Somaliland’s electoral commission has begun trials of an iris-based voter registration system in preparation for a national election system.

The chairman of the National Election Commission confirmed the launch to reporters last week, adding that the trials will concentrate on Hargeisa and Toghdeer regions.

Last year, election specialist Roy Dalle Vedove approached University of Notre Dame biometrics expert Kevin Bowyer and his team to help develop the system. One goal of the Somaliland government is to have honest, respected elections,”  biometrics expert Kevin Bowyer told Planet Biometrics at the time.

“Toward this end, they want to create a fraud-free voter registration list. They have turned to biometrics as a means to generate such a list.” If a full-scale version of the iris system is put in place for the national elections next year, “Somaliland would have the most technically sophisticated voting register in the world”, says Bowyer.

The algorithms developed by Bowyer’s team are able to identify people who have previously registered even if they are wearing different types of coloured or textured contact lenses. He adds: “Fingerprint might seem like an obvious choice for biometric verification of a voting register, but it runs into problems with the percentage of the population for which an acceptable quality image can be obtained.

Given the state-of-the-art in fingerprint sensors, in a country like Somaliland, a sizeable fraction of the population may have trouble using the sensors reliably. And this weakness can be exploited by people who want to commit voter fraud by registering more than once.

In fact, Somaliland conducted a biometric voter registration exercise in 2008-09 using fingerprints and facial recognition, and a good deal of effort was devoted to using biometrics to clean the voting register. However, a report carried out in 2010 by Electoral Reform International Services for the Somaliland National Electoral Commission concluded that ‘this register is known to contain a large number of duplicates, possibly around 30%, and the existing biometric systems could not identify these with the data available.’

The problems with this voting register motivated the need for a new register.” As an alternative to fingerprinting, the Somaliland government, through its election experts, contacted Bowyer’s research group, which includes PhD students Estefan Ortiz and Amanda Sgroi, for help in exploring the use of iris recognition.

According to the university, the Bowyer group’s publications on iris recognition technology contributed significantly in convincing the National Election Commission that iris recognition, carried out with the right equipment and procedures and with a focus on data quality, was a viable solution.

The voter registration is by law required to be complete by the end of 2014. Somaliland officials asked Bowyer’s group to conduct a trial voter registration project using iris recognition that would be completed before Ramadan started on 28 June.  “Data acquisition for the field study was conducted over a five-day period in two registration centres: one in the Somaliland capital, Hargeisa, and one in Baki, a small town about 60 miles from Hargeisa,” says Bowyer.

“The data was transferred electronically to our research group at Notre Dame, where we performed the iris recognition analysis, and then reported our results back.” The Notre Dame researchers analysed 1,062 trial voter registration records. The number of duplicate records seeded into the dataset in order to test the power of iris recognition was unknown to the Notre Dame team.  Each record contained two iris images, for the left and the right eye.

Using automatic matching of the set of 2,124 iris images, the Notre Dame team says it was able to quickly identify a list of 450 duplicate registrations. The Notre Dame team then performed manual inspection of a small number of results that were ambiguous based on the automatic matching, and this identified another seven instances of duplicate registration.

 The list of 457 instances of duplicate registration was reported to the Somaliland National Electoral Commission, along with a technical report that describes how the Notre Dame team performed its analysis and makes recommendations for maintaining and improving image quality. Elections specialist Roy Dalle Vedove, working with the Somaliland NEC on the effort for a new and more accurate voting register, replied that “analysis of the results from our data confirm the accuracy of your results. … Overall we are very pleased.”

According to the University, Somaliland will proceed to create a new national voting register to be used in the next elections. Its biometrically validated voting register will be one of the most technically sophisticated voting registers of any country in the world, and a model for others.

Researchers hope it will lead to election results that are transparent and believable, and to greater international recognition of the Somaliland government.

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