Indonesian 'election guardians' to crowdsource ballot counts

Elina Ciptadi and Ainun Najib are among the core founders for KawalPemilu, a crowdsourced team counting votes in Indonesia's election. ST PHOTO: ARLINA ARSHAD

After polls close in Indonesia's election next Wednesday (April 17), teacher Didi Sumardi will be visiting polling stations around Serang city, in Banten province, to take photographs of ballot count results posted there.

He will upload them to crowdsourcing website to consolidate and manually tabulate actual results which will be posted online so the public can compare them with official tallies.

Mr Didi, 53, told The Straits Times: "My friends and I plan to go to 59 stations by foot and motorcycle. We are ready to stay up all night to do this. It's very important for the sake of honest and fair elections."

He is among 7,000 volunteers who have signed up with Kawal Pemilu, one of a number of independent groups which have set up websites or mobile applications to monitor vote counting in the world's third-largest democracy that will hold presidential and legislative elections simultaneously for the first time.

Led by Singapore-based data scientist Ainun Najib, Kawal Pemilu - or "Guard the Election" in Bahasa Indonesia - had won public praise during the 2014 presidential election when it swiftly compiled open data released by the General Elections Commission (KPU). The results were posted on its website, which is updated every 10 minutes by its army of 700 volunteers.

The platform was built in a hurry from a programmer's flat in Clementi a day after both contenders - President Joko Widodo and former army general Prabowo Subianto - claimed victory on the election night of July 9, 2014, based on differing representative sampling polls or "quick counts", Mr Ainun, 33, recalled.

"Oh my God, how we scrambled. We took two days to build the system, next three days to get volunteers on board and an additional two days to finalise tabulation," he said.

"We needed to give clarity to the nation. We announced the results in a week," he added. This was earlier than the election commission's official figures released on July 22.

Kawal Pemilu's results were fairly accurate, putting 53.01 per cent of the valid vote for Mr Joko, against the official count of 53.15 per cent.

For this election, the group is again preparing to become "the back-up plan for the nation", said Mr Ainun.

"Everything is online, we don't have to be in Indonesia. Any cafe with Wi-Fi is our office," said the father of three who has been living in Singapore for 16 years.

The Nanyang Technological University computer engineering graduate hopes to get the "critical mass of 10,000" volunteers to cover more than 800,000 polling stations across the country.

He said: "Once we hit 10,000, the referral network effect will snowball. It's super hard to get from 0 to 10,000, but much easier from 10,000 to 800,000."

Working together with election watchdog Network for Democracy and Electoral Integrity (Netgrit), Kawal Pemilu will go a step further by making volunteers take photos of original tabulations from individual polling stations.

"We know the sheer complexity of doing this. This time, we will need photos which will ensure the authenticity of the numbers," he said.

However, the group's co-founder, social entrepreneur Elina Ciptadi, believes that any effort to encourage citizens to participate actively in the country's political process must be supported.

"People go to polling stations and take selfies during the vote count. If they are only posting on social media, it's just for show. For us, those data are precious, why not just submit to us so we can tabulate them?" said the 41-year-old.

The cost to maintain the site is negligible but could potentially run up to a few thousand dollars during the peak period, which is from election day onwards. The four co-founders will be footing the bill themselves.

Since its relaunch a month ago, the site has received around 50,000 new visitors, said Mr Ainun.

Mr Hadar Nafis Gumay, 59, co-founder of Netgrit and former KPU commissioner, told The Straits Times: "Election results are sensitive public data. In a highly competitive election like this... public trust in monitoring activities is very necessary."

Ms Lina Tjindra Singal, 44, spokesman for a group of civil society activists who has set up a similar vote-counting monitoring website called Kawal Pilpres 2019, which means "Guard the Presidential Election" in Bahasa Indonesia, agrees.

She said: "While we await official results, which are expected to take weeks, and prevent claims from opposing factions, we need independent institutions to act as a trustworthy third power."

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