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Rory Cellan-Jones

Mapping the Afghan elections

  • Rory Cellan-Jones
  • 20 Aug 09, 13:16 GMT

Yesterday, my colleague Jonathan Fildes wrote a fascinating piece about the way text messages are being used to help monitor the presidential election in Afghanistan.

A project combining two technologies developed for use elsewhere in the developing world, Frontline SMS and Ushahidi, is enabling people in remote areas of the country to send in reports of incidents or vote-tampering so that they can be plotted on an online map.

I wasn't the only person interested - Jon received an e-mail last night from US Aid, the American government development agency, praising his piece and describing a similar project.

Screengrab of map of Afghan polling locationsThey've joined up with the likes of Google and GeoCommons to map all kinds of trends and data connected to the elections. So far, they've come up with a series of maps showing everything from polling station locations to levels of violence and opium poppy cultivation.

The project started as an initiative of MIT's Fablab - a department of the American university which describes its mission as exploring:

"[H]ow the content of information relates to its physical representation".

They set up a hard drive in a hotel bar in Jalalabad, where people could come and upload their data in return for a beer.

That data was then mapped for everyone to share. A Fablab team is now back in Afghanistan to collect and map more data, working with the Alive in Afghanistan project described in our article.

Using online mapping as a way of picturing what's happening during crises or elections is a growing trend, used already in countries like Angola, Kenya and India.

Maps have always been important - look at the history of cartography and you'll see what an effect it's had on politics and economics.

So it will be fascinating to see how the Afghan projects develop over the coming days - and whether they do add another perspective on the elections to that provided by traditional coverage.

Update, 09:20: US Aid have been in touch to say they mistakenly credited the wrong organisation with initiating the Afghan election mapping project. They say it wasn't MIT's FabLab but something called the Synergy Strike Force which first set the ball rolling.

And as for the beer for data offer in a Jalalabad hotel bar (comment 2), I too thought it sounded culturally unlikely. But, as you will see from comment 4 below, there is an explanation.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    Rory:

    Yes, it is a good thing to be mapping the Afghan Elections since, it shows all of the information that people would like to know...

    ps: I saw the 2 links and thanks....

    =Dennis Junior=

  • Comment number 2.

    'They set up a hard drive in a hotel bar in Jalalabad, where people could come and upload their data in return for a beer.'

    You've clearly done your homework on the culture and customs of Afghanistan.

    Good work.

  • Comment number 3.

    Interesting map. Personally I don't know how to interpret it or what it's use is to the common person in Afghanistan or the rest of the world but I'm sure some people do.

    Just hope that apathy isn't the overriding winner in Afghanistan like it is in the UK.

  • Comment number 4.

    Just to clarify about the "hotel bar" and "upload data for beer"...
    The program is called "Beer for Data", and it's happening at a place called the Taj Mahal Guest House in Jalalabad, or Taj for short. See their website here: http://www.tajmahalguesthouse.com/
    This is a gathering spot for NGOs, expats, and those involved in reconstruction efforts to mingle, and is the only bar as far as I know for hundreds of miles. Because sharing data (think maps, aerial photos, or census data) is inherently difficult due to procedural or practical factors, the Beer for Data program was created. Quite simply, if you come with interesting or helpful data and are willing to share, you will be reimbursed with a beer. To hear more about it, check here: http://humtechnet.com/node/231

  • Comment number 5.

    Maps have always been important - look at the history of cartography and you'll see what an effect it's had on politics and economics. It is a good thing to be mapping the Afghan Elections since, it shows all of the information that people would like to know...
    [Unsuitable/Broken URL removed by Moderator]

 

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