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Crisis Tracking Capacity Born in Kenya Helps Washington Dig Out After Blizzard

Posted By Prucia Buscell, Thursday, March 18, 2010
Updated: Thursday, February 17, 2011
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 hazards.

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.

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