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The Use of Technology for Elections and Civil Empowerment

Posted by Simon Adebola on March 6, 2011

There was much anxiety and anger in Nigeria recently concerning the announcement by the Independent National Electoral Commission (INEC) that it was not going to be using the Direct Data Capture (DDC) machines, that it invested about 35 billion Naira in purchasing, for the upcoming April 2011 elections. The anger stems from the fact that it is believed that the use of electronic registration and voting could help minimize the risk of a fraudulent conduct of the upcoming elections. In addition, so much had been invested in these machines that it struck many as simply horrendous that the last voters registration exercise (with its faults) was the last that was going to be seen of these machines, or at least so it seemed. Well without seeking to speak in defence of the INEC, it is true that unless there is a firm legal basis for the use of these machines in the elections, it would be preposterous to assume that their use would be appropriate. Moreso, recent international experience has shown that e-voting is not without its challenges. Legal actions have been known to push for the overturning of extensive civil investments if there is a fault in their conduct or execution that suggests that they were not legal or constitutional in the first place. No institution would go ahead and use these machines to conduct elections and then be told that the voting should be annuled because it is not legal. About the continued use of the machines, there is no assurance that the current INEC leadership would be in power beyond this round of elections, so it is appropriate for them to comment about the upcoming elections and not any of the further potential uses of the machines. I believe they have not ruled out any of these potential future uses, but have only spoken on that which is immediate and pertinent to the country at this time.

This short piece is however aimed at picking on a few ideas to which the machines could be used. Some have suggested that they should be used for the voting process. They could also come in useful in the next national census exercise. There are also elections that would keep holding in different states and local governments, these machines would definitely be of use. In about 4 years, a new generation of voters would be eligible to exercise this civic responsibility and having such machines available would make their assimilation easy. Then what about the National ID card or was it not this same types of machines that were used the last time the ID registration took place in Nigeria? Then there is also the need to have accurate civil registration, vital statistics, and a comprehensive national demographic database. The lack of good quality data on demographic indices is a curse, I repeat, a curse. This condoned level of ignorance is sin. Okay, I rant so please bear with me.

First and foremost Nigerian engineers are capable of networking these machines and compiling a single secure database with all the data from these machines. Access to this database can be properly regulated and every action on the data fully recorded and logged for tracking purposes. This would ensure that they are not easily tampered with. Physical security of the machines and the data they are used in generating can be ensured through the building in of geotracking capability, backing up of the data, and other necessary physical measures to prevent their theft or misuse. When there is a single database for the collected data, it can be made accessible to the machines anywhere in the country for correlation and confirmation during voting. The kind of telecommunications infrastructure needed to do that may not exist all over Nigeria now, but it is hoped that by the next round of voter registration and elections such infrastructure would exist to permit the remote linking of these machines to a central database. Any government that cannot make broadband (be it fibre or wireless), 4G, or at least 3G available all over the country in four years should not have been voted-in in the first place. These uses would require a mix of hardware and software modifications, but it is clear that all it would take, having invested so much, is to take apart one of these machines, tinker with it, add the needed hardware, reprogram it with software as necessary, re-assemble the thing, and make it work to serve whatever purpose for which it is then intended for. This can then be duplicated for the other units. I hope that is legal. Whichever way, having invested 35 billon naira this time, the nation’s engineers should rise up to the challenge and build its own DDC machines.

Value needs to be placed on information as a source of empowerment, and as a social and civil vanguard. The use of technologies has become the cornerstone of the information age. Right before our eyes, the ability to generate, transmit, and share information is actively shaping social discourse. It is also giving room for a new social order and political determinism particularly among the younger generation, even where it was previously least expected. Information and access to it has bred a generation that can no longer be underestimated. What once amazed their parents was their versatility with fancy gadgets, but that has now steadily being transformed to raw power in calling for change, demanding for their rights, and reverting the socio-political order. The role of science and technology in shaping this rise of knowledge and power, is an indication for African engineers to take up the challenge to design and develop better software and hardware to enable the rapid uptake of technologies and information in this age. This is their unique role and charge. Educational systems have a major part to play in this needed technological revolution. All hands must be on deck!

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