Crowdsourcing In Times of Crisis

Ushahidi crowdsources information and then uses technology tools to draw attention to problems such as election fraud or to help in disaster recovery. The group’s technology engine, which was developed in Africa by Africans, allows for any person or group to create a way to gather distributed information, aggregate it, and then visualize it on a map, timeline, or chart. It is one of 26 companies chosen to be a 2010 Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum.

The burning of a bus. People slashed by machetes. Indiscriminate gunfire. Excessive police force.  All were part of the violence that occurred during Kenya’s post-election crisis in 2008.

The world learned of these incidents mainly through  individuals  playing the role of citizen journalist. Technological tools provided by Ushahidi, an African nonprofit group, helped make it possible.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, operates an online platform that allows individuals and organizations to post real-time information about unfolding crises.  Going far beyond simple blogging, Ushahidi’s website allows users to aggregate information and present it on maps, charts, and timelines.

For example, visitors to Ushahidi’s site during the Kenya crisis could call up a digital map of the country, locate the flashpoints, and read accounts of what was happening. Color-coded markers helped identify the locations of government forces and refugees, and pinpoint where riots, looting, rapes, and other acts of violence were occurring. The platform also creates  an archive of citizen-generated data that can be used for future study.

Besides documenting violence in Kenya, the platform has been used to monitor elections in Mexico and India, track the spread of swine flu, and alert authorities to shortages of medical supplies in several African countries. Ushahidi  is one of 26 “technology pioneers,” recognized on  Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum, for offering new technologies or business models that could improve the global economy and have a positive impact on peoples’ lives.

Ushahidi grew out of a volunteer effort that began during the Kenya crisis in early 2008. Ory Okolloh (pictured on Informilo’s home page), a Kenyan who had recently graduated from Harvard Law School ,was working for a human-rights group in Kenya and was alarmed at the lack of information available from traditional media outlets, which were subject to government censorship. She mobilized her network of contacts and began posting online updates every two hours on the spread of political violence.

As Okolloh was preparing to head back to her home in South Africa with her family, she sent out a digital plea for help in setting up technology that could automate the process. African techies responded, helping to build a platform that let users  file reports either by text message, Twitter, or e-mail. That led to the creation of a  nonprofit group founded by Okolloh and two other U.S.-educated Kenyans-David Kobia and Julia Rotich-along with Erik Hersman, an American raised in Africa.

Ushahidi now has a 10-person staff and a network of volunteers across Africa, the U.S., and Europe,  with expertise ranging from human-rights work to software development. The group has no offices; the staff, based in Kenya and South Africa, stay in touch through Skype and Internet. Its services are offered free of charge to humanitarian organizations and other groups that gather information locally and then forward it to the Ushahidi platform.

Started on a shoestring, Ushahidi recently received a grant from the Omidyar Network, established by eBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar, that will provide the group $1.4 million over the next three years.

Now, Ushahidi is moving to fine-tune its service, setting up mechanisms to help verify the accuracy of field reports.  It has a project called Swift River that aggregates data from Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, local mobile and web social networks, as well as its own site. Anyone with Internet access can rate information as it comes in.  Pieces of information with higher ratings are highlighted and displayed more prominently.

Ushahidi aims to become a source of information not only to citizen groups, but also to media outlets, in crises where there are no centralized sources of reliable information.  But Okolloh acknowledges that the platform cannot replace professional journalism. “We cannot totally eliminate misinformation, this is inherent in any citizen reporting,” she says. “But we can make it easier for people to make decisions.”  

Informilo has syndicated its coverage of the 2010 Tech Pioneers to BusinessWeek.





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