“Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a website set up by a collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis in Kenya, after the post-election fall-out at the beginning of 2008, to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones.
The traction of the website – which gathered 45,000 users in Kenya – catalysed the realisation amongst its developers that the platform had potential beyond Kenya’s borders and have relevance and use for others around the world. Since then, Ushahidi has grown from an ad hoc group of volunteers to a focussed organisation, comprising of individuals with a diverse span of experience ranging from human rights work to software development.
The goal is to create a platform that allows any person or organisation around the world to set up their own way to collect and visualise information, which can be customised for different locales and needs, and used to bring awareness to crises in their own region. The approach is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time.
At its core, Ushahidi is geared at disrupting and changing the traditional way that information flows, through building tools for democratising information, increasing transparency and lowering barriers for individuals to share their stories. Juliana Rotich, Ushahidi’s Executive Director, observes that:
“Ushahidi enables people to change how information flows. To enable regular people to be part of something, to be part of that narrative that is emerging. Things are in flux all the time, be it politically, be it socially, and technology allows [people] to participate and to connect with others.”
Openness, sharing and collaboration are key principles underpinning the approach. Communities form around each deployment, who are able to help each other map out problem areas and, in some more recent developments, also map out support i.e. where people are who are willing to assist. Feedback loops between deployers and their community provide an important incentive to engage is: those who report get alerts via SMS or Twitter which gives them a situational awareness of an area or an issue they care about.
Despite being described as “a child of collaboration on the internet”, Ushahidi is at its heart about stimulating and coordinating high impact, real-world action: in this sense, Ushahidi software can be seen as an “online complement to offline engagement.” Partnerships are critical in this regard: having a “concerted strategy of partners” that have a mandate to respond to the information that is crowdsourced is key to translating online activity and information into real-world action. For example, in the case of the Uchaguzi deployment (an outlet for participation for citizens and civil society to report on electoral offenses during the 2010 Kenya’s 2010 Constitutional Reform) it was through an important web of partnerships that reports were sent to mobilise response actors on ground including the electoral authorities, security personnel and community-based peace organisations.
Since its inception in 2008, the platforms has grown to over 20,000 deployments globally, and has been used around the world to coordinate responses to a wide range of events – in Mexican elections to report problems at polling stations to the electoral commission, to gathering information about harassment in Egypt, to flooding in Australia and fires in Russia. The Ushahidi Haiti Project (UHP), a volunteer effort to produce a crisis map after the 2012 earthquake in Haiti, represents an important proof of concept for the application of crisis mapping and crowdsourcing to large scale catastrophes. An independent evaluation underscored the power of Ushahidi software in coordinating human aid, particularly in early response to emergencies. This found that the UHP addressed key information gaps in the very early period of responses before the UN and other large organisations were operational by providing situational awareness and critical early information with a relatively high level of geographical precision, and by helping mobilise smaller NGOs, private funders and citizen actors to engage and appropriately target needs. The relevance of the response was aided by directly engaging affected Haitians in articulating their own needs and organising local capacity.
So, what challenges have been encountered, and what lessons have been learned in overcoming these? Improved internet access and connectivity speeds have played an important role in aiding uptake of the software, which had initially posed technological barriers in the Kenyan context. However, an arguably larger obstacle with greater traction than technology stems from organisational cultures which have resisted the call to ‘open up’ information – or “data hugging disorder.” In Kenya, developments at the level of state are aiding this situation, as government has made a concerted effort to open data in formats that developers can use – marking a “good step … a first in Africa.” Rotich observes that Kenya has its own ICT board and a minister of ICT who “acknowledges this tide of technology, and how it’s changing people’s lives. The great thing is they’re trying to see how they can use it to engage.”
Another challenge concerns how to incentivise engagement and sustained participation. Participation is less of a challenge for those whose deployments centre around a crisis, where there is usually a lot of media attention around a story. However, for “slow burn” issues – for example, keeping account of government’s provision of services – it can be harder to keep participation up. Here, Rotich notes, there is a real need for organisations to have a dedicated community director to build community and maintain engagement.
Rotich feels that one of the factors that stimulates innovation within their team is that they are “distributed and diverse” and “fundamentally virtual” – this allows them to bring in experience from many different parts of the world, and allows them to prototype and test their approach on a global scale. As testimony to their innovation capabilities, Ushahidi were recently recognised within the Future Quotient Report of the 50 Stars of Seriously Long-Term Innovation.
And where will the long-term lead? One idea involves widening the current focus – on data sharing and collaboration – to what Rotich calls “collaborative context-making.” In the future, they would like to be able to provide more tools for people to contextualise and curate information, and then stimulate collaborative problem-solving in a way that generates solutions that are relevant and tailored to the local context. With Crowdmap and SwiftRiver, Ushahidi hopes to assist anyone to collaborate on all phases of information flow.
Click here to see the website.