Why data was crucial to Burkina Faso’s first election since uprising
Democratic elections in transitional states are never straightforward. With limited experience to draw on, finite resources and a lack of transparency, it’s not uncommon for rumours, tensions and civil unrest to overshadow the process and undermine faith in the results.
But by midday on Monday 30 November – the day after Burkina Faso’s presidential election – citizens had a reliable early indication of who would be their first elected head of state since the overthrow of strongman Blaise Compaoré last year.
The difference was clear. For the first time, the results of the count were made openly available in real time. The official election website showed live results by district for each presidential candidate, and which candidate was leading in each province.
Trust is vital at all times during an election process. But one of the most sensitive time periods, especially in transition states, is between the time of polls closing and the time the final results are announced. In other recent elections on the continent, there have been delays of up to four days, creating an environment ripe for the spread of rumours and suspicion.
In Burkina Faso, within hours of the poll closing, results for the first 21 districts were published to a mobile-responsive web application run by the Burkina Open Data Initiative (Bodi), part of the government agency in charge of promoting information and computer technology.
With the support of my team at the Open Data Institute via the Open Data for Development Network, the team behind Bodi partnered with the Independent National Electoral Commission (Ceni) to use their experience opening up data from across the government in the design of the data publication platform, and in the design of a multi-step verification process. They were then embedded in Ceni, with other observers, working through the night to upload the verified data as soon as it was received from regional count stations and verified.
The data was also uploaded to an openly licensed webdoc in case the site went down, as happened on a number of occasions. This enabled early results to be quickly checked and verified against a parallel vote count conducted by Codel – a coalition of civil society organisations – increasing trust in the process. The national broadcaster and other media outlets embedded and screengrabbed the site as the day went on.
Election results are a difficult type of data to release for technical, political and institutional reasons. When I met with Ceni in July to discuss the idea , they understood the value of doing this, but were concerned about overcoming these challenges.
From a technical point of view, there are challenges in transmitting real-time data in a way that does not compromise the integrity of systems that are designed to be beyond tampering. Politically, it is crucial to ensure that data released into the public domain is verified, and this is one of the primary roles of an independent election commission. Meanwhile, institutions charged with overseeing election processes are rightfully cautious of adopting new practices, and of making changes to systems and processes that have been designed to incorporate checks and balances.
This is where the concepts, tools and frameworks around open data – data that anyone can access, use and share – were crucial in enabling the publication of real-time results data for the Burkina Faso election. The state’s prior public commitments to and implementation of open data over the last two years, supported by the ODI and the World Bank, provided a framework with which to think through how this could be implemented.
None of this would have been possible without the commitment of the Ceni to embrace transparency and openness, and were deservedly praised by the EU monitoring mission.
This is especially admirable in light of the challenges surrounding hosting these vital elections, just weeks after an attempted coup threatened to derail the process. In achieving what they did in a fragile context with very limited resources, Ceni and the Open Data team have set an example to other election commissions that the publication of real-time results data is not only possible, but exceptionally valuable.
As a global community, we should take heart. Election commissions and those of us who support them should use the tools and frameworks of open data to build the publication of real-time election results into standard practice for elections, giving citizens faith in their democracies.