There’s no political “perfect state”, but in Africa especially, governance is a recurring issue. Corrupt or broken government make it hard for the population to get out of the poverty cycle, create value through entrepreneurship, or just take part in the political life of the country. There may still be solutions with the combination of mobile technology and politics.

A good overview of how things are evolving can be seen through the work of the Mo Ibrahim foundation, he’s a successful telecom tycoon who is now putting his wealth to change African politics through philanthropy and research (see vid with Bill Gates here).

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While attending Mobile West Africa conference in Lagos, Nigeria, we saw a few very compelling case studies of how mobile technologies can reconnect remote areas or illiterate population with politics, business, and education.

Mobile technology and politics: Empowering the youth in Nigeria for the 2011 and 2015 elections

Nigeria is “Africa’s India” for several reasons: the sheer size of its population, which will bumps from 170m to 440m by 2050, but also the rough inefficiency of its government structure. When state fails, technology can help reconnect the dots, give hope in the future and improve overall living conditions.

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The story from Nigeria is the one of Enough is Enough, a social movement which aimed to increase voters registration and participation. Out of 120m people, only 70m Nigerians are registered to vote, and as little as 7m of them actually voted in the previous 2011 elections. EIE combines several actions including mobile apps to implement its RSVP agenda (Register, Select, Vote, Protect), including:

  • Mobile marketing in the top local social mobile apps such as 2go, to call to registration, using celebrities as a way to tease the youth
  • An SMS platform called “Shine your Eye” which allows anyone to send a free SMS with the name of its candidate or representative and have as an answer its basic track record

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  • An app called Revoda 2.0 to empower citizens and have them notify power cuts, riots, or any other event with the capability to disrupt the voting process
  • A social media tracking platform, built with Georgia Tech University to scan all the mentions on the elections and provide fact-cheking and information on what’s happening in the conversation

The next steps for the 2015 elections for EIE includes information about the track record of elected officials in 2011 on their promises and agenda, and increase voting overall.

Making elected officials accountable in India

In an impressive presentation, Gustav Praekelt showed how his consultancy worked on the case of the biggest elections in the world, this year, in India. With more than 800m people registered to vote, and a country reputed for its inefficient administration, there is clearly a room for improvement.

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Myneta.info (Neta meaning “political leader” in Indian) has been designed to improve the political transparency by giving voters information on parties and candidates. The app is designed to provide an aggregation of data on one elected official or candidate, with, in one SMS only, a wrap-up of its criminal case, education, assets and liability. All these informations are also accessible orally as high illiteracy in India means even reading SMS is not enough to empower citizens.

During the 5 weeks of elections, there has been more than 5 million searches, and one can imagine to add features such as fact-checking during debates or track-record of promises. Mobile technology and politics are here hand in hand, to help population make the better of an election through information refined and usable.

Increasing voters registration and turnout in South Africa 2014 elections

The same consultancy also worked during the South African elections of this year to increase registration, turnout through the use of both collaborative platforms and social media.

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First, citizens could use a series of digital tools to report protests, intimidation, corruption using all the possible technological means, from USSD, Mxit (a well-known local social media platform), Twitter, Google Talk, SMS, and a dedicated app. In an emerging country with very different maturity of technology and education among its population, it is key to offer as many entry points as possible to such a campaign. On the website, a heat map showed where these reports occurred, helping citizens to become micro-reporters and making them part of a broader community.

VIPVoice was another part of this campaign with the involvement of local celebrities, either pre-recruted and contacted by the team, either pre-offered to the followers of the campaign with pre-filled messages for each type of audience. It was then possible with one click or share to send a message to the publicly available social media accounts of a star to get them on board and increase the virality of the campaign.

Overall, more than 56 000 citizens took an active part in the campaign, not even counting the number of impressions.

Key takeaways for mobile technology and politics: adapt mobile strategy to social, technological context, and put money on distribution

These three stories show how each campaign must adapt to a local context of:

  • Social and cultural traits, with for instance features based on voice to help the illiterate get on board of the campaign
  • Adaptation to the local technology and behaviors, with proposals ranging from low-tech to more complex visualizations
  • Distribution strategy of the campaign, with either offline events, mobile ads in the local social networks, or enrollment of celebrities

All in all, what we call “techno-politics” – from Obama’s election engineering through data to participatory websites for referendums – has a lot to learn from developing countries. There, mobile technology and politics are meeting in several creative, low-tech and efficient ways to empower citizens and change governance.