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Sierra Leone: What We Got Wrong

Blockchain technology may have the potential to change in the world, but exaggerating its real-world accomplishments can only sow public distrust and set the industry back.

The recent confusion and controversy over the role of Agora, a blockchain startup, in the Sierra Leone presidential election serve as a case in point.

While an Agora executive has taken responsibility for media coverage that overstated its involvement, CoinDesk inadvertently contributed in our initial story, which revealed the news to the world for the first time on March 8.

First, the facts: Agora acted as an international observer in the Sierra Leone election, and it was accredited for this role by the African nation’s National Electoral Commission (NEC). Importantly, Agora did not do the official vote count; that was the NEC’s job.

Rather, it provided an independent count of ballots that the official results could be compared against, and only for the Western district of Sierra Leone, not the whole country. Agora workers on the ground manually recorded its tally on a private blockchain.

That in itself was a first for the technology and a worthy story to report. But many media outlets made it sound like Agora was running the actual election for the government on a blockchain. Unfortunately, CoinDesk was among them.

The original title for our March 8 story, “Sierra Leone Secretly Holds First Blockchain-Powered Presidential Vote,” while vague, could easily have given readers the wrong idea (the adjective was later changed to “Blockchain-Audited”).

Further, the article as initially posted did not note that Agora’s work was confined to the Western district (a detail added after publication), nor did it explicitly spell out the company’s limited role as an observer, again potentially misleading readers.  

It should be noted that CoinDesk did attempt to reach the NEC for comment for that story, but did not hear back by deadline. An additional request has also gone unanswered. And our follow-up article, published on March 10, was much clearer about the scope of Agora’s activities.

Nevertheless, the early coverage across the media has led to “fake news” recriminations (mostly directed at Agora) and generally left a bad taste.

The NEC itself, in a March 19 tweet, flatly stated that it “does not use blockchain in any way.”

Jaron Lukasiewicz, Agora’s chief operating officer and the main source in our March 8 article, issued a mea culpa, telling CoinDesk:   

“I would like to acknowledge that any misunderstandings in the media are my own responsibility, though they were unintentional. I am implementing new processes for future media events covering Agora.”

And when interviewed by reporter Michael del Castillo for that first article, Lukasiewicz indeed spoke imprecisely, and perhaps with a bit of hyperbole, saying things such as this:

You’re looking at a country that you probably wouldn’t normally expect to be the first to use transparent voting tech. But a country like Sierra Leone can ultimately minimize a lot of the fall-out of a highly contentious election by using software like this.”

Nevertheless, we recognize that the ambiguity in the March 8 article likely contributed to the confusion and should have chosen our words more carefully.

CoinDesk continues to strive for the highest journalistic standards, and to raise the bar for integrity, accuracy and clarity in our reporting.

Voters in Sierra Leone image courtesy of Agora.

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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First Results of Sierra Leone's Blockchain Vote Are In

Blockchain startup Agora has published what appears to be the earliest results for the hotly contested Sierra Leone election, the first presidential vote tracked using the technology.

After the voting concluded on Wednesday, as many as 400,000 ballots were manually inputted into Agora’s blockchain system by a team of 280 accredited observers working in as many locations.

Currently, the exact number of votes for each candidate aren’t being revealed to the public, just the percentages. But Agora, a Switzerland-based foundation, said it plans to make the results auditable in a public format in the coming days.

While this is a milestone for distributed ledger technology, the messy circumstances surrounding the election, not to mention the limited scope of Agora’s work, show how far blockchain is from reaching its theoretical potential for voting.

For one thing, Agora, which was accredited by Sierra Leone’s National Election Committee (NEC), didn’t count all the ballots, just those cast in the country’s most populous district, where the capital city, Freetown, is located. The NEC’s tally is the official one; Agora, like other accredited observers, is providing an independent count for comparison.

“These are the final results from Agora to the Western area,” said Agora’s CEO, Leonardo Gammar. “The NEC is going to have its own results. Other observers are going to have their own results.”

Further, public blockchain purists may have trouble relying on Agora’s count. Some of the technology developed by Agora that grants node operators access is currently patent-pending, Gammar said, so there won’t be a fully open-source repository on Github for outsiders to inspect.

However, future elections are expected to use the full stack of the company’s technology and will be more fully auditable via integration with a public blockchain.

Going forward, Gammar says that by further closing off the opportunities for fraud, and expanding the zones tracked by auditable blockchain software, additional uncertainty about any number of elections held around the world could be removed.

“We were accredited by the NEC to do this, to do a study in the Western area,” he said, adding:

“If they like how it work, if they’re happy with everything, they’ll make it wider next time, and they’ll back us more and more.”

Early returns

The results from Agora’s sample showed the incumbent party candidate Samura Kamara, of the All People’s Congress, with a 12 point lead.

But as the official results from NEC aren’t expected to be announced until Friday night at the earliest. And the wait could be even longer, given complicating factors that can’t be solved by a blockchain.

For example, the Sierra Leone police earlier this week reportedly raided the office of the Sierra Leone People’s Party (SLPP), whose candidate came in second place in Agora’s tally.

While the official reason for the raid was because the police suspected an election hack was underway, party leaders alleged it was an effort to undermine the opposition.

In spite of these setbacks, the NEC reported that only about 0.2 percent of the election boxes used were “problematic,” falling in line with a statement made Friday by the European Union Election Observation mission that described the elections as “well organized.”

“While the tallying is still ongoing and should be finalised in full transparency, the EU expects all parties to respect credible electoral results and to use existing mechanisms to address grievances,” according to the statement.

Kamara won the western district by 54.7 percent in Agora’s count, just shy of the 55 percent constitutionally required to win a national election. So if the national results are similar, he may face a runoff against the SLPP’s Julius Bio, who got 32.5 percent of the votes according to the above partial blockchain tally.

Agora “should repeat this task in the runoff, as it looks like there will be one,” said political risk analyst and Sierra Leone native Abdul Deensie, a former fellow of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.

Images courtesy of Agora

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is a media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. CoinDesk is an independent operating subsidiary of Digital Currency Group, which invests in cryptocurrencies and blockchain startups.

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Sierra Leone Secretly Holds First Blockchain-Powered Presidential Vote

Behind the scenes of Sierra Leone’s presidential election Wednesday, a second, perhaps larger milestone was quietly achieved.

As voters lined up to cast votes in what had been a heated campaign between 16 candidates, unbeknownst to them, blockchain voting startup Agora was helping keep track of it all, and through its proprietary distributed ledger, providing unprecedented insight into the process.

In what, by all accounts, appears to be a world’s first for the emerging technology, Agora used a private, permissioned blockchain – one inspired by the technology that backs bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies – to oversee the results of a national election in real time. It then relayed the data to individuals entrusted to oversee and verify the nation’s democratic process.

However, for Agora, the elections could be step one in an even larger plan to launch a more decentralized version of its technology, and the startup boasts that it’s already in conversations with a number of other nations interested in hosting future elections.

Indeed, as even such stalwarts of democracy as the U.S. have proven their susceptibility to elections fraud, the Sierra Leone election – exactly because it was so hotly contested – could prove to be a landmark of sorts, if blockchain can overcome just a few more hurdles.

“You’re looking at a country that you probably wouldn’t normally expect to be the first to use transparent voting tech,” said Agora’s newly appointed COO, Jaron Lukasiewicz, who previously founded Coinsetter.

He told CoinDesk:

“A country like Sierra Leone can ultimately minimize a lot of the fall-out of a highly contentious election by using software like this.”

A long way to go

But while the voting may be over, the test for blockchain is, in some ways, just beginning.

As this article was being completed, Agora, a Switzerland-based foundation, was in the process of manually counting the votes and logging them on a blockchain.

“Voters complete their votes on paper ballots and then our team with impartial observers register them on the blockchain,” explained Lukasiewicz, who formally joined the company in January after first joining as an advisor.

Stepping back, though, not only is this the first time blockchain has been implemented in a national election, it’s also the first live implementation for Agora’s stack of blockchain services – what the company calls “skipchain” technology, designed to reach consensus with each node only seeing part of the blockchain.

The lowest level of the stack consists of “write-permissioned” nodes operated by Agora and third-party witnesses, Red Cross, École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL) and the University of Freiburg, as well as “read-only” nodes that let anyone observe the data.

And while the act of counting votes certainly introduces a number opportunities for fraud, Agora CEO Leonardo Gammar was on-location to help manage the operation as voter IDs were checked against Sierra Leone’s National Electoral Committee’s voter registration list. Future implementations, he said, may be even further decentralized by logging some data on the bitcoin blockchain.

According to Gammar, the firm is in conversations with multiple other nations in Africa and Europe and is pursuing a business model where they aim to provide their customers a 70 percent discount on their current cost.

“It has been incredible to play a role in helping Sierra Leone’s citizens exercise their democratic rights, and to help their country maintain a transparent democracy,” Gammar said, adding:

“I strongly believe that this election is the beginning of a much larger blockchain voting movement.”

Kind of peaceful

On a more skeptical note, the election took place within context that transcends tech.

Viewed by one Sierra Leone native and current political risk analyst, the election was little better – or worse – than any of the previous three general elections. Blockchain or no blockchain, he finds little has changed since the end of a bloody civil war that resulted in the deaths of an estimated 50,000 citizens.

Abdul Deensie, who was born in Sierra Leone, left in 1997, five years before the civil war had ended. Eventually, he joined as a fellow with the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and got a job at USAID, an independent agency that administers federal aid around the world.

Now, Deensie has been corresponding with several “sources on the ground” in Sierra Leone, as well as watching social media and news broadcasts closely, and he says that little he’s seeing about the election process has changed.

Skeptically, Deensie pointed to Sierra Leone’s “control of corruption” score, an annual rating of nations determined via a number of indicators, as something that was perhaps more important than the use of a novel technology.

Citing a history of failing scores in this category (this year Sierra Leone’s government rated worse than half the governments measured) and scattered reports of intimidation, he concluded ambivalently:

“The election itself, I believe, beside these little skirmishes, we can give it a pass as free and fair.”

Sierra Leone elections

Election history

But according to Lukasiewicz, such skepticism was exactly what led the government to approach his company in the first place.

While Sierra Leone does have a history of largely peaceful general elections since its civil war, a number of violent incidents were reported in the days leading up to the event.

Further doubt was cast on the integrity of the leading All People’s Congress (APC) party, when the nation’s Accountant General found a reported $5.7 million in aid money had gone missing, leading to accusations of fraud and corruption.

Facing such concerns about the reliability of the election, national authorities implemented military support provisions that placed police in the streets, and the national electoral commission has been posting updates on its blog about difficulties with the voting process.

Still, Lukasiewicz said the current Sierra Leone government wanted to create an extra layer of transparency by using Agora’s blockchain technology. In total, 17,745 sealed voting boxes were used, with 37 exhibiting various problems, according to the commission’s site.

“We’re coming in with fully auditable code, fully auditable voting processes,” Lukasiewicz said.

“We’re really bringing something to the table where a voter themselves can audit the election.”

Sierra Leone voting image via Shutterstock

The leader in blockchain news, CoinDesk is an independent media outlet that strives for the highest journalistic standards and abides by a strict set of editorial policies. Interested in offering your expertise or insights to our reporting? Contact us at news@coindesk.com.