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The National Democratic Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization working to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government.

Bahrain Election MapMap of Bahrain shows that the most populous areas (in blue) and super polling centers (green pins) do not overlap.

A map of Bahrain showing population density and polling center locations for last October’s parliamentary elections appears to have something incongruous. So-called super polling centers – established to relieve pressure on overcrowded polling stations and offer voters a conveniently located alternative – are not in any of the most populated districts.

Green pins representing the 10 super centers are all located outside the map’s blue-shaded areas where most people live, raising questions about the centers’ use.

NDI and the Bahrain Transparency Society, a local civic group, used this map powered by the Ushahidi platform – an organization that got its start mapping reports of violence after Kenya’s 2007 elections – to illustrate a point that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

Bahrain is just one location where NDI and its partner organizations use digital mapping to enhance transparency and provide information on elections and other events. The type of information conveyed is not new to election observing, but how it’s conveyed – powerfully and visually – provides a snapshot that could be lost in a statistical report.

At www.afghanistanelectiondata.org, a site NDI launched after the 2009 presidential election, visitors can find layers of demographic, ethnographic, topographic and security information that can be applied to Afghanistan election data from 2004, 2005, 2009 and 2010. Visitors can run customized queries with the results displayed as lists, charts and maps that can show, for example, which candidates had more votes in areas where fraud was identified or numbers of reported security incidents were higher.

Because trying to understand such extensive and diverse data sets can be difficult, the mapping tools present them visually, making it much easier for election officials, political parties, civic groups, journalists and others to “see” what took place in an election.

“Maps and other visualization tools provide a powerful way for complex data to tell a story,” said Chris Spence, NDI’s chief technology officer. “They give our partners and others the chance to identify trends and make other data with geographical information to identify possible political or administrative problems. For example, if election monitors report voting material shortages in polling stations, we can quickly establish whether these problems are unique to a specific area so that election officials can be alerted and take corrective action. It’s much more difficult to make this kind of rapid assessment if you’re looking at the data in a spreadsheet or report.”

Burma Election Tracker MapMap of Burma with colored circles showing the nature of campaign violations and circle sizes indicating the number of reports

The Burma Election Tracker website was launched, with NDI assistance, by dozens of Burmese groups based on the Thai border. It mapped hundreds of reports from Burma’s November elections coming in from a network of trained reporters across the country. The reports were color-coded based on the nature of the abuse, so the color and size of dots on the map made it clear where there were, for example, the most incidents of violence and intimidation, limits on polling station access or campaign restrictions.

But the power of maps with political information isn’t just about “putting dots on a map on election day,” Spence said. “An important component includes providing as much supporting information about the electoral or political environment as possible so that the reports can be interpreted effectively. It’s also important to have plans in place to use the reports for additional political activity or otherwise respond to the situation.” For the Burmese activists, this included a series of outreach activities to focus regional and international attention on the situation during the moment of opportunity created by the first general election in the country since 1990.

Maps are just one approach to visualizing complex data sets. There are a number of new and evolving visualization tools that are promising for conveying information and telling stories that political parties, civic groups and other actors in emerging democracies will use to increase their voice, create political space and hold governments accountable.

Visit www.ndi.org/democracy_and_technology for more information on NDI’s work with information communication technologies.

This story was originally published in the Spring 2011 edition of NDI Reports. You can read the entire newsletter here: www.ndi.org/NDI-Reports-Spring-2011/index.html. Please visit NDI’s complete newsletter archive at www.ndi.org/newsletter_archive to read newsletters dating back to 1987.