When Washington DC residents were digging out from the blizzard of 2010
last month, they may not have been aware an innovative effort to crowd
source the cleanup had its roots in Kenya.
The Washington Post
partnered with Ryan Ozimek, the founder ofthe open source development firms PICnet
and Non-Profit Soap Box,
to assemble Snowmageddon-The Clean-Up,
a website that let people connect to dig out. The site was built using Ushahidi,
an ingenious Internet mapping tool developed during the violence that
swept Kenya in the aftermath of the disputed 2007 presidential election.
In Snowmageddon, residents could report specific locations of
impassable snow drifts and blocked streets and sidewalks and connect
with volunteers who reported availability and location of plows, snow
blowers and shovels wielded by muscular arms. Residents could also post
public warningsof ruinous potholes, fallen tree limbs and other
AftertheKenyan election, African technology geeks
created free software that allowed anyone with a cell phone to report
what was happening on the ground to a website where an administrator
could collect and disperse information to aid workers and relief
agencies. Ushahidi, created in three days, received instant information
from hundreds of people reporting violence, injuries, deaths, and the
need for rescue, and plotted the location of the crises on Google maps.
The Ushahidi blog
well worth a visit to learn about this extraordinarily powerful engine
for disseminating information, explains that Ushahidi means "testimony"
in Swahili. After the turmoil in Kenya subsided, Ushahidi was put into
immediate service coordinating relief efforts after earthquakes in Peru
and China, monitoring elections in India and reporting shortages of
medicines in Africa. This small organization performed heroically again
in the wake of recent earthquakes in Haiti
and in Chile
As a New York Times story by Anand Giridharadas
points out, the work of this small Kenyan-born organization may have
much to tell us about the future of humanitarianism, journalism, and
the aggregate of information that becomes what we believe about history.