Tech hitches cause anxiety in Kenyan general elections

Mobile digital transmission of results hit with delays

Kenya entered the second day of vote counting Wednesday as network connectivity, data transmission and server configuration issues hindered the final result announcement, causing anxiety.

Voting started on Monday and results were expected to be electronically relayed from polling stations by Tuesday night, the final results were expected to be announced. The Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) had put in place an elaborate system that would ensure that presiding officers in 33,000 polling stations would be able to send information via mobile phones to the IEBC national tallying center and at the same time, make the data available to media houses and developers via an API provided by Google.

The system was designed to allow GPRS-enabled mobile devices to transmit voting results, which were gathered from mechanical voting machines locally, over a Virtual Private Network to three national tally centers.

Technical assistance was funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and software was provided by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems (IFES), implemented through a local technology company. Safaricom was also involved in providing handsets and data connectivity for the polling stations to relay the results.

Problems started emerging on Tuesday when election data transmission slowed down, but IEBC Chairman Isaack Hassan announced on television that the commission had ran out of disk space, but the data had not been compromised. After the announcement, ICT experts started speculating whether the problem was with the IFES, Safaricom, Google or the IEBC -- and whether hackers were involved.

"The system is pretty solid from the outside, meaning that from an external assessment, it would take say a government agency to break in since it's running on Safaricom's Virtual Private Network," said Tyrus Kamau, an independent security consultant, who specializes in penetration tests. "Now from an insider point of view, an attacker could have the advantage of seating within a trusted network (Safaricom or IEBC) and would be pre-disposed to perform injection attacks."

As of Wednesday afternoon local time, Uhuru Kenyatta was ahead, at 53 percent to 42 percent over his main rival, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, according to the election commission website. Kenyatta has been indicted by the International Criminal Court for allegedly inciting a local militia to conduct reprisal attacks in the last election.

While the IEBC has kept silent on the actual problem resulting in the delays, Safaricom issued a statement saying that it was not to blame for the challenges faced at IEBC while Google has also confirmed that the extent of its collaboration with IEBC was limited to the website and the API.

"Google provided technology and tools that the IEBC is using on their official website to ensure Kenyans have crucial information they need; the services on vote.iebc.or.ke and api.iebc.or.ke are hosted on Google App Engine and powered by technology we provided; we were not involved with results collection, transmission, tallying or storage," said Dorothy Ooko, Google communications and public affairs manager for East and Francophone Africa. "We only published (via the API) and visualized (via the map) the results from the IEBC."

By providing data via the API, Google allowed the media and developers to build services that could provide the information that people were craving. One of the reasons that Kenya was plunged into post-election violence in its earlier elections was lack of information and manipulation of available data by media organization, depending on who they were supporting. This led to chaos and violence.

"Consolidation of the poll results as a single source of results was a huge plus; unlike last general elections in 2007, where all media houses had divergent results, this time round they are all pulling from the same API, which is commendable to avoid tension and suspicion," Kamau added.

The increase of affordable connectivity also means that more people are accessing results online. The candidates had also set up websites and apps that made the voters familiar with getting results online, while the media houses shared data and videos online.

In its defence, Safaricom responded to questions whether it was responsible for the delays by laying out the terms of its contract with IEBC, which included the supply of 17,900 Nokia 1680 handsets and data connectivity.

"The software used on the mobile devices assigned to presiding officers at polling stations is a proprietary software of IFES, a supplier to the IEBC; the storage and presentation of the results is also done by IEBC in collaboration with Google," said Nzioka Waita, Safaricom corporate communications director.

Waita added that the Safaricom network is merely providing the SIM cards and connectivity for the transmission of results data from mobile devices to the IEBC server over its VPN and that the network had 99.9 percent availability.

One of the issues that has emerged is that the decision to procure the software was made late. The Request for Proposal was made on Dec. 21 last year and the deadline was Jan. 4, which means that the IFES and the IEBC had two months to evaluate the proposals, make payments, implement, test the software internally and externally with partners, train the election officials and be ready for polling on Monday.

The IEBC tried to ensure that the system was ready for use but was also ready with a manual register, just in case it failed. In many cases the computerized registry at the tally centers was successful but the delivery of the results proved challenging. Out of the 10 million votes cast, only half were delivered via the electronic system set by IFES and the system resulted to manual, where all the polling officers were summoned to bring the results to the headquarters in Nairobi.

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