WebNabludatel: a Russian Electoral Observation App
The idea of WebNabludatel was first publicly expressed on the 22nd of December 2011 on Habrahabr, the most popular Russian collaborative blog of developers and IT specialists, when Ilya Segalovitch, ex-CTO of Yandex,2 proposed an idea of creating a mobile “observer's digital diary.” This diary would help observers with surveying the voting process and documenting fraud. The post was seen 1709 times, liked 117 times and commented 398 times, with lots of proposals from developers and UI designers giving first spontaneous ideas of application architecture and menu. Four days later a young programmer and entrepreneur, CTO of a well-known Russian IT-company “Progress Engine” Alexey Poimtsev creates a Google group dedicated to this “electronic diary” project, inviting “any developers using Ruby on Rails” to collaborate with him. In few days, front-end developers for Android an iOS mobile app are found, the tasks are distributed and an open code repository is created on GitHub. The work took 1 month and a half and the total cost of the project was only 200 dollars, with members of the team investing their own money to pay for hosting and servers. In total, 17 persons worked on the development of the application. The code of the application is open and available at GitHub. The whole story of WebNabludatel's creation can be characterized in terms of “stigmergic collaboration”, described by several scholars as one of the main mechanisms of self-organization within open-source and “civic hacking” communities based on indirect incentives (“artefacts”) and mutual aid (Heylighen 2007; Eliott 2006; Robles and al. 2005).
Apart from technical expertise, legal competences were required to build this application in accordance with the law and with observers' experience. That is why the team collaborated with two NGOs “Golos” and “Grazhdanin Nabludatel,” both specialized in defending voters' rights and preparing observers for the elections. The application had to be not only technically efficient, but also based on a solid legal ground. Developed by a hybrid team of technical and legal experts and activists, WebNabludatel is a techno-juridical instrument (Contini and Lanzara 2008) with legal code being translated into programming code, and rules and norms of electoral procedures inscribed into the interface of the application.
Though, to be translatable into a mobile interface, legal norms had to be functionally simplified. So, the UI designers worked with lawyers from “Golos” to adapt several hundreds of pages of electoral code and “cut” the observation practice on major steps. These steps are represented in the menu of the app in a chronological order, guiding the user throughout the elections day: from checking empty urns early in the morning to counting bulletins and signing protocols during the night after the elections. Every step has been translated into a simple question with only “yes/no/no information” answers possible. This standardization of observers practice, allows an automatic treatment of the whole volume of gathered data, and a representation of this data according to the type of fraud, location and other criteria. This standardization by design has, we argue, a certain “multiplication” effect (Ermoshina, 2014): it helps to transform individual observers' experiences into parts of a bigger movement of building crowdsourced proofs database of elections illegitimacy.
“The observer's guide was very well done, structured as a sequences of questions. For example, the voting starts – what should I observe? I must verify that the voting boxes are empty and properly closed, that all observers are registered and so on. You only put yes or no, it is useful as it helps you stay concentrated <...> I remember when at the end of the day women from electoral commission started shaking the voting box, turning it upside down before opening it, I knew it was illegal, and I fixed and filmed it with my app. But the app can't do anything when the fraud is happening outside of the polling station, when people vote at their places. In my case, it was the major problem, and we could not film or fix it with the app.”
Screenshot of the application with questions:
“Information on candidates is correctly provided” (yes/no), “The pattern of a bulletin available” (yes/no), “Bigger version of protocol available”, “Propaganda materials closer than 50 meters from polling station”. Provided by WN team
A screenshot of the app with infographics: 10 rules respected, 2 rules violated, (“urns were not demonstrated before sealed”, and “suspicious voters seen on the polling station”). Provided by WN team
Taking into consideration the absence of Wi-Fi (or its intentional blockage) on many polling stations, the app has been made totally independent from the Internet: the inner memory of the app allows a user to fulfill the check-list and stocks all the data until he finds a place with a good connection.
Statistics in different regions of Russia, screenshot provided by WN team
WebNabludatel app, in the context of distrust of Russian citizens towards traditional political institutions, can be considered as an instrument of counter-democracy, as described by Rosanvallon (2008). It attempts to give citizens a technical instrument of crowdsourced surveillance and collective control over governments, transforming users into “participatory sensors” (Goodchild 2007; Boulos 2011) by cutting a global problem, that of illegitimacy of elections, into micro tasks and steps. The application aims at democratizing observers' skills and expertise by incorporating them into a simple and easy-to-use app, giving equal access to the procedure of observation to all users condition considered by Michel Callon as one of the basic features of technical democracy (Callon and al. 2009).