George K. Fahnbulleh

Ideas and Opinions...

In Liberia: Tripping over their Ignorance

I have watched for the past 3 weeks, as the Opposition Coalition, has tried in vain to challenge the NEC's conduct of the election.  The reason they are failing so miserably is they have approached this as a legal issue, with no forensic/technical basis.  We see a room full of esteemed lawyers arguing and peacocking about "the law." Each determined to show how much law he knows.  We get it already. You are experts at law.

However, these esteemed lawyers are totally ignorant of the forensics which could strengthen their case.  

The NEC made the voter rolls available to parties on a USB drive.  Those voter rolls were in PDF format. Yes, the NEC provided a list of 2 million voters on paper, for the political parties!!!

This is strike one.  Did the NEC deliberately provide the voter rolls on paper to make the voter rolls inscrutable? It is not possible to query such a list in any reasonable period of time.  Why not an Excel spreadsheet? But what you don't know, you don't know.

Be that as it may, there are technology tools, which will allow you to take a report in pdf and convert it back to a database.

A Liberian technology expert performed this task and shared his results with me.  On their face, they point to an astounding level of technical incompetence, that seems almost criminal.  It is one of those things when you see, and your professional, yes professional opinion is "no person can be this stupid."

There were more than 15,000 (fifteen thousand) duplicate voter IDs.  There were more than 100 persons age 105 - 215.  The latter is a data entry quality control issue.  The former, however, points to the incompetence mentioned above.

A fundamental concept of Relational Database Management Systems (RDBMS) is the idea  every row (record) must have a unique identifier.  This unique identifier can only occur once in a table, hence the word "unique".  There are two ways to do this, which allows the system to enforce these constraints:
a) make the specific column the primary key
b) add a "unique constraint" to the column

That column for the voter registration database should be the VoterID number.  Again, because each voter must have a unique voter ID number, the database design must have designated the VoterID column as the "primary key" or placed a "unique constraint" on the column, if a different primary key was used. 

The fact there were 15,000 duplicate voterID's in the file, suggests neither of these fundamental architectural/design constraints were put in.  Let me be clear, if you registered for "Introduction to Databases" and dropped the class after 2 weeks, you would have learned about "primary keys."

In light of this apparently fatal technical flaw, the litigants should have then demanded:
1) the NEC freeze the database (by making a certified copy and removing that copy from the premises.)
2) a copy of the database be given to the litigants for inspection.

This would have allowed the litigants to actually query the database and note all of its design/data flaws.

Also important is whether or not the NEC built an "Audit Trail" into the database.  For high-security databases, it is necessary to record and track all changes made to the data, capture who made the change, and the date and time it was made.  For example, if someone changes the data in a middle name column from "K" to "Karmoh" that change is automatically recorded in a separate table.  This allows for secure monitoring of changes to the data.  The absence of an audit trail means the NEC has no reliable mechanism to tell which changes were made, by whom, and when.

Back to the absence of primary keys and/or unique constraint of the VoterID.  The design/architecture flaw here is so severe, it is impossible to believe there are not even more serious flaws in the database.  It is also impossible to know for certain, without an inspection of a copy of the actual database.

How, if at all, did the NEC correct the problem of 15,000 duplicate voter IDs? Is there an audit trail which shows how the correction was handled?

I can understand all of this technology mumbo-jumbo, is confusing to the lawyers and layman alike.  However, that the lawyers did not have database experts to challenge the NEC over these questions, is where I believe their case was doomed.

Sometimes you have to get out of your own way.

 

Integrity is not the solution for Corruption in Africa

"Show me a country with poor record keeping systems, and I will show you a poor country every time" 

The fight against corruption, in Liberia, is not about integrity. It is about having RECORD SYSTEMS that can adequately track all transactions. Most African nations, Liberia included, are woefully deficient in their record keeping systems.

How come Liberians who exist in the West seem to not have these "integrity" problems? As soon as they get to Liberia, their "lack of integrity" shows up. Because in the West, record keeping systems exist that will catch them more often than not, so they do not risk committing the offenses.

The DEFAULT proposition is "you will be caught." In Africa, the DEFAULT proposition is "you will NOT be caught."

In other words, people in the West ARE FORCED to be honest, whether they want to or not, BECAUSE of the systems in place.

Another thing that forces honesty, in the West, is the REDUCED USE of CASH for financial transactions. Those credit/debit card transactions force the transactions into RECORD KEEPING SYSTEMS.

In Africa, the vast majority of the transactions are cash transactions, which leave room for theft, at every collection point of the transfer of said transaction.

As long as we continue to look at it as an "integrity" problem we will miss the mark. It is a lack of systems problem.

You can have systems of Accountability without computer systems

What process is used to standardize the collection of data for people requesting or receiving a government service/benefit?

It is not just about "computer systems."

The PAPER FORM is the most BASIC CONSTRUCT for data collection and management. In developed countries, people requesting something from the government must fill out a form. Design of those forms and their elements are controlled by a central entity and the agency requesting the benefit/action is being requested.

In the US, that federal agency is the Office of Management and Budget (OMB).
-The elements and/or wording on those forms can only be altered after a rigorous process between the agency and OMB.
-Any computer systems which capture the data from those forms must be updated before a new version of the form is put into circulation.
-PUBLIC NOTICE must be given, as to the changes to the form.
-These notices and regulations are published in the Federal Register.

Once a new version of a form is released, the old version CAN no longer be used to request or submit information to the government.

So I am not speaking only about computers in any discussion of DATA SYSTEMS. Data systems include all instruments used to collect data.