Re-thinking conflict early warning: participatory polling in the Somali Region

[This post is part of a series on re-thinking conflict early warning.]

Sometimes our perceptions of what people in post-conflict societies think or worry about are way off the mark. As policy makers and program designers, we may attribute a general view to a population, imagine an intent or assume a lack of interest. Very often, these perceptions are based on a common narrative put out by more vocal parts of society or on conditions that were true but have changed. Hardly ever are they based on evidence, much less recent evidence. How could they be? Depending on the context, it can be dangerous to ask about certain sensitive topics, logistically complicated to canvass the views of a population, or simply beyond the technical capacities of many peacebuilding groups.

In many situations, polling can provide better information than an early warning system. It can lead to evidence-based interventions that address the real concerns of people and that can be targeted to particular groups whose concerns are different. In contexts where there is sufficient digital data exhaust, it may be possible to undertake “passive polling”. But where people don’t Tweet or Google, that’s not really an option. Besides, this kind of passive data mining misses the opportunity of using the poll as a way to start a dialogue and change public perceptions.

This potential for evidence-based decisions coupled with an opportunity to change the conflict dynamic through dialogue is why Interpeace has become interested in participatory polling. For more on the general methodology of participatory polling, check out this briefing. In this post, I’m focusing on a particular application still in its pilot phase. It’s of interest to me because it combines a robust polling for peace methodology with innovative uses of technology. And it does all that in an unlikely setting: the Somali Region. With the support of Interpeace, three local research organizations – the Academy for Peace and Development (APD), the Heritage Institute for Policy Studies (HIPS) and the Puntland Development Research Center (PDRC) – will be piloting their first polls in March and April of 2014. Since this is a pilot, the polls do not follow the participatory polling methodology strictly, but they have been designed to include strong participatory elements (co-design of questionnaires, feedback on analysis, etc) as well as some deliberative elements. They are also making use of new technologies to make their data collection, processing and analysis more efficient.

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Polling and technology workshop in Hargeisa (February 2014)

The primary platform that all three organizations are using is First Mile GEO. First Mile GEO provides the teams with tools to develop a paper survey, which then needs to be entered manually on the platform. Having a digital platform that is optimized for low bandwidth environments and collecting data on paper was key for these teams. Some of the teams are also testing whether they can combine paper surveys with digital surveys. Some PDRC enumerators will be using Magpi to collect data on smartphones or tablets. HIPS will be using FrontlineSMS to receive coded text messages from some enumerators. In both instances, data received will be exported to a spreadsheet by the system administrator, formatted to fit the First Mile GEO requirements and then imported into the platform.

Once data is entered, First Mile GEO automatically produces a series of map and graph visualizations of the data, providing the team’s analysts with an intuitive tool to explore patterns. The analysts can create standard “dashboards” (curated collections of maps and graphs) for sharing with partners and with the public. Most importantly, the platform is very intuitive, making its adoption by the teams straightforward. It’s exciting to see their data come to life. They can already see the potential for expanding their evidence base and combining it with other sources in the future.

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing First Mile GEO in Hargeisa (February 2014)

As well as doing a poll with a traditional sampling methodology, APD and PDRC also wanted to experiment with crowdsourcing on a sub-set of questions from their poll. If it works out, crowdsourcing on some questions can be a faster way to get a reaction, real-time testing of the current pulse of an issue they are doing more in-depth analysis of through the full poll. First Mile GEO doesn’t offer a simple solution for crowdsourcing, that’s not what it has been built for. Instead, the teams will be using the Elva platform. The platform offers the teams solutions for both SMS and online crowdsourcing. As with Ushahidi, an online form with poll questions can be easily created in the administrator dashboard. What makes Elva special is its SMS function – the online questionnaire is turned into a step-by-step SMS questionnaire. All the teams have to do is advertise a phone number (we’re hoping for a shortcode from the local telecoms) on various media. Members of the public interested in participating in the poll can then text the number, and the system will automatically begin a question-response over SMS with them, delivering each question in the poll as one SMS. In case that’s not impressive enough, people can reply a number of different things (defined by the administrator) that the system will recognize. For example, for “What is your gender?”, the administrator can stipulate that “M”, “male”, “man” and “boy” will all be recognized to mean “male”. Responses arriving in the platform are automatically mapped onto pre-designed choropleth maps (heatmaps), and a series of pre-designed graphs automatically produced. The platform also has a neat timeline function that shows changes in responses over time.

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Testing the Elva platform in Hargeisa (February 2014)

Elva takes a lot of the manual work out of SMS crowdsourcing. Of course, whether or not crowdsourcing will work depends mostly on how the crowd will react to media adverts soliciting their participation in a poll. APD and PDRC are not sure how this will work out, but they are certainly keen to try it and use their extensive local relationships to promote it. (Incidentally, Elva also has a great function that would allow for enumerators to collect survey data via SMS, but this works better for shorter surveys than the ones the teams are working with. You can read about how this function has been used in Georgia here.)

Beyond what this pilot results in, using First Mile GEO and Elva has catalyzed thinking among the partners and Interpeace about how to better collect and visualize data, and how the use of technology can inform and improve their work. What’s really exciting about working on a tech-enabled project with Interpeace is that you know they’re in it for the long run. In the Somali Region, Interpeace has been working with many of the same organizations for decades, really investing in their capacity and developing a strong partnership. This is not a quick gimmick to please a donor, it’s part of a grounded strategy that incorporates global excellence in peacebuilding and local knowledge of the region and its conflicts.


7 thoughts on “Re-thinking conflict early warning: participatory polling in the Somali Region

  1. There is a need to share lessons learned and best practices.

    In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we will be implementing participatory polls over the next three years with UNDP and MONUSCO. We completed a baseline in December and hope to start the polls shortly. Security and protection will be component of the polls, but we also focus on perception of security and justice actors as broad themes.

    The next generation of KoBoToolbox currently under development is our platform of choise because it provides a collaborative environment to develop surveys, share data and results, including maps, while also enabling the use of paper surveys and local data entry offline.

    All of the results will be available at

    One of the emerging challenge is the fragmentation of tools, lack of data standards, and,lack of coordination. This results in methods and data that cannot easily be cross-analyzed or validated. Looking forward to work on that front as well!

    Patrick Vinck
    Harvard Humanitarian Initiative

    1. Thank you for your comment Patrick. Your work in the DRC sounds very interesting. I agree with you that it is important to share best practices. Perhaps we could think of a forum to share the participatory polling methodologies of Interpeace and the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. Interpeace has implemented a similar methodology in several countries, and I know is keen to share findings and methods.

      I’m not sure that the fragmentation (diversity?) of tools is a problem. We looked at KoBoToolbox also when selecting a tool, and decided First Mile GEO and Elva met our needs better. Different tools have different advantages for the contexts and team configurations we work in. As long as the data can be shared across platforms where relevant, I don’t see a problem with the proliferation of tools that are available to people working on the ground.

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