Published Nov-24-09

Crowdsourcing crisis information: Ushahidi is a free piece of software that creates websites to gather news on unfolding crises in remote locations.

Ory Okolloh, Kenya

The Story:

Ushahidi Even though we live in a 24 hour news society the mainstream media is not large enough to cover every story when it breaks. During crisis situations there is hardly ever a centralized place for reporting or collecting information about a situation which is how Ushahidi came about. The name means “testimony” in Swahili, and it is a crowdsourcing solution that uses open source software to enable journalists and individuals to contribute and find out what’s happening during large news events.

Kenyan Violence

In 2007 blogger and law graduate Ory Okolloh went back to her native Kenya to vote in the presidential elections. President Mwai Kibaki's victory looked fixed, and it sparked a wave of violence between the country’s ethnic and political rivals that claimed the lives of no fewer than 1500 people. There was a news blackout and Okolloh was desperate to find out what was going on.
She stayed glued to her laptop and was able to document the ensuing chaos as she received updates from both political parties. She maintained her blog and put up her email address which was soon inundated with information from journalists and other bloggers.

Then she put out a post asking if anyone could create a mash-up of where the trouble was taking place using Google Earth. Someone reading the message bought her a URL and donated server space, and two fellow bloggers wrote the initial software code. Within three days Ushahidi was born.

Reporting on Trouble Spots

The reporting tool uses Google Earth and the open source software program FrontlineSMS which allows people to send emails and text messages to a central source. During the Kenyan crisis they were vetted for authenticity by NGOs, government sources, bloggers and Kenyan journalists before being displayed on a map on the site. Okolloh and others were then able to keep track of the violence that was sweeping the country.

Since the post-election fallout in Kenya the crowdsourcing software platform has been adopted by a number of different organizations in many parts of the world. It is used to follow the violence in the Democratic Republic of Congo, a country that has been beset by war for years, and it was able to track anti-immigrant violence in South Africa in 2008.

How it Works

Sites created by the software are free to use. They can be run by anybody anywhere in the world to collect data sent via email, web or text messages which is then visualized on a map or timeline. When a message is sent from a troubled area it syncs with the Ushahidi software and lands in a web-administrator’s inbox. The Web admin then decides what to do with it – send it back for verification, post the information on a web page with geographical information from Google Maps, send an alert out to people, or do all three.

An example of how Ushahidi is being used in the DR Congo is that people can fill in a simple online form describing an incident. It’s color coded on the website into categories such as looting and sexual assault. When a user clicks on a category it will identify where the incidents are happening on a map.

Individuals can upload audio, video and images, though many are careful not to reveal their identities.

Further Developments

The Ushahidi Engine is continually being redesigned and its latest incarnation is being tested in several locations including the DR Congo. The first generation engine has found a number of valuable uses including; tracking near real-time stockouts of medical supplies at pharmacies and health facilities in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia; and tracking Swine Flu reports.

Okolloh, who now works on Ushahidi full-time also hopes that the platform can be used to send out warnings when areas are at high risk of natural disasters. In June 2008 she received a $200,000 grant from a California not-for-profit which will help with further development of the crowdsourcing platform.

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