Reducing Election Violence Cheaply – eVoting?

I can’t help but notice the violence surrounding the recent elections in Kenya, Pakistan, Zimbabwe (where I still have family) and many other places. To the extent that the problem is citizen mistrust of the voting process, this seems like an effective place to direct aid resources and energy. Why not fund, with the host country’s cooperation, open source election machines similar to those used in Australia? The Australian approach allows people to inspect the machine’s software if unsatisfied about the machine’s ability to count votes. Each machine is linked to a server via a secure local network so that information is not transmitted openly and a printout of the vote could be made and deposited in a ballot box to verify the electronic results if necessary.

Ethan Zuckerman suggested to me that one way to potentially keep the cost low would be to use SMS and have the machine send back periodic vote tallies throughout the voting period. This way there is no need to set up network infrastructure, since a cellphone system capable of handling this kind of traffic already exists across most countries. Secure SMS is an available technology and it might be straightforward to ensure a secure transmission for vote tallies. The average cost of a voting machine in the US is $3000, and the Australian ones cost about $750 each. Australia used 80 machines for their capital territory of Canberra which has about 325,000 people, approximately 4000 people per machine. So in Zimbabwe for example, with a population of about 1.3 million, they would need 325 machines. If each machine is even as much as $3000 that’s still less than a million dollars. Although I expect in many of the countries, including Zimbabwe, that would benefit from such a system, deployment would include more rural areas than Canberra and more machines would be necessary, but this back-of-the-envelope sketch makes it seem reasonably inexpensive and technically feasible.

Of course, this will only quell violence in so far as it is based in the perception of an unfair voting system. If the violence is thuggery bent on subverting fair electoral results, or garnering attention, then voting machines won’t stop it, although the transparency of this system might make it harder to promulgate an inflammatory mindset of corruption.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Posted in Developing world, Internet and Democracy, Technology | Leave a comment

Choosing not to Choose – Turkish Headscarves and Governance in Somalia

What happens when the results of democratic choice do not align with traditional democratic values, such as freedom and choice? A Feb 19 New York Times article discusses the proposed repeal of a ban on the wearing of headscarves at universities in Turkey. Those supporting the ban are concerned about the rise of Islam and their view of the modernization of Turkey. But perhaps the most democratic reaction is to let such choices be made locally, even if the appearance is to promote non-democratic ideals. This is a fascinating question and I’m not sure of right answer.

It seems like a similar dilemma to that faced by developing countries when they try and move to democratic regimes. In Singapore, Lee Kwan Yew’s move toward a more democratic system used massive non-democratic efforts to dismantle the communist opposition. His justification was that no democratic government would be brought to the fore if an open vote was held in such conditions – the risk of the communists gaining power was too great. So it seems to be the case in other countries where a move to a system of democratically elected representatives might result in the ascendancy of Shari’a law.

For example, as Ethan Zuckerman has discussed at length (here), the overthrow of the Union of Islamic Courts (UIC) in Somalia in 2006 by apparently US aided Ethiopian forces seems like an instance of the same underlying problem. The US’s involvement appears to be a policy of ‘not Islam’ rather than the traditionally articulated policy of pro-democracy/capitalism. The UIC regime, although Shari’a, brought enough stability to the region for Bakara Market to re-emerge as a functioning market in Mogadishu for the first time since Somalia descended into anarchy in 1991.

So what’s the policy goal? Is it, as Sen suggests in Development as Freedom, increasing choice so people can “exercise their reasoned agency,” or is it eradication of safety threats, perhaps perceived as associated with the rise of Islam, or something else?

Should we be willing to accept some Shari’a law in exchange for stability – the stability that might allow a market to develop, with the consequent increase in choice and the greater communication that comes with trade? Right now US policy seems not to accept any Shari’a law but perhaps that’s not the route that best promotes democracy, our traditional and explicit foreign policy goal.

It seems to be to be a cost benefit analysis where the costs and benefits are hard to measure: whether the costs of adhering to choice will undermine the value of choice itself. Is the right outcome to respect choices the citizens make, even if the choice is to dismantle the very freedoms typically undergird democracy, such as civil rights and political freedoms, or is there a mentality that must be in place before the citizenry can be “entrusted” with democratic institutions? And if democratic ideals are not present, what is the ideology? Nationalism? This seems to be counter to Fukuyama’s prediction of the universal adoption of Western liberal values.

As a Somali commented here, “any law is better than no laws.”

Crossposted in I&D Blog

Posted in Developing world, Middle East | Leave a comment

Patrick Ball in NYT Magazine

Recently the Berkman Internet and Democracy group hosted a conference on Digital Activism in Istanbul. One of the attendees was Patrick Ball, Chief Scientist and Director of the Human Rights program at Benetech. His work was the focus of a story in the February 17 edition of New York Times Magazine. The article was called The Forensic Humanitarian and it describes the use of probability theory, such as capture-recapture, in the difficult problem of the estimation of death counts. It summarizes Ball’s work in the estimation of Colombian murders and whether or not they are decreasing over time, as the official numbers seem to indicate. Through examining various recordings of the same data, and intepreting them as samples from the same population, Ball can estimate the total number of murders whether reported or not.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Posted in Human Rights, Statistics | Leave a comment

Jesse Dylan and Hope|Act|Change

Jesse Dylan, the director behind Will.I.Am‘s Yes We Can song video and Rob Holzer, CEO of Syrup NYC, want to bring their vision for political change through the Hope|Act|Change web site ( Karim Lakhani, Harvard Business School professor, is moderating the discussion.

They are looking for advice on how the Hope|Act|Change movement can go beyond Barack’s speech and the resulting video, and into an effective web presence. He calls it a nonofficial “call to action” to get people connecting to each other and out to vote. He also notes how the song has become a “folk song” and a meme beyond the campaign itself. They want this to move beyond a campaign message and into action, by which he means primarily voting, but perhaps also a kiva-like contribution system or calendar based to-do actions for people to focus on particular issues at a time, or possibly, as Karim suggests, swarming in creating meetings. They have an interesting problem: boiling the message down to what a real person would connect to.

They started with the idea of a mosaic for the website – each tile is an image that has been uploaded by users or tagged with “hopeactchange” on Flickr. They remade the video from frames they have “mosaicked” so you can mouse over the video and see the user images pop up. Each uploading user has a page on the site detailing what they have uploaded and what their favorite images are.

Rob wants to improve the site by creating more peer-to-peer interactive tools so that people can pledge action or discuss issues and bring more people in. The hope is to move this beyond the election to a promulgator of discussion, even beyond Obama, but right now they are pretty focused on the upcoming general election. Rob notes that the site is a platform for some bigger ideas to develop responses and perhaps policy. Will Ferrell and Adam MacKay are involved in improving how funny the site is, and Jesse says animators are getting involved. He wants to see both more context and more discussion.

They are both very much in favor of a suggestion of a simple webform with your hope and your pledge and then use a Digg-like forum to rise the big ones to the top. Colin Maclay analogizes this to Tom Steinberg’s and a questioner notes you could use a visualization of pledges to show how big the movement is. Jesse and Rob are also interested in freely releasing as much media as possible so people can create mashups and build on their work artistically. They also want to release the API so that people can also build on the code.
They also note that a high quality site will encourage people to submit higher quality video and images, but also it helps candidates because voters will compare the different sites that supporters have created for their favorite candidates.

An HBS student, Dave, questions the wisdom of being so explicit about the voting goal, that it might make it uncool or too preachy. He also questions the durability of the hopeactchange mantra for the post election. Jesse thinks the site won’t talk about voting until the election is close and then it will emphasize a big push to vote. Dave suggests moving it beyond voting to just how these political messages can have emotional impact, since that is the original impetus of the site and a push to vote could undermine the emotional impact of the video, and the site itself. An audience member suggests changing the mantra from Yes We Can to Yes We Will. Another person suggests that if the message rises organically from the community it will be most effective.

This is new ground for this election and new ways of gathering and spreading electoral information – what is interesting is not just that candidates are aware of this but supporters are making this a battleground for voters as well. Gene Koo notes this seems to be consonant with Barack’s message of bottom up change and policy setting by community action.

Crossposted on I&D Blog

Posted in Berkman, Media | Leave a comment

Jim Besson on Patent Rights

Jim Bessen is a Lecturer in Law at Boston University School of Law and spoke today in the Berkman Center’s Luncheon Series on “Patent Failure,” the title of his new book with Mike Meurer. Jim is the author of the first WYSIWYG software in 1983.

Jim starts by reminding us of the justification of property rights because of their enhancement of economic growth. He then questions whether patents are property since property rights for patents aren’t always easy to define and assign. He shows the e-data patent (on kiosks in music stores, granted in 1985) and the battle to assert this patent over ecommerce, which Jim sees as beyond the original scope of the patent (the courts didn’t). This is problematic because of vagueness: going to court to enforce property rights is expensive, and courts aren’t that predictiable about how they will rule on high tech patents, and innovators might not realize their risk of infringing patents.

They note this creates an incentive for patent holders to be deliberately vague about their boundaries, especially since technology changes and so rights can change in ways the original inventor never intended. And there are a lot of patents to check – too many for most businessmen or innovators.

Patents provide incentives to invest in innovation, to commercialize them and to trade them, but high tech patents seem to be litigated about 10 times those in other industries. He shows how the number of software patents is accelerating so we are in for a tough future with our current system, since in industries outside pharma, the patent system is not creating big rents, and thus doesn’t create the promised big incentives from property rights. Jim and Mike wonder whether, even in Pharma where it seems to be working, it might still be the wrong approach.

He doesn’t really know how to fix this but suggests firmer limits of patents with abstract ideas like software, noting that the law already requires definiteness in patents, although it is only enforced in a limited way. He also suggests greater transparency in the patent approval process so that the way the claims are interpreted is more clear. Mike favors limiting the continuation process to reduce the ability of patent holders to rewrite patent rights over time, and reducing the overall number of patents perhaps by creating much higher renewal fees to flush out less valuable patents.

Jim’s remedies are not with patent office reform but with patent quality – he suggests this requires very deep changes. Jim makes an analogy to tangible property rights in that they are heavily circumscribed, and patents need to be similarly circumscribed.

Crossposted on I&DBlog

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I’m a Postdoctoral Associate in Law and Kauffman Fellow in Law and Innovation at the Information Society Project at Yale Law School. My website is

My research focus is changes to the scientific method arising from the pervasiveness of computation, specifically reproducibility in computational science.

The banner photograph is Istanbul at sunrise, and was taken by Sami Ben Gharbia.

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The Scientific Method

OpinionJournal – Peggy Noonan

Peggy Noonan laments the inability of the scientific community to come together and deliver a solid answer on global warning. The reason why? The scientists have political agendas:

“You would think the world’s greatest scientists could do this, in good faith and with complete honesty and a rigorous desire to discover the truth. And yet they can’t. Because science too, like other great institutions, is poisoned by politics. Scientists have ideologies. They are politicized.”

I disagree. Certainly you can find purported scientists who are willing to subvert the truth to their agenda, in any field. But it is not enough to claim an agenda against the truth because the truth has not been discovered. You also need to establish that the questions we are asking, about global warming, are answerable with today’s knowledge, data, and technology. The answer the scientists might be forwarding is ‘I don’t know’ and there is nothing necessarily unscientific about that.

It seems to me what the scientific community has been saying is that the problem of global warming is phenomenally complex: the data are massive (many things to measure under all sorts of different circumstances) and future prediction has been near impossible. This is a scientific answer and possibly the best one we will have in the near term.

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Graduate Student Unionization – a dead issue?

In spring quarter of last year I was quoted (without my permission or knowledge, incidentally) in an article on graduate student unionization in the Stanford Daily. It’s not clear to me what the fuss is about, as a TA or RA at Stanford you are usually a graduate student with whatever benefits incur (such as health care or GSC negotiated pay raises). While more pay would always be nice, a terrific point is made by George Will in it will be difficult to extract benefits using striking if the services you provide aren’t essential to operations. My own sense as a TA is that our work could be picked up by professors or others in the department for a short term, likely enough to outlast a strike. Or a slightly less attentive course would be given to the students (this already happens as the number of TAs per course is not fixed and can vary by how many students are available from year to year). In fact this seems to have been the outcome from student strikes at Yale and Columbia.

So unless we are part of a larger university strike which includes essential services, I don’t think we’d have much traction. It’s also not clear to me the students would be overwhelmingly behind this – in academia much of our research and career is founded on cooperation and reputation, something students are often eager to demonstrate.

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Google Earth – too much of a view?

This article, “Google Earth images compromise secret installations in S. Korea” partly answers my first question when I found out about Google Earth. How are they handling sensitive satellite data?

Other countries have objected, out of national security concerns:

The White House is censored already. Is the information in Google Earth really easily obtainable by other means as Google suggests?

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