Photo credit: horizononline.org
Having graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a degree in political science, and thereafter having qualified at Harvard Law School – despite coming from what she describes as a poor background – Okolloh has dedicated her life to using technological advances to further the development of an open political landscape on the African continent.
Watching Kenyan politicians granting themselves sizeable pay increases and bonuses, Okolloh teamed up with a fellow government critic, bent on making the Kenyan government more accountable to its population through increasing parliamentary transparency.
The pair launched the Mzalendo website – tagline: “Eye on Kenyan Parliament” - and began collecting as much information as possible on government representatives, finances, legislation, parliamentary debates; coming up against a range of government-erected barriers to transparency.
Okolloh described getting into parliament at the time: “If you are in the public gallery without a press pass, you're not allowed to carry writing materials… They search you, and take them off you. So if we want to report on a day in parliament, we have to do it from memory."
The pair began publishing crowd-sourced information on Mzalendo as well, and were thrilled to see the number of rurally based users keeping tabs on their government representatives.
Speaking at the time, Okolloh said: “If you are a citizen who wants to change something, we've proved that there are lots of tools out there - the internet, the free software - to give you the power to do that."
Shortly afterwards, in 2007, Kenya experienced a new presidential election, which this time came with a terrible aftermath. With politicians playing to tribal affiliations, the world watched as Kenya’s population became consumed with violence, as members of various tribes turned on each other as a result of the dubiously conducted elections.
It was during this period of violence that a second website was developed with the help of Okolloh, and fellow social activists. Ushahidi was born, as a crowdsourced information platform providing real-time updates on the post-election violence. Members of the public contributed information to the website, which ended up poignantly documenting each event of violence – and each peace initiative - as it took place around the country.
Ushahidi has since been credited with providing the only transparent account of the extent of the post-election violence, and has been used as a tool and record in subsequent investigations. Furthermore, the platform has proven so popular that it has been transformed for use in other countries and situations, including the rescue operation following the Haiti earthquakes and the Japanese tsunami.
Moving into a position as the Policy and Government Relations Manager for Sub-Saharan Africa at Google, Okolloh has now facilitated the implementation of yet another election and government transparency online initiative – the Ghana Election Hub, launched on Thursday.
The Ghanaian Hub has been created in preparation for the country’s presidential elections scheduled for December of this year. The website provides citizens with an extensive database of information on politicians, as well as video clips of election campaign speeches by candidates in order to promote more informed and transparent elections.
Okolloh comments: “During the election campaign period, the Internet is increasingly playing a role in how Ghanaian citizens’ search for information about elections, and in how politicians seek to engage with voters.”
With such a sturdy and committed background pushing for government accountability and transparency in Africa, it is no surprise that the internet giant has called for Okolloh’s guidance as it launches more socially and politically orientated endeavours online in Africa.
What remains to be seen is what Okolloh has up her sleeve with respect to the up-coming Kenyan elections. Born and bred Kenyan, and having been so intrinsically involved in the birth of election-related accountability, Okolloh will no doubt be particularly anxious to see a fair and transparent election take place in her home country.