Ma Mi Ki Kyaw Myint said a few incomplete forms and even bad handwriting complicated their task.

Though the UEC was “extremely busy” and new to the digitisation system, Ma Mi Ki Kyaw Myint said the commission had been “wonderfully supportive”.

“There are times the UEC staff didn’t understand our process or technical aspects, but they were very open,” she said, even going so far as to request that the foundation keep records of obstacles they came up against in putting together the candidate list.

The Asia Foundation’s data entry work was just the start: Now the information had to be put to use. For this, it was made available to hackers at an election-themed tech challenge, the community-organised Mae Pay Soh hackathon, hosted by local innovation lab Phandeeyar and others.

The competition ended on September 27, with top honours going to a team of mostly teenage developers that put together an application called MVoter 2015. The app’s interface was designed to remind of Facebook’s. It connects users with information on how to cast a ballot, voter eligibility and local candidates.

“I think sometimes we can overhype when we talk about leapfrogging because a development process requires a lot of building blocks. But in this one instance, you see glimpses of what is possible – using technology in creative ways and bringing together the information side,” said Ms Ninh.

Meanwhile, the UEC collaborated with IFES on the country’s first digital voter list, an upgrade from previous registrars of mostly handwritten information vulnerable to loss or damage.

The process of putting together the voter list began with a pilot program in three separate areas last year that involved about 100,000 registrants and 30 laptops. It was followed by a national rollout, a process that stretched human resource capacity and made use of 1100 laptops. In the preliminary display period, thousands of data entry personnel visited General Administration Department (GAD) offices nationwide to get information out of logbooks and Ministry of Immigration household lists and into an electronic database via software meant to mirror the look of physical paperwork.

Simply digitising old data does not ensure its accuracy, of course. The list has been attacked by many for vast inaccuracies, with estimates that in some areas nearly half of all eligible voters have been left out. Accidents in the transcription process have come to light – at least one voter has popped up on the list as a street name – and obsolete source materials have led to deceased people being included. This last problem has prompted jokes that, in Myanmar, people can vote from beyond this earthly life.

The new format does have advantages, however, including heightened security of information. The UEC said one motivation for digitising the voter list was to keep the data permanently, but that before the process started it lacked technical knowledge to do so. U Win Kyi said that the commission faced challenges with software knowledge, and also that he was not yet sure what would happen with the computers provided for the digitisation process. Still, he put the voter list database at 33.5 million names, a significant achievement given the project started from scratch.

Another benefit of getting away from paper is that the data is accessible to more than just the UEC. Prospective voters can ensure their eligibility for polling day by heading to checkvoterlist.uecmyanmar.org.

The site has so far been visited by more than 250,000 individual users, with a massive spike in traffic coming on the first day the lists went on display nationwide. The UEC also linked up with Myanmar’s three mobile phone operators to alert all their customers of the display’s launch.

The site has recently been updated to allow users to check if they can vote in ethnic election contests and should provide information on polling stations in the future.

The digitisation process has left the UEC with new servers, an IT department and, at the township level, computers in every office, with the UEC matching IFES donations one-to-one. Aside from the equipment, the biggest change from the 2010 election is the attitude.

“Every step forward is a significant step in this regard,” Ms Ninh said. “We have to remind ourselves where we were coming from in this environment ... from a time when information like this was really closed off and viewed as only official information to a time when it’s actually available on an app.”

“There are many firsts in Myanmar with this election and I think this is also a time in which we are working with Myanmar counterparts – whether in government or outside – to establish new practices: making information open and available, and making it more of a process of the relationship between the government and citizens,” she added.

“For our little project to be able to help in that regard – it’s a very hopeful sign.”