Social Media for Social Change: Ushahidi

UshahidiSome time back I read the book, “Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better” by Clive Thompson. This is an amazing book and I will write its review soon. One live case that really attracted me was of ‘Ushahidi‘ of Kenya. Ushahidi is a crowd mapping application that came about after Kenyan activist Ory Okolloh send out a plea on her blog for techies who can help her map out the violence & destruction to create a better picture. The government was suppressing the news and extent of violence, there was no way for NGOs and relief workers to know where and what kind of assistance is needed. Ory Okolloh used Social Media to help gather correct information from far flung areas of the country.

The message Ory Okolloh sent out on her blog “Kenyan Pundit” was: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” Okolloh’s simple query on January 3, 2008 inspired a group of bloggers to collaborate over the weekend to turn her dream into a reality. On January 9, Ushahidi, meaning ‘witness or testimony’ in Swahili, was born, enabling Kenyans, and people around the world, to report and map incidents of violence via SMS or the web.

The disconnect between local media coverage and information Ory Okolloh received directly from her sources sparked the call for Ushahidi. She saw the need for those inside the country to have information-sharing technology to communicate with each other and those seeking to help victims. On the release of Ushahidi, Okolloh announced on her blog, “We believe that the number of deaths being reported by the government, police, and media is grossly underreported. We also don’t think we have a true picture of what is really going on – reports that all of us have heard from family and friends in affected areas suggests that things are much worse than what we have heard in the media.”

Ushahidi allowed Kenyans to create a more accurate picture of the violence occurring. The platform is simple. As events occur in the field, witnesses send SMS messages to a designated phone number or submit a report online. Ushahidi administrators can view the reports, which are stored in a secure database. Administrators prioritize urgent messages, fact-check and confirm each submission before posting it in near real time. Each report is posted with a title, description, and most importantly, exact GPS coordinates onto an interactive Google map. Each report is categorized by type of incident – for example, fire, rape, or looting. The Ushahidi platform compiles full analytical reports and alerts that identify areas with high levels of activity. In addition, the platform can compile a full timeline of events. NGOs, relief workers and civic activists can easily access data to identify where assistance is needed and what type of response is required.

Following are some of the examples of the use of Ushahidi across the world that I collected from the internet.

Soon after its initial use in Kenya, the Ushahidi software was used to create a similar site to track anti-immigrant violence in South Africa, in May 2008. The software has since been used to map violence in eastern Congo, beginning in November 2008. Ushahidi is used in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda, and Zambia in June 2009 to track pharmacy stock outs in several Southeast African countries. It was also used to monitor elections in Mexico and India, among other projects. It was used by Al Jazeera to collect eyewitness reports during the 2008–09 Gaza War.

In Haiti & Chile in 2010, Ushahidi was used after devastating earthquakes. Only in Haiti nearly 40,000 independent reports were sent to the Ushahidi Project of which nearly 4,000 distinct events were plotted.

On 20th April 2010 BP’s offshore Deepwater Horizon oil rig exploded precipitating the largest accidental offshore oil spill in the history of the petroleum industry. On 3rd May the Louisiana Bucket Brigade (LABB) publicly released the Oil Spill Crisis Map, the first application of the Ushahidi platform in a humanitarian response in the United States. Ushahidi was also used in Russia to set up a “map of help” for voluntary workers needed after the 2010 Russian wildfires.

Using Ushahidi, the Christchurch Recovery Map website was launched less than 24 hours after the February 2011 earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. The site maps locations of services such as food, water, toilets, fuel, ATMs, and medical care. This software also allowed pro-democracy demonstrators across the Middle East to organise and communicate what was happening around them in early 2011.

India Citizen Reports has been using Ushahidi since 2011 to collect and disseminate reports in various categories like civic problems, crimes and corruption. uses Ushahidi to map 3G network quality and Wi-Fi hotspots. Australian Broadcasting Corporation used Ushahidi to map the Queensland floods in January. The MightyMoRiver Project used Ushahidi’s hosted service Crowdmap to track the Missouri River floods of 2011.

Transparency Watch Project is using the Ushahidi platform to track corruption reported cases in the Republic of Macedonia. Citizens can report cases of corruption by sending SMS from their mobile phones, sending an email, using the web form, the hashtag #korupcijaMK on Twitter or by reporting via phone call. Al Jazeera Balkans deployed Ushahidi crisis mapping platform on 5 February 2012 to track the snow/cold emergency in the Balkans.

Conclusion: In Pakistan we have a cell phone subscriber base of more than 100 million, internet penetration is also quite high at least in the urban areas. We can use Social Media to help us resolve many of our problems. Crowd mapping is only one such example. I witnessed the chaos after the earthquake of October 2005. Like many underdeveloped countries we had no coordination between our civic and military relief agencies. There was no SoPs written and practiced for a disaster of this magnitude or any magnitude. In the presence of this void, citizens with cell phones could have made the difference. The same is true for the 2013 general elections where some of the irregularities were highlighted by media but print and electronic media does not have the bandwidth or capability to highlight more than a few cases. When irregularities are everywhere in a country of 180 million people, only the people themselves can raise their voice through organized collaboration using Social Media.

By increasing transparency and accountability through active citizen participation in the electoral process, this kind of project seeks to leverage on traditional activities around electoral observation, such as those carried out by the Elections Observer Group (ELOG) or other monitoring agencies. Ushahidi project can assist in the creation of a more rapid reporting and alert system, as well as bring in the voice of citizens as a new dimension in electoral monitoring through crowd sourcing of data.

We know that the parties of status quo would never want to have transparent elections or they will loose so we should not expect something like this from the government. The beauty of this idea is that it can be implemented by a small team of dedicated volunteers. Ushahidi is available for free use for projects all over the world.


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