Building a Mobile-based Public Opinion Survey in Africa

Mobile Phone SurveyIn my most recent post over at the Democracy in Africa blog, I argued that using mobile phones for political opinion polls would be an effective way of identifying voter fraud as well as providing feedback for political parties. My argument sought to use the ubiquity of mobile phones in Zimbabwe to overcome the lack of landlines needed to ‘traditional’ polling and the challenges of conducting in-person surveys in rural communities. Even though we know that not everyone owns or has access to a mobile phone, with penetration almost 100%, this medium made the most sense in order to capture the most complete sample of the prospective Zimbabwean voter. Still, understanding how those who own mobile phones are different from those that don’t will be important for the generalizability of the survey. Additionally, those that respond to an SMS based poll versus citizens that do not will likely need to be explored for the purposes of generalizing the results of the survey. With these questions in mind, I’ve expanded on the the model I described at DIA to a version that would incorporate more of these variables. Below are some additional factors to include in the survey:

Sample frame:

The target of the survey would be the 13 million mobile phone subscribers in Zimbabwe. With a population just around 13 million, it can be reasonable to assume that the majority of citizens have an active mobile phone. To draw a random sample of this group in order to conduct the survey, two methods could be undertaken:

Random digit dialing: After inputing the correct prefixes for cell numbers in Zimbabwe (71, 73, and 77) a machine can dial random phone numbers. This makes it easy to replace any disconnected or unused numbers with the next random phone number.

Sample frame from the Telecoms: After partnering with the three major providers in Zimbabwe (Econet, Telecel, and Net*One), a list can be compiled of the numbers that have been active in the past 30 days from which to randomly sample. However, with many users changing SIM cards as they travel, or to take advantage of better rates, the list of active lines may include some that belong to the same person.

Weighting the Sample:

To compensate for a survey that does not perfectly represent the entire country of Zimbabwe, weights can be added to response groups in order to match the proportions known in the population. As an example, oversampling Sindebele speakers (who are only around 15%) or urban residents (5 million of the 13 million in the country) could be reproportioned to compenstate. This would not help if the sample itself is unrepresentative, but for the purposes of this project, the sample of mobile users is assumed to be the best representative sample that can be achieved.


To make sure that the survey was successful it would need at least one round of testing (a pilot program) to flesh out the right wording of the questions and the right incentive for response. Usually this is done by running the survey twice with only one difference in the implementation. One group could be asked about their ethnicity or language, and the other would not, in order to see if the overall response rate dropped because people were put off by the question. Other pilots could test the level of incentive needed to ensure a high response rate. Does 25c of airtime make it worth someone’s time?

Finally, what information people are told about the survey before they participate will be crucial to gauge. While Americans are used to pollsters calling for their opinion and assume that their anonymity will be protected, this can not be said around the world. Does Billboard in Mozambiquea public campaign need to be undertaken? Can a SMS with a url link to a website do the trick? Understanding what information is needed by those surveyed to have enough trust in order to respond will be one of the most crucial steps taken.


With these factors in mind, the formation of a mobile-based public opinion survey in Zimbabwe could be begun. Generalizability will be a crucial component for this survey as it’s likely to be one of the most critiqued factors. Those that respond to the survey could be   less fearful that their answers might offend the security regime, and thus more likely to be ZANU-PF supporters. Conversely, those that do not own mobile phones are more likely to be poor and rural citizens, and are a group that ZANU-PF has consistently targeted for electoral support. These plus other factors need to be overcome by the structure of the final form of the survey in order to produce a non-response rate of less than 30%. Any more and there’s no chance of generalizing about the voting habits of the Zimbabwean populace. Despite fine tuning the sample frame, correctly weighting the demographics, or identifying the right incentive, Zimbabweans may still be resistant to mobile polling. If the risks perceived by a voter in revealing their political preference cannot be assuaged by those conducting the survey, then high measurement error will likely result.

Despite the challenges and difficulties in achieving a proper survey, there is a clear social benefit provided to the Zimbabwean people. Polling allows a population to give instant feedback to political parties and candidates during elections. While the United States has become obsessed with polling to the point of superfluousness, citizens are able to indicate their preferences at various times, rather than just through a one-off election. Additionally, election monitors can use the trends of polling to provide a more accurate assessment of whether elections have been rigged or manipulated. If monitors know that Province A had been trending support of 60% for candidate A but in the election candidate B receives 70% of the vote, a red flag can be triggered and thus alert monitors to further investigate the results. Without knowing pre-election opinions, no one can be certain if the populace truly voted the way they did.

Democracy is at a standstill in Africa despite recent headlines. Technology will not be a democratizing agent on its own. However, if used in certain circumstances to improve accountability, transparency, or connectivity, we should embrace the chance help consolidate existing republics as well as bringing forth more democratic regimes in Africa.

Flag Map of Zimbabwe

This article is an addendum to an article posted on Democracy in Africa

DIA Logo


A Post-Mugabe Zimbabwe – Strategic Communication Overview

Project Overview

To anticipate the eventual change of leadership in Zimbabwe this document has been created for communicators and foreign policy analysts as a predictive tool for how the different external stakeholders will go about using strategic communication to complement Cover Page Zim Projecttheir diplomatic missions in Zimbabwe. A document based on prognostication means there are certainly gaps in understanding and predicting how humans will drive interactions. However, using a theoretical framework from the discipline of International Relations will provide guidance on constructing this forecast. Of course, not every actor is welded to a particular theory of IR, and thus below is a starting point for analysis, not the end.

The document has been divided in three different possible scenarios that could see Robert Mugabe leave office: an election, a military coup, and his death. Each scenario is broken into the actions taken by each external actor engaged with Zimbabwe: the African Union, China, the European Union, South Africa, and the United States. For each scenario the goals, strategies, and tactics for each country are outlined, leading to where each country would target their message. Some focus on the people of Zimbabwe, the military, or the other countries in the region. For each target, the message is determined by the set of objectives each country is trying to achieve in the post-Mugabe Zimbabwe. While some covert or diplomatic action is specified, the aim of this document is to predict the public diplomacy or overt strategic communication each actor takes towards its targets. The last piece of each country’s communication plan is the way the actor will engage or react to the actions of the other 5 international entities. This is to account for the fact that no communication plan exists in a vacuum and that the best laid plans will need revising based on the actions and counter-actions of the other players on the scene.

Continue reading

Understanding the ‘Africa Rising’ Meme

Part of the raison d’entre for public diplomats is the creation and distribution of memes. Most of us know memes as the cat pictures with big bold text on them discussing their need for cheeseburgers. But the pre-internet definition of a meme went like this:

an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to bepassed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, esp.imitation.

This is a critical piece of the public diplomats’ toolkit because their tasks are to disseminate ideas and values that represent their nations, employers, or clients. This is not an easy task, and it is made all the more difficult by the difficulty of measuring the success or failure of memes. How well do people associate Nike with great athletics? How well do people in Africa associate democracy and civil rights with the United States? Does China’s articulation of a ‘peaceful rise’ achieve the geo-strategic goals in their foreign policy?

These answers are a bit ephemeral because of the shifting perceptions, and are often only analyzed in retrospect, or when the public can subconsciously agree as a ‘whole’ that a certain meme is associated with a certain brand, country, or person.

Recently, there have been many newspapers (The Economist), magazines (Time), andAfrica_Rising620 writers who have hailed the ‘Rise of Africa’ in the past decade. These analyses often look at the massive growth rates in GDP that African countries have sustained and they see hope for the future, especially when contrasted with the stagnant or non-existent growth in North American or Europe. This meme has been credited with increasing the focus on Sub-Saharan Africa both in the business community as well within the foreign policy community.

This ‘Africa Rising’ theme was challenged in a recent Foreign Policy article (The Myth of Africa’s Rise), that has stayed in FP’s Most Popular list for over a week after its publication fp-logo(it is currently ranked 6th). I’ve had it bred into me at USC to always research the author of any piece I read, and that habit revealed an interesting piece of info: it’s written by an author (Rick Rowden) who it appears has rejected the Washington Consensus on economic development (see his book on the Deadly Ideas of Neoliberalism) but is not an economist, not an Africanist, not a political scientist, and not a public diplomat, which may account for the frame of his thesis:

The measures of development (GDP, consumption, and trade) are wrong.

It is a claim that goes against 50 years of development work, and may in fact be a needed critique to development studies. However, Rowden doesn’t go down the path of most who attack GDP and other monetary based measures do. He could have explored the Better Life Index, the Green GDP, or simply argued that GDP and its like can’t possibly ascertain Africa’s geo-political position and whether the continent has grown more powerful in international relations. No, Rowden instead says that industrialization is the primary way to measure growth. And his rationale? Because all the other countries who grew first (the West),first industrialized in their development stages. This cross temporal comparison is shocking, because it basically makes the argument that there is only one way to growth a national economy! Which contradicts his argument against the use of neo-liberal economic markers (GDP per capita, consumption, and trade) to measure growth!

For the sake of Rowden, let’s take his rhetorial frame as not so ludercrious, and operationalize his ideas about growth. Continue reading

2012 in review

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.

Here’s an excerpt:

4,329 films were submitted to the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. This blog had 42,000 views in 2012. If each view were a film, this blog would power 10 Film Festivals

Click here to see the complete report.