Protecting democracy with SMS

The mission of the National Democratic Institute (NDI) is to support and strengthen democratic institutions around the world. One of NDI's most important programs is providing technical assistance to civil society organizations monitoring elections in more than 70 countries.

In recent years, technology has powered revolutionary new approaches to traditional organizing methods, more intimate connections between politicians and their voters, and unprecedented capacity to aggregate individual problems or preferences. The internet can transmit this information in many countries, but it is far from ubiquitous. Mobile phones, however, can reach huge audiences in every corner of the world.

Helping non-partisan civil society organizations monitor their country's elections to determine if they are free and fair is an essential part of NDI's mission. To do that, hundreds or thousands of volunteers fan across a country to scrutinize the process at their local polling stations, filling out carefully crafted forms on the details of the voting and counting.

When monitoring elections, speed is of the essence because the most rigorously collected data is worthless if it comes after an election commission rubber-stamps a manipulated outcome. Encoded communications enable observers around the country to quickly and reliably get their report data to a central location.

To receive these hundreds of thousands of priceless data points, NDI's partners would previously rely on SMS shortcodes provided by the local telecom authorities. These routes are, however, expensive to set up and use, unpredictable in setup lead times which can run to months, and trivially easy for a government to shut down.

Since 2013, Telerivet has enabled NDI's partner organizations to easily coordinate and communicate with election observers – even without high-tech expertise on the ground. Compared to other communications channels, Telerivet can be set up on short notice, provides additional security, and costs much less.

Telerivet's platform easily integrates with in-house software, including special-purpose election monitoring software developed by NDI, which decodes election reports and combines them with information from other observers for further analysis.

NDI has used Telerivet in over a dozen elections, including the 2017 polls in Kenya. Telerivet was running for months in advance of these tense elections as long-term observers across the whole country sent in regular reports on the volatile political situation in their areas.

One of the core problems that NDI encounters with technology, in general, is that it's often too difficult to use. According to Chris Doten, NDI's Chief Innovation Officer, "If you've set up a technology solution that isn't maintainable over time you've failed, particularly in international development. Too many communications solutions are either prohibitively expensive over the long haul or too hard for normal people to use. Remember that your average political party leader, NGO advocate, or member of parliament has a career of their own, and are not looking to moonlight as a sophisticated computer system administrator."

Due to its ease of use, low cost, and ability to be quickly deployed in any country, Telerivet has proven itself a valuable tool for NDI to support democracy around the world.

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"Telerivet succeeds brilliantly in aiding communication in low-infrastructure environments, which has made it one of the core implements in our international development tech toolbox."
- Chris Doten, Chief Innovation Officer