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Ushahidi - Crowdsourcing Democracy, from Kenya to the World
Jonathan Lin   Oct 19, 2012   Ethical Technology  

Platform that promotes humanitarianism and citizen journalism emerges from Kenyan civil strife; now it instigates economic change and social activism internationally.

In late December 2007, Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of Kenya’s presidential election. Within the hour that he was sworn into office, smoke could be seen emerging from the slums of the capital Nairobi. International media reports appeared in early January 2008 about the suffering caused by ethnic hatred and violence that had erupted in Kenya. The death count had reached a thousand, and hundreds of thousands had been driven from their homes out of fear. There was the strong belief that state-run media outlets were only fanning the tensions and encouraging conflict between rival populations and supporters.

It is against this backdrop that Kenyan developers wanted an independent source of reports of what was happening and where. Information that came directly from local actors on the ground caught up in chaos. In the post-election violence, reliable and accurate accounts and details were difficult to obtain, and oftentimes traditional media skewed or simply refused to broadcast such information. The group of developers assembled a platform that allowed individuals via SMS reports to place entries onto an online map for all to see. They named it “Ushahidi”, which means “Testimony” in Swahili. The code was released as open-source and made readily available for the developer community at large.

This intersection of technology and members of the public is called Crowdsourcing, or Crowdmapping with regards to Ushahidi’s geographical visualization. Kenyans from around the country could text reports of violence from their mobile phones or supply information via email. Ushahidi would then assemble these reports onto an online map and add new ones as they came, thus rapidly organizing a visual forum that compiled a more complete picture of the conflict than any other media outlet or organization.

One of Ushahidi’s founders is Ory Okollah, a lawyer. In an interview in late 2010 she explained that Ushahidi started out as “an ad hoc group of technologists and bloggers hammering out software in a couple of days, trying to figure out a way to gather more and better information about the post-election violence.” The underreporting of certain events by traditional media thus prompted the need for local actors to step in and provide coverage and witness. Ushahidi became the spark for citizen journalism, where amateur reports from the crowd contribute news in a much quicker and reliable way than traditional media. Okollah did not want this mobilization of the crowd to fade away as the election event and the chaos dissolved into the past. “When the crisis comes to an end we don’t want what happened to be swept under the rug in the name of ‘moving forward’”, she said. “For us to truly move forward, the truth of what happened needs to be told. Ushahidi is our small way of contributing to that.”

The team that maintained the digital platform was just as vital as the technology: bloggers are tasked to verify the incoming facts from aid agencies and other sources on the ground, in order to guard against misreporting. But on the whole, it relies on the wholesome desire of the collective to react and mobilize, to act accordingly in response to crisis.

Ushahidi had around 45,000 users in Kenya, and has since expanded to the rest of the continent. It has strengthened economic development and market efficiency through mapping biogas market prices and production across six African countries. It has contributed to maintaining education, such as tracking teacher absenteeism in Uganda. It has been used to track near real-time stock outs of medical supplies at health facilities in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia, and to track swine flu outbreaks in South Africa. Ushahidi has also pushed for social activism and public accountability in political arenas, such as the 2011 elections in Nigeria. The digital platform allowed local voters to get wind of and rise against instances of electoral fraud. These local communities posted their reports on the online map in a cohesive manner of protest. Before Ushahidi these actors may have known about these malpractices but were unable to organize the uncoordinated masses as an effective single unit, and thus could not get their information and accounts to a useful leverage point. Ushahidi has since then bridged this crucial gap, allowing for the organization of vital information into a coherent and comprehensive whole.

Recently the crowdmap has been put to use overseas, since Ushahidi’s developers believe in the free availability of their computer code. This open source sharing is crucial as it essentially removes the financial barriers for organizations that often do not have the money to write code from scratch, or pay hefty fees for data. Ushahidi provides its code and data to causes it believes will benefit from the crowdsourcing platform. The platform has helped aid workers in Haiti and Japan reach those affected by natural disaster. The technology has been featured in Atlanta to track crime, document sexualized violence in Syria, and coordinate rescue efforts in the aftermath of terrorist bombing in Pakistan. In early 2011 board member Patrick Meier collaborated with the World Bank to see how Ushahidi could be used by municipal authorities in Beijing to tackle urban transportation problems in the city. The platform provided a direct link between users of transport and transport planners, and allowed the latter to receive feedback and suggestions and identify successful initiatives.

This access is hugely significant, and Ushahidi’s technological roots of origin are African. This indicates massive potential for development and policymaking, strategy and regulation, and growth and development of the internet on the continent. In December 2010, Google hired Okollah to oversee the company’s policy in Africa. This move has seen the recent gathering of momentum on the technology policy front, where earlier in July of this year Okollah spoke about Google’s business initiatives and beliefs in entrepreneurship and innovation. In addition, these innovative practices emerge from quite a different world than that of Silicon Valley situated in a bustling American hub, with its universities, financiers, mentors, high-school programs, stable families, and worldviews. Ushahidi arises from material hardship and scarcer resources, where it operates in a different way that Anand Giridharadas from the New York Times calls “doing more with less, rather than on selling new and improved stuff.”

The fact that numerous technological initiatives and organizations - many from the world’s most powerful country - are looking Kenya and relying on its innovation is really telling about how digital forces are creating an entirely new global playing field.

The central focus is now on the community of users and contributors. Take Firsthand, a platform on Huffington Post that uses the Ushahidi platform. Its intent is to point to how a certain challenge or trend affects one’s community in America. Users can upload Instagram photos and brief video clips onto an online map, along with explanatory sentences to illustrate the ‘testament of changes’ currently sweeping through American communities. With so many political developments and promises, constituents can use Ushahidi and storytelling to pinpoint where changes are happening, what is becoming of them, and how they matter to particular locations. This attention on the community has moved to the forefront of crowdsourcing concerns: larger regional or national developments and policies are important, but the collective of the crowd cannot be left behind in the wake of the exemplified progress or change.

Crowdmapping is by no means the only key emerging technology development in Africa. In an era of increasing global connectivity, cross-sector collaboration, and entrepreneurial spirit, technological progress is gaining audiences and supporters in many areas of the world. There is Juhudi Kilimo, an organization that finances agricultural assets for smallholder farmers, providing these rural communities in Kenya with the tools they need to become more successful. There are start-ups in Uganda that have created apps such as Mafuta Go to show where commuters can go to get the cheapest gasoline for their vehicles. Technology is playing an increasing role in the everyday livelihoods of African citizens, as basic devices such as cell phones become more widespread. Societal grievances that have always existed are now challenges that upcoming entrepreneurs are tackling with their talents, skills, and connections.

As seen in the events of the second half of this essay, crowdsourcing violence is a relatively new and crucial phenomenon. Before technology such as Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ became populated by netizens, information in many countries was essentially controlled. Even in America major news organizations are able to greatly influence public perception via the careful selection of news dissemination. In the words of Brian Herbert, director and lead developer of Ushahidi, “technology has been allowing people to tell their story and get the word out.” In the media blackout of Kenya’s 2007 elections, crowdsourcing platforms became a method for ordinary citizens to get their story out.

Though primarily run by its team of volunteers and developers in Africa, Ushahidi is also run by teams in Europe, South America, and the United States. The platform was both constructed by and depends on volunteer communities, and has become a social enterprise in its own right that has dramatically changed how individuals act to influence democracy and development, to promote humanitarianism and reliable reporting, and to demonstrate what entrepreneurism can accomplish to instigate change in the world where it is needed most. Starting out to assemble truthful citizen testimonials to skirt around misleading media reports, Ushahidi is now bearing witness to global forces taking notice of the technological innovation at home in Africa, and encouraging further attention and investment to the continent’s skills and ambitions, talent and potential.

Jonathan Lin is a Bookworm, Music Junkie, Cineaste, Tech Enthusiast, Gadget Guru, Blogger, Musician, Jogger, Dreamer, and in the Carleton College class of '13.

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