After the disputed election of President Mwai Kibaki
in December 2007, violence and looting swept the normally stable country of Kenya, killing hundreds of people and displacing thousands. News from conventional sources was temporarily unavailable. In the midst of the chaos, a small group of tech savvy young Africans created a real-time reporting system that has since been used for relief efforts in other crises and natural disasters.Erik Hersman
, a self-described geek and power networker who grew up in Kenya and Sudan, tells the story in a TED interview.
In three days time, Hersman, Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan native with a Harvard law degree, and Juliana Rotich developed free software that allowed anyone with a cell phone to report what was happening on the ground to a website where the collective information was available to aid workers and relief agencies. Ushahidi,
which means testimony in Swahili, has simplified technology so that any one can use it, and it takes advantage of what Hersman calls the "default device of Africa,” the mobile phone. Some 59 percent of the world’s cell phones were in the developing world, according to a 2006 Washington Post story
, making cell phones the first communications technology in history to have more users in the developing world than in industrially developed countries.
Ushahidi uses crowdsourcing to gather information during unfolding crises. Listen to Jeff Howe, one of those who coined the term, for a discussion of crowdsourcing
. Ushahidi can collect information from hundreds of people. A web administrator receives the information, and can call back some contributors seeking verification, send out a blast alert to a large number of people, post the information on a web page with location information from Google maps, or do all three. It has been used to help coordinate relief efforts after earthquakes in Peru and China, to monitor Indian elections, and to track swine flu. Ushahidi has received a $200,000 grant from the John D. and Catherine T. Mac Arthur Foundation.
A team led by Patrick Meier
, a doctoral fellow at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative, posted an analysis of crisis mapping
during the post election violence in Kenya. The team found that mainstream media reported actual death counts before citizen journalists, but did not report incidents and early warnings that led to the deaths. Citizens reported early violence before main stream media. Ushahidi reports documented important violent events mainstream and citizen journalists missed, and also covered a wider geographical area.
Hersman’s vision is not only to have real time reporting used for humanitarian aid around the world. His team is working on a "crowdsource filter” that he thinks will be able refine and weigh information and allow system administrators to determine the probability of its accuracy. It’s interesting, he observed, that this innovative technology is coming from Africa, from young smart developers in places one wouldn’t expect.