#699 Ushahidi puts power in people’s hands

“Free cultures get what they celebrate.” Clay Shirky

“We have to get better at telling our stories.” Ory Okollah

Samoa crisis map

Ushahidi map from Samoa; photo from Ushahidi’s Facebook page

One of the best technology innovations I have come across lately is the BRCK. The prototype was developed in Nairobi, Kenya. It allows anyone to connect to the Internet via wireless, ethernet, 3G or 4G. The portable generator is the size of a brick and can handle up to 20 devices. Power outage or intermittent electricity? No problem. The built-in battery provides 8 hours of access. Designed to provide connectivity in a part of the world where access can be most spotty, it can work anywhere.

But I am getting ahead of myself because its genesis was with Ushahidi, a name chosen because it means “testimony” in Swahili. The organization got its start during the post-election violence after Kenya’s disputed presidential election of December 2007.

Media censorship made it difficult for people to find out what was happening. Blogger Ory Okolloh, a Harvard-educated lawyer living in Nairobi, blogged about it on her site, Kenyan Pundit. Her readers added comments about what was happening. Each day she would collate and post them.

That became overwhelming. She wished there were some way to automate the information. 72 hours later two programmers who had been reading her blog launched Ushahidi, which could take reports from mobile phones, SMS and the Web and aggregate them on a map.

That was the start of crisis mapping. In his 2010 TED talk, Clay Shirky said:

And enough people looked at it and found it valuable enough that the programmers who created Ushahidi decided they were going to make it open source and turn it into a platform.It’s since been deployed in Mexico to track electoral fraud. It’s been deployed in Washington D.C. to track snow cleanup. And it’s been used most famously in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake. And when you look at the map now posted on the Ushahidi front page, you can see that the number of deployments in Ushahidi has gone worldwide, all right? This went from a single idea and a single implementation in East Africa in the beginning of 2008 to a global deployment in less than three years. Ushahidi continues to provide open-source products. In addition to the BRCK, they offer the Ushahidi Platform for crowdsourcing information, SwiftRiver for “filtering & making sense of real-time information” and Crowdmap, Ushahidi’s hosted version of its crowdsource platform.

Ushahidi is another example of the widespread generosity I like to write about on this blog. Shirky described it well in his TED talk:

It is one of the curiosities of our historical era that even as cognitive surplus is becoming a resource we can design around, social sciences are also starting to explain how important our intrinsic motivations are to us, how much we do things because we like to do them rather than because our boss told us to do them, or because we’re being paid to do them.

Generosity abounds, and we all benefit. Thank you, Ushahidi. You give me hope.

You can follow Ushahidi on Facebook, Twitter, Vimeo, and Flickr.

 

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