Democracy 101: Governments shouldn’t block social media sites and … they can’t!


News flash: Sudanese government has blocked YouTube! (BBC)

Why? there is no official confirmation/explanation yet but it’s believed that the reasons is the wide online circulation of a video clip showing what seems to be an evidence of fraud in election.

I wasn’t surprised to hear this, actually I expected this weeks ago in an earlier post, but I find it appropriate to briefly remind authorities in Sudan with some policy recommendations I find essential  as the country enters a new era of “democratic transition”. But first here are few facts about social media politicians should know:

  • The time when governments have the exclusive right to decide what information people should know has gone for ever!
  • In the age of social media, every single citizen has the ability (and not only the right) to know and to share what he/she knows with other citizens.

I find it difficult to figure out any rational explanation for such decision, facing the flood of social media with such an authoritarian action is like facing the Nile flood with coffee cup! it won’t work!

While the official final election results are not announced yet, it would be a very sad news to Sudanese people if the government decided to follow the Iranian approach in dealing with accusation of fraud in election.

Dear Sudanese government: you shouldn’t block social media sites, and you can’t!


e-Participation? Houston, We Have a Problem!

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It was interesting to see e-Participation is incorporated as a measure in the United Nations e-Government Readiness Survey 2010 released recently. The UN defines e-Participation in the context of e-Government as “online services that opens up channels for online participation in public affairs” and it is composed of three sub-components:

  • Does the national government publish information on items under consideration?
  • Are there ways for the public to engage in consultations with policy makers, government officials and one another?
  • Can citizens directly influence decisions, for example by voting online or using a mobile telephone?

You can notice that the three components look for actions taken by the “governments” to allow “citizens” to e-Participate. This is not only because the UN survey by nature focuses on measuring the performance of the government  but mainly because the UN itself is still struggling in the “e-government” box instead of moving ahead towards the wider “e-governance” sphere!

However I’ve my concerns that governments and global institutions like UN are repeating the same mistake we witnessed more than a decade ago when the term “e-government” started to spread: to be led by technology and forget about the concepts behind it and the goals we are trying to achieve!

Among many promises made by e-government champions years ago, transparency was one of the most attractive ones; especially in developing countries where people used to look for any help in the struggle against corruption and bad governance. Years later, no much success has been made in these countries and we can’t blame e-government!

Fascinated by the power of the web and internet applications in mid and late 90s, governments in these countries  rushed to invest in e-government projects and waited to see their rankings moving up in Transparency International  lists and… still waiting! What went wrong? why didn’t e-government initiative make the promise of transparency and good governance?

As I said, it’s not the e-government’ s fault, it is the “government” responsibility! Governments has forgotten that “e” is just an enabler while transparency and good governance need requirements that we knew long time ago before the invent of the first computer chip: political willingness, institutions, culture, just to mention a few.

Thanks to social media and web 2.0, we are now facing a similar situation, this time it’s about e-Participation! social media has granted citizens unprecedented opportunity to participate in public affairs, and granted a similar opportunity to governments that are “ready” to engage their citizens in the “governance” process. But the world is not “flat” (sorry Thomas Friedman!) in this context. Although these tools are available and at a very low cost, but governments in developing countries have much more work to do than just opening more accounts in Facebook for government officials!

The good news this time is that and unlike the first wave, it’s not the sole privilege of the governments to decide, the social media empower citizens to positively support the motion of change they want. Still, in my humble opinion, governments have to do their homework.

Before or at least in parallel with their efforts to adopt social media tools to encourage e-Participation, governments in developing countries should find answers to some basic yet tough questions:

  • Are we ready to move from “government” to “governance”? do we have the required political willingness and commitment?
  • Do we really need the citizen to participate?
  • Are we ready? do we have the needed institutions to handle this?
  • Have we established the needed processes to  make the needed cultural changes?

By overlooking these facts, we will continue enjoying social media tools and the UN will continue publishing its annual reports but I’m afraid that no much difference will be made!


“Ushahidi” in Sudan: A Step Towards Citizen-Monitored Elections

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In my article:  “Internet and democracy, empowering citizens to promote transparency and fairness in elections” posted ten days ago, I suggested that Ushahidi model could be used to empower citizen to monitor the election process in countries that are about to kick off their democratic transition journey through an open election.

However, as the election in Sudan started earlier this week and while I was doing a further research on the topic upon the feedback i received from the readers, I’ve discovered a lovely fact: the model is already there and was developed by Ushahidi! The citizen-monitored election was implemented in 2009 in India and Mexico, but more exciting it is up and running for the current election in Sudan!

Through the website:, citizens and observers can report any suspicious behavior that could affect the fairness and transparency of the voting process. Such behavior could range from defamation to vote tampering.

According to the official statistics provided by the website at the end of the first voting day, the website reported a total of 52 online reports in 12 categories, and 106 SMS messages from 253 locations across Sudan. The “red dots” covered wide range of Sudan’s vast land from Halfa in the North to Yei town near the Southern borders with Congo.

Screenshot of "Sudan Vote Monitor" website

Of course, it’s too early to judge on the statistics as it is only the first day but it would be great if we can have some benchmarking to similar sites in Mexico and India. I’ve to add that it’s not clear how the website is being promoted, I myself has discovered the website through Tweeter which is not popular in Sudan. However, more marketing activities on more popular channels are needed. Few weeks from now, and when we reach the end of the election process, we can have real data to discuss the issues highlighted in my earlier post and raised through readers comment such as the challenge of identifying and isolating the “fake” claims (the website allows users to report incidents anonymously ).

After all, it’s great to see the technology empowering the Sudanese citizens to take action and participate in monitoring the country’s first election in 25 years.

I believe that the website has a great potential to improve with the continuous work on the model itself and the effective utilization of users feedback.


Global Information Technology Report from WEF… A Comment on the Framework

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A few days ago, the World Economic Forum (WEF) published its periodic report Global Information Technology Report (2009-2010), which is the ninth in its series. Because the solid framework and indicators it has, it continuity and reputation of the WEF, this is widely considered as tool to measure the readiness of ICT in many countries around the world (133 countries for 2010 issue of the report).

Beside the data and statistics provided, what i love about such reports is the methodology part and this year, the authors of the report has decided that the time has come to make some adjustments on the framework that has been used for nearly a decade. According to the authors, this review has been triggered by three observations about changes in the context of ICT use. Following,  i’ll list these three changes and then make my argument on another change need to be considered. The three observed changes are:

Blurring boundaries: the traditional boundaries of the ICT sector are shifting. One good examples of this according to the report is that the boundaries of the ICT sectors and the consumer electronics sectors are blurring as devices such as television sets now routinely incorporate Internet access as a standard feature.  Because of this change, the authors suggest to take a broader, more future orientated definition of ICT and not be limited to traditional notions of hardware and software. Thus there is a need to take a broader,more future orientated definition of ICT and not be limited totraditional notions of hardware and software.

Beyond access: the report suggests that providing access to ICT for all is not the main problem as it used to be few years ago. Instead, the main challenge now is  “how to make the best use of access to ICT”. This shift was caused by several factors including the wide spread of mobile technologies and the decrease in the cost of accessing the internet across the world.

Broader goals: “ICT has become omnipresent and an integral part of our lives—both professional and personal—over the last few years” and because of this fact the report says “it is not surprising that questions are being raised about the broader goals toward which technology should be used in society and within organizations in both the public and private sectors”

So, these are the three factors because of which the WEF is considering making an adjustment in its GITR report. What i want to say that I totally agree with the authors on the need for such an adjustment, but i would like to mention a factor that needs to be explicitly considered: the rise of social media.  The social media tools (especially social networking) can be considered one of the major technological social changes in the last decade. Facebook for instance, which has more 350 m subscribers  has surpassed Google in Weekly U.S hits for the first time according to Business In my opinion, the most remarkable change social media has made in our world is the following: it has empowered the citizen with the ability to create, broadcast and exchange information and ideas, this is not an exclusive privilege for governments and business any more. Let me quote the GITR report: “Governments have to move beyond providing online services (traditional e-government boundaries) to provide more effective governance to their citizens. While individual citizens will increase their use of the Internet, ICT has to be deployed to create cohesive and harmonious societies“, read the underlined words again and tell me: can you think of a better tool do get the job done than social media? I can’t!

Because of this, i suggest that the social media should explicitly be considered as a driver for any adjustment on the GITR framework.


Internet and democracy, empowering citizens to promote transparency and fairness in elections


From Kenya to Iraq to Sudan, several countries have tackled the challenge of organizing an election as a step towards a “democratic transition”.  However, guaranteeing the transparency and fairness of the election process has been one of the most serious challenges face these countries.

Building on other successful experiences where the internet has been used to empower the citizen to enhance the public service such as Miami 311 service or to effectively provide humanitarian support such as  Ushahida project in Kenya and Haiti, I’m proposing a model that leverage the power of the internet to enhance the level of transparency in an election process in such countries by empowering the citizens of these countries.

Before describing the model, let’s review some common features among the elections in these countries that has just started its “democratic transition”:

  • Because it is their first election in many years, these countries lack the proper institutions needed to guarantee the transparency and fairness of the election.
  • Usually, the government and political parties establish what supposed to be an independent body to supervise the election process such as the Election Commission in Iraq and Sudan.
  • The level of citizens’s trust in this commission varies depending on the political situation in the country.
  • Depending on several factors such as the country size and population, the government, opposition, candidates, local NGOs and even international observers might not be able to offer the needed resources to effectively monitor the entire election process.

Under these circumstances, i believe that citizens can be the most effective observer in the election process , empowering the citizen will boost the chances to have a fair and transparent election .

But, how to do that? Following are the main points in my proposal:

  • An online surveillance center (website) should be established and managed by an NGO that has a good reputation among the citizens.
  • Citizens should be offered channels to report any suspicious behavior in the election. These channels should include:
    • SMS to a mobile number.
    • Email
    • Phone/Fax
    • Reporting on the website directly
    • All the possible social media services such as Twitter and Facebook.
  • Reported violaitons should be supported with evidences in all formats (images, audios, videos etc..) when available.
  • All received claims should be instantly presented on the website.
  • The presentation of the claims on the website should be mainly on a map. The website should offer a map of the whole country, each received claim should be plotted on the map in its real geographic location with some details such as: date/time of the claim,  exact location (city, town, election center), type of the claim etc…
  • As a claim is being received and plotted on the country map, the independent “election commission” should act immediately and do the required investigation.
  • Each claim plotted on the map should have a “status” to tell the citizens whether it was solved and “closed” or still “open”.

So , the website should act as a 24/7 monitoring screen where all citizens will have the chance to instantly monitor what is happening during the election on the ground across their country.

How would this make a difference?

Of course it is not a perfect proposal, certain proportion of the claims might be “fake” but the real value of this mechanism is that  it will give the citizens a tool or a channel to speak out and to see that their concerns are broadcast not only to the authorities or the election commission but to the whole nation and the whole world. More important, this channel will empower them with the ability to monitor the status of their claim and figure out whether the required investigations have been carried out or not. This is transparency!

Over time and as the citizen participation increases horizontally (the ares of the country covered) vertically (types of reported violations) and as the the tool start gaining credibility, it can be  a popular measure of the level of the fairness of the election, a tool that the authorities can’t ignore. Hopefully, the website would encourage (or push!) the authorities towards more effective efforts to guarantee that appropriate investigations are carried out in response to the reported violations. That is fairness!


Can Twitter bird fly in Sudan?


Earlier this month, Obama administration has decided to “permit technology companies to export online services like instant messaging, chat and photo sharing to IranCuba and Sudan“, according to the New York Times.

The newspaper reported that “there have been growing calls in Congress and elsewhere to lift the restrictions, particularly after the postelection protests in Iran illustrated the power of Internet-based services like Facebook and Twitter”, and by loosening these restrictions, Obama administrations aims to “exploit the Internet’s potential for prying open closed societies”

It is true that the role of social media networks in the Iranian post-election crisis can’t be overlooked. In fact, many believe these services were “used” to draw the path the crisis has followed. But as Sudan approaches rare presidential and parliamentary elections next April, a valid question arises:

What are the chances for social media to play a similar role in Sudan’s election?

Well, analyzing what happened in Iran can help in building a model that can be used to understand the big picture in Sudan and hence reaching a reliable conclusion.

But I need to make it clear that this post is not about discussion the election in Sudan and the tension it causes. Instead, I’m discussing whether the social media websites will be heavily used to broadcast the news of the election and any possible “consequences”.

As Iranian president claimed victory in the election on June 12, the demonstrations started to outbreak in Tehran’s streets. During the following days, the Iranian authorities took several actions to “control” or even “block” the flow of information from inside Iran to the world through the “traditional” media channels. These actions included for instance shutting down Al-Arabiya office in Tehran and forcing  many  foreign reporters to leave the country.

But as the authorities started chocking these traditional channels, Twitter bird started tweeting!

During the first days of the crisis, search hits on Google from inside Tehran using keywords such as “Twitter” and “Facebook” have increased remarkably reflecting the people pursuit for alternative sources of information. In addition,  thousands gathered in groups on Facebook and used these groups as a platform to communicate news update from inside Iran and global support. But it was Twitter that dominated as the top alternative channel to broadcast instant updates from inside Iran. The involvement of Twitter in the crisis reached its peak on June 15, when US. State Dept. urged Twitter to delay the regular maintenance of the website to allow protesters to continue posting the crisis updates. Twitter turned to be a tool in the game of international politics!

Of course the debate on whether that was a “revolution” or another “conspiracy” wouldn’t end soon, but in my opinion, the following factors have contributed to this unprecedented role of online social media in such a political crisis:

First: the significance of Iran to the “international community” because of other issues such as its controversial nuclear program. This is a very important factors, otherwise why would the outside world be interested in knowing what goes on inside or influencing the situation there?!

Second: the aggressive behavior of the Iranian government towards traditional media channels during the crisis. If the government allows the “traditional” media to operate as usual, why would people check the 140 characters offered by Twitter instead of watching news on BBC?!

Third: the high internet penetration in Iran. According to the UN e-Government survey 2008, this rate reaches 29% which is one of the highest figures in the region. A high internet penetration means that more “people” will have the chance to act as “reporters” and upload what they see in their local streets to the internet. However, I put this factor third because even with a low internet penetration, a handful of well organized activists can get the job done.

Forth: the large and active Iranian immigrants in Europe and US, although not all of them of course are engaged in the opposition but they considered the social media as the only way for them to stay connected to their home country in the absence of the “traditional media”.

Together, these factors can be used to examine the chances social media have to act as an “alternative” channel during any political crisis, and in extreme cases as a “tool” to influence the way such crisis evolves!

When applying this model on the situation in Sudan, we can observe the following:

Although the country has managed to attract regional and international attention in the last decade because of the crisis in Darfur, Sudan can’t be compared to Iran when it comes to its priority in the international political agenda. The low internet penetration  and the absence of well organized opposition both inside and outside the country won’t incentivize the social media to play a crucial role. However, the only factor that act in the opposite direction according  to our proposed model is the impatience of the government when it to comes to free media! The government behavior during the protests last December and the current doctors strike present perfect examples. In both cases, the government has acted as a typical authoritarian one and banned the “traditional media” from covering those activities. As a result, few videos and some images found their way to Youtube and Facebook.

Both Facebook groups  “Girifna” which is a gathering place for those who refuse to elect President Al Bashir and the official group of the president’s campaign have barely managed to attract 5,000 members!

So to conclude, I can say that according to the proposed model we can expect a limited use of social media in sharing election related news and media content but we shouldn’t wait for a massive use the way it happened in Iran. The only thing that can change this is a serious crisis and a high international attention!

I believe the question I raised above is valid and important to discuss, but I also believe that for a young Sudanese like me there are other issues that are more important to worry about than Obama’s decision and the upcoming election. My real concern when it comes to online social media is: how can we leverage social media to promote good governance and enable social change in Sudan?

I’ll get back to this later in another post.