Opinion: Crowdsourcing crisis information


BOSTON — Groundbreaking technology has come from Kenya in which cell phones and computer mapping programs are used to chart human rights abuses and health crises.

Ushahidi, which means witness in Swahili, was developed when political/ethnic violence broke out in Kenya following that country's disputed elections in December 2007.

Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh wrote about the reports of violence coming from all over Kenya. Shortly after she fled from Nairobi due to this violence, Okolloh posted the idea that it would be good to use Google Earth to make a map of where the violent incidents were being reported and she appealed to people on the blogosphere to help her.

“Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” wrote Okolloh.

Within 24 hours, Erik Hersman in Florida answered her call to map the crisis and fellow Kenyan David Kobia in Kansas worked around the clock to program the mapping tool. From that emergency, Ushahidi was created and has been refined to be used in other crises.

Ushahidi is a simple, free and open-source web-based platform that allows “witnesses” to map evidence of human rights abuses. Observers can provide information by posting reports of events directly onto the website or by emailing them. Witnesses can also map events via text message thanks to FrontlineSMS, a text messaging platform built into Ushahidi. People with smart phones can also download a range of free Ushahidi apps to map alerts.

The Ushahidi platform can collect and map crisis information in real time and over a wide geographical area with specific location information. The tool has been used to document human rights abuses and election irregularities in a dozen countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon and Afghanistan, as well as the Gaza Strip.

Ushahidi has also been used to monitor the global outbreak of swine flu and was recently deployed in the Philippines to monitor the disaster response to the recent typhoons. A few weeks ago, the United Nations used Ushahidi in Colombia as part of a countrywide earthquake simulation exercise.

The platform now includes a Twitter option so that witnesses can “tweet in” updates during a crisis. In addition, individuals can also subscribe to receive crowdsourced alerts by email and SMS. In the near future, users will be able to view movie maps on Ushahidi. In other words, the crisis data will be visualized dynamically over space and time. This will make it easier to find patterns in the crisis data. Ushahidi is being further developed so that in the next edition it will be easier to set up so that more activists around the world can use the tool without needing tech support from Ushahidi’s developers.

In preparation for upcoming international elections, key organizations — international, national and local — around the world have signaled their intention to deploy Ushahidi in a number of crisis zones.

Some groups also plan to set up Ushahidi platforms in countries with no upcoming elections. Indeed, Ushahidi is used in a multitude of contexts that expand beyond election monitoring. For example, Rachel Brown and Cody Valdes at Tufts University are planning to use Ushahidi to “crowdsource peace” and create an operational “Peace Map” of Kenya by using reports from the grounds to map local peace initiatives across the country.

Jen Ziemke, the co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net), describes Ushahidi as “one of the best examples of next-generation crisis platforms.”

The purpose of CM*Net is to facilitate collaboration on dozens of crisis mapping projects around the world. Ziemke also applauds Brown and Valdes for their Peace Map initiative.

“It’s about time we map peace. We all talk about road maps to peace in international relations. But we use this term figuratively. Brown and Valdes, however, have every intention to crowdsource veritable road maps to peace.”

Born from the violence in Kenya, Ushahidi has become a useful tool that can be used around the world.

Patrick Meier is the Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi. He co-founded the International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net) and the Program on Crisis Mapping and Early Warning at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI).