In a nondescript room on the 14th floor of a Nairobi office block, the words “hate speech” appear on a computer screen next to the name of a prominent politician, with location, a telephone number and buttons marked “Not verified” and “Follow-up”.

Another message reads: “If you think peace is expensive, try violence!”

Yet another says: “Plz help us. A certain community is threatening other communities to vacate the area in case YES wins.”

Over the past three weeks, Kenyans have used their mobile phones to send more than 5,000 such messages to a dedicated number: 6397.

The free short message service is part of an initiative, the Uwiano Platform for Peace, set up with help from the UN Development Programme (UNDP) to ensure the 4 August referendum on a new constitution is not marred by the kind of violence that claimed more than 1,000 lives and saw over half a million people take flight after a presidential election in 2007.

When incoming messages are received at the office of the national steering committee on peace-building and conflict management - part of the Ministry of State for Provincial Administration and Internal Security - or by a separate team at PeaceNet, an NGO partner in the Uwiano programme, they are triaged into one of six categories: Informative, Threat, Positive message, Hate speech, Coded message and Incitement to violence.

In order to verify claims of hate speech or violence or anything that might require action by the authorities, team members call the sender of the message as well as other officials in the area.

“We can mobilize security agencies very quickly,” said Dickson Magotsi, a programme officer in the peace-building secretariat.

As an example, Magotsi said that the previous weekend a message had come in from Chebarus, in the Rift Valley, which bore the brunt of the violence after the last election.

“We received a message from someone saying he was being threatened by three people in his house. We spoke to him and he said he feared for his life, he had been told to leave. We then spoke to the district [police] commissioner who sent security immediately. Two people were arrested.” 

Photo: Anthony Morland/IRIN
Mobile phone text messages alert staff of the national peace initiative of trouble in the run up to a constitutional referendum, scheduled for 4 August

Uwiano – meaning “connection” or “correlation” in Swahili – has also deployed a pool of volunteer monitors to hotspots across the country and has established peace committees that work to improve relations between rival communities.

Be prepared

“In 2007 we were not prepared,” conceded Magotsi. “We assumed too much and didn’t think we could have conflict across the country. This time around there is more preparedness and coordination at the national and local level,” he said.

Another crowd-sourcing initiative monitoring security around the referendum is Uchaguzi - Swahili for “choice” or “election”.

Citizens and civil society groups are encouraged to send reports of intimidation, hate speech, vote buying, polling clerk bias, voting mis-information and so on, via SMS (to 3018), via Twitter (with the hashtag #uchaguzi), by email ([email protected]) or by filling in a form online.

The Uchaguzi website displays these reports, a Twitter feed, a map displaying the location of incidents and a selection of mainstream news related to the referendum. Some of this information is forwarded to election officials and security services. The project was developed by crowd-sourcing software pioneer Ushahidi with several civil society umbrella groups.

Expanding sources

The value of crowd-sourcing is recognized by the international humanitarian community, which was caught off-guard when violence erupted in Kenya in early 2008.

“We’ve learned that limiting our information sources to just a few officials or agency heads is… well, limiting,” Jeanine Cooper, who heads the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Kenya, wrote in an article published on Facebook.

“Getting information on what is happening from the wananchi [general public] who are experiencing it, passing it to the various authorities who can respond, well that is at the core of coordination… A system of SMS and web-based alerts and updates will reduce the need and frequency of [humanitarian agency] meetings while allowing for effective and swift response,” she wrote.

The 12 million or so Kenyans who own a mobile phone will be able to receive results of the referendum by constituency or polling station simply by sending a request to 3007. Dedicated mobile phones will be used by returning officers across Kenya to send results directly to a national tallying centre.

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