"Kenya’s new president, Uhuru Kenyatta, has been inaugurated in a peaceful transition of power after fears that a close election result and contested court case might lead to violence.
One group in particular will feel they played a part; a small team of software developers and activists called Code4Kenya. Their web application, GotToVote!, helped Kenyans to register at polling booths, send peace messages and report electoral fraud. Its success shows the power of open data for civil society as well as its challenge to traditional models of international aid.
The Code4Kenya program was conceived and funded by the Africa Media Initiative (AMI) and the World Bank’s Innovation Fund as a way to cultivate Kenya’s open data ecosystem as well as harness the talent of its expanding IT sector.
Project manager Jay Bhalla, director of the think tank the Open Institute, sees the Kenyan programmes as the first step in developing continent-wide data apps that will arm citizens with information they can act on. Their next project, Africa Spending, has been shortlisted for the Knight Foundation News Challenge and will let people see where their tax dollars are being spent in every African country.
Through a pioneering collaboration between developers, technologists, journalists and civil society activists, Code4Kenya developed six open-source applications in just five months. GotToVote! began in November 2012 when Kenya’s Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission published the location of voter registration centres for the first time. According to Justin Arenstein, a Knight International Journalism Fellow working for the AMI, this important information was locked in a large, complicated PDF file, a format that is notoriously difficult to extract data from. Lead developer David Lemayian and one of the initiative's Data Fellows, Simeon Oriko, set about scraping the information and turning it into an interactive spreadsheet that was used to build the GotToVote! website. Users could easily find out where their nearest voting station was and where to register for the election. This simple but vital service went viral on social media and was used by more than 2,500 people within hours of its launch. But perhaps the most impressive part of the story was that the whole site was built in 24 hours for less than $500.
'The Kenyan government was spending a massive amount of money to get people registered but there was a new voting system and people couldn’t find out where to go, so this was important information that people needed and didn’t have,' said the Open Institute's Bhalla. 'You don't need the money that you see in other development programmes. There are many cases when the funding figures involved don't match the impact of the program. GotToVote! was created in 24 hours with $300-$500 and the impact was incredible,' he added. By contrast, Britian's Department for International Development (DfID) has allocated £2.2 million ($3.3 million) on a programme for Kenyan ‘Civic and Voter Education’ run by a Kenyan organisation called Uraia Trust, whose website is still under construction. While this may not be a fair comparison as we do not have details of the Uraia Trust programme, it shows that the 'hacktivist' approach of Code4Kenya often comes up with elegant solutions precisely because it does not have the resources of large international aid organisations ..."