The Documentalist

Ushahidi: Using Social Media to Track Crises

Posted in Reports, technology by Sarah on December 30, 2009

Image courtesy of

In the field of crisis mapping (see iRevolution for an ongoing discussion of this field), the Ushahidi platform is gaining a strong foothold as an affordable and easy-to-use technology for capturing “distributed” information (that is to say, from multiple and scattered sources) about crisis events and providing a visual representation of the process of the crisis.  Ushahidi accomplishes this by posting incoming information on an on-line interactive map in near real-time as events unfold.  The platform allows users to submit digitally created documentation of events they witness primarily via cell phones (e.g., text messages, photos, or video recordings), but also from computers–basically by any means that allows access to the web and therefore access to a dedicated instance of the Ushahidi platform.  As stated on the Ushahidi webpage:

The Ushahidi Engine is a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.

This tool was originally created to help raise awareness of and mobilize intervention in the post-election violence that erupted in Kenya in January, 2008 but has been further developed so that a range of grassroots efforts can adopt the tool to map events of concern to them.  The “Our Work” page at Ushahidi provides a list of the various organizations that have built the platform into their activism efforts.

Background: Violence in Kenya after Presidential Elections

On December 27, 2007 Kenya’s incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner of that day’s presidential election.  However, supporters of the Orange Democratic Movement’s candidate, Raila Odinga, contested this decision, claiming election fraud; indeed, according to a New York Times article from January 17, 2008, independent election observers reported that the election was rigged at the last minute to ensure the incumbent’s victory. In response to Kibaki’s swearing-in in January, 2008, violence erupted across Kenya.  At first the violence was related to protests held by Odinga supporters, but it quickly morphed into targeted ethnic violence against the Kikuyu people–the community that Kibaki is from.  In a particularly brutal moment, 50 unarmed Kikuyus were burned in a church on New Year’s Day (warning-there are some graphic images at this link).  All told, in January of 2008, approximately 600 people died and around 600,000 people were displaced.

In response to this situation, Ory Okohllo (a graduate of Harvard Law from Kenya), launched Ushahidi–a platform for tracking events as they unfurled in Kenya.  The platform allows citizens who participate in, witness, or become victims of events to post information via SMS to the Ushahidi platform, which then publishes the information on-line and locates the reported event on a Google map in near real-time.    Over the course of several months, thousands of text messages, videos, and photographs were submitted to the nascent platform–largely via cell phones. As described by the Ushahidi website:

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Ushahidi’s roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis. The website was used to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone. This initial deployment of Ushahidi had 45,000 users in Kenya, and was the catalyst for us realizing there was a need for a platform based on it, which could be use by others around the world.

Ushahidi was designed specifically to capitalize on cell phones and mobile access to the web because cell phone use in Kenya at the time was more wide-spread than computer use–largely because there was very little infrastructure of land-based internet access through telephone wires or cables.  The materials collected for this first use of Ushahidi have been archived for future use.

What is Ushahidi?

The Ushahidi platform itself is open source and modifiable so that any person or organization can set it up to meet their particular needs for the visualization of information.  According to the Ushahidi “Our Work” page, the platform consists of a simple mashup that pulls user-generated material into a Google map in order to create an interactive interface that allows viewers to see literally where in the world a particular piece of information was generated or submitted.  This is possible because a mashup is an application that pulls data and functionality from multiple external sources via APIs, or Application Programming Interfaces (see our Web Ecology post for more on APIs), in order to create a new service (see Wikipedia for further details on mashups).

According to Ushahidi’s developers (a team of largely volunteer programmers and designers from Africa, Europe, and the United States), the platform needs to be “agnostic,” which is to say, it should be able to work with as many platforms, tools, and devices (i.e., cell phones, cameras, computers) as possible so that organizations can use the platform with whatever technology or materials they already have to hand.  To this end, the Ushahidi Lab is constantly working to integrate new devices and platforms into the system as they emerge.  For example, the team is currently working on creating a smart phone application for sending and receiving rich data from the Ushahidi platform on iPhones, G-Phones, and other multi-media wireless telephone devices.

Because the goal is to make sure that the Ushahidi platform draws seamlessly from multiple data sources, the developers work to ensure two levels of opperability: 1) that software applications that already support information-aggregation get incorporated into the platform; and 2) that the out-flow of information from Ushahidi to users can work with platforms for data visualization other than Ushahidi.  Thus, the platform currently integrates with a variety of platforms on two levels–data that come into Ushahidi for presentation and data that leave Ushahidi for reading.  The platforms that Ushahidi is currently able to draw data from include: Twitter, Jaiku, and Instant Messaging clients of various sorts.  Platforms that can read the visual data produced by Ushahidi include: Grip, Many Eyes, GeoCommons, CMS modules (such as Drupal), and blog plug-ins or widgets (e.g., WordPress, Movable Type, Blogger).

One key challenge that the developers have been working on is devising a means of verifying information as it comes into the the Ushahidi platform.  Currently, verification has to be conducted by a human moderator, but they are working on an automated verification system called “Swift River.”  This initiative will help organizations to verify incoming information from a variety of sources, which will help them to deal with and present massive amounts of reliable citizen-generated data in real-time.

Ushahidi Downloads

Ushahidi is freely available to down load at their home page–simply click on the “Version 1.0–Mogadishu” download button on the left side of the screen.  To download, the following are needed: server space and someone with some programming skill.  The Ushahidi team hopes to have future versions that will be easier for “non-technologists” to use, but for the moment, some minimal setup and tweaking by a programmer are necessary to get Ushahidi running appropriately.  Technical advice is available at the website. Other downloads include modules for Android, Java Phones, and Windows Mobile.

MobileActive YouTube Channel

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on December 28, 2009

Image courtesy of MobileActive at

Last week we published an post on and stated that they have a Vimeo presence that housed some of their video material.  It turns out that they have an even larger archive of video material on a YouTube Channel.  Thank you to MobileActive’s Katrin for pointing us in this direction.  You can access their YouTube channel here.  The are organized by action area and each area has several videos.

MobileActive: Supporting Social Action Through Mobile Technology

Posted in Reviews, technology by Sarah on December 21, 2009

Image courtesy of MobileActive at

MobileActive is an organization that seeks to bring together research and user experiences of mobile technology to support social action.  As observed on their “about” page:

Mobile phones are proliferating at astounding rates across socio-economic and cultural boundaries, revolutionizing the way we organize ourselves.

With more than 4.5 billion mobile subscriptions in circulation in 2009, they are found in every corner of the world, used by people to communicate with each other, and access and deliver information and services. These trends are highly promising for NGOs and civil society organizations that can now engage people on issues that matter most — through always-on, always-on-hand devices.’s vision is to help organizations make use of the most ubiquitous communications technology in the world with data, tools, and how-to resources; build a network of practitioners and technologists in a supportive community of practice; and highlight and explore the many innovative campaigns and projects — their lessons learned.

The website contains a blog that updates information on a variety of projects, research resources (including an annotated bibliography of print and web resources), and a comprehensive search function.  Many of the issues they cover relate to human rights in its many guises–economic rights, crisis prevention or response, gender rights, environment, etc.    The group also support Citizen Media through mobile devises.

MediaActive has video presence on the web through Vimeo–site that  has a number of social impact videos in general–well worth a search to see what they have.  MobileActive has published two videos to date–both available here.

Archiving Crisis Information Submitted by Cell Phones

Posted in Uncategorized by Sarah on December 17, 2009

I am in the process of writing an article about a platform called Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) that will appear here shortly.  This platform allows organizations to map crises by having people “on the ground” submit SMS messages, cell phone video, and photos to an on-line instance that maps reported events on an interactive map.  While I work on that report , here is an example of what the Ushahidi platform produces.


Ushahidi Map of 2008 post-election violence in Kenya (image courtesy of

Ushahidi Map of 2008 post-election violence in Kenya (image courtesy of

Crisis Map of Kenya’s 2008 Post Election Violence

On December 27, 2007 Kenya’s incumbent president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared the winner of that day’s presidential election.  However, supporters of the Orange Democratic Movement’s candidate, Raila Odinga, contested this decision, claiming election fraud.  According to a New York Times article from January 17, 2008, election observers reported that the election was rigged at the last minute to ensure the incumbent’s victory. In response to Kibaki’s swearing-in in January, 2008, violence erupted across Kenya.  At first the violence was related to protests held by Odinga supporters, but it quickly morphed into targeted ethnic violence against the Kikuyu people.  All told, in January of 2008, approximately 1000 people died and around 600,000 people were displaced.

In response to this situation, Ory Okohllo (a graduate of Harvard Law from Kenya), launched Ushahidi–a platform for tracking events as they unfurled in Kenya (this platform will be described in more detail in a future post).  The platform allows citizens who participate in, witness, or become victims of events to post information via SMS to the Ushahidi platform, which then publishes the information and locates the event on a Google map in near real-time (click on the image above to interact with this map).    Over the course of several months, hundreds of text messages, videos, and photographs were submitted to the nascent platform–largely via cell phones–and all of them have been archived here for future research use, along with the interactive map that was created from information.

Ushahidi map for Aljazeera's "War on Gaza" site (image courtesy of

Gaza Crisis Map: Aljazeera’s Archived Ushahidi Data

Another example of the sorts of data archived in the Ushahidi platform can be found at the War on Gaza webpage hosted by Aljazeera.  This instance of the platform is more fully developed that the platform launched in Kenya and has been operating since October 2008.  All of the collected SMS messages, images and videos are available on the front page of the site, alongside of the Gaza crisis map that this information populates.  If you click on the map to the right, you will be taken to the live map at the War on Gaza site.  As you click on each of the red indicators on the map, links to associated information become available.

Human Rights Day 2009: Non-Discrimination

Posted in Editorial by Sarah on December 10, 2009

2000 Census Map of Chicago illustrating racial concentrations. Image courtesy of

Today, December 10, 2009, is designated by the UN as Human Rights Day and this year’s focus is on discrimination.    As stated on the UN’s home page for Human Rights Day 2009:

The realisation of all human rights – social, economic and cultural as well as civil and political rights – is hampered by discrimination. All too often, when faced with prejudice and discrimination, political leaders, governments and ordinary citizens are silent or complacent.

This theme brings home the fact that human rights violations aren’t limited to places beyond the United States, where people suffer under authoritarian dictators, are conscripted to fight in wars that have nothing to do with them, or forced to work in inhumane conditions.  Discrimination is alive and well in the United States and prevents our own citizens from participating fully in the dignity that is guaranteed them through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

One Story Up, a blog maintained by Chicago journalist Megan Cottrell,  highlights how discrimination impacts housing and education policies in Chicago.  Today’s post, “Can We End Discrimination Without Ending Segregation?”  illustrates how we skirt the race issue in housing and poverty by shifting the discourse to “mixed-income” housing developments, thus allowing us to avoid the fact that race and racial discrimination are at the heart of poverty in the US in general, and in our bigger cities in particular.  Though the human rights issues she raises focus on problems and challenges in Chicago, these are issues that impact citizens all over this country.

Ms. Cottrell does not just focus on this issue today, though–she looks at it every day, focusing her journalistic efforts on public housing as a sort of crucible in which issues of human rights, race, poverty, education, and citizenship in Chicago reflect larger social and historical patterns in the U.S. as a whole.  As she does so, Ms. Cottrell uses images, video and written testimonies in her blog to highlight injustice, structural inequality,  and a range of activism efforts all related to race, poverty, and housing in Chicago.

And in the spirit of the day, here’s an issue worth thinking about: as a member of the UN, the United States has signed treaties that bind our country to protecting and observing the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.  We do a pretty good job of seeking to the aidethe oppressed abroad, but  how well are we doing at home?

WikiLeaks: Creative Use of Social Media & Internet Security Protocols for Activism

Posted in technology by Sarah on December 3, 2009

Image courtesy of

573,000 9/11 Text Messages Posted to the Web

Starting on November 25, 2009, an on-line whistle-blowing organization known as WikiLeaks started publishing over 500,000 pager messages that were intercepted in New York and Washington, D.C. on September 11, 2001 during the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The text messages, which are available here, were released “live” for 24 hours starting at 3:00 am on November 25 and ending at 3:00 am November 26, 2009.  During this period,  the release of each of the 573,000 messages was synchronized with its original send times from September 11 to September 12, 2001.  The purpose of releasing these text messages to the public is to foster a deeper understanding of events surrounding the 9/11 attacks by creating an archive that provides, “…a completely objective record of the defining moment of our time,” with the hope that the messages’ inclusion in “…the historical record will lead to a nuanced understanding of how this event led to death, opportunism and war” (WikiLeaks 9/11 Pager Data).

WikiLeaks–acting consistently with their mission and purpose (see below)–did not reveal the source of these text messages, stating only that the messages were intercepted from four major US  pager services.  According to a New York Times article written by Jennifer Lee on December 1, 2009, the messages were intercepted by a program that had been monitoring these sorts of communications before September 11, 2001 in order to raise awareness of issues surrounding privacy and data retention.   Texts were intercepted from pagers carried by members of the Pentagon, FBI, FEMA, and the New York Police Department, as well as from messages generated by computers within the World Trade Center reporting on faults in investment firms housed in the twin towers.  Below is a sample of the sorts of messages that circulated between 8:51 am and 10:05 am on the morning of September 11, 2001.  Some relate to mundane daily business matters while others relate to the terrorist events as they unfolded.

Example of leaked text messages released in “real-time” (courtesy of WikiLeaks)

8:51:31 AM|Please call Pentagon Weather|UNCLASSIFIED
           Please call Pentagon Weather.......reference 1030 Meeting.....703-695-0406
           ANDREW J. TERZAKIS, Lt
           AND VESSY.
10:05:57 AM Please don't leave the building. One of the towers just collapsed!
           PLease, please be careful. Repeat,

What is WikiLeaks?

According to the WikiLeaks web page, the organization “…was founded by Chinese dissidents, journalists, mathematicians and startup company technologists, from the US, Taiwan, Europe, Australia and South Africa” (WikiLeaks About).  These individuals came together to create a forum where people can publicly share documents about questionable government decisions, corruption, and human rights abuses with much less personal risk than that associated with traditional whistle-blowing  outlets.

WikiLeaks takes advantage of the wiki collaborative content production platform to support the anonymous release of sensitive documents for public review, thus aiming for a higher level of scrutiny than is typically accomplished by traditional media organizations or intelligence agencies.  Theoretically, the veracity, validity, credibility, and plausibility of the documents are greatly increased by being scrutinized by many more individuals and from many more points of view than is traditionally possible in journalism or intelligence activities.  In a sense, WikiLeaks is the “first intelligence agency of the people” (ibid).  Members of communities from which leaked documents originate can access  them in the wiki format, where they can help interpret them and explain their relevance while maintaining their own anonymity and therefore their safety.    For example, “[i]f a document comes from the Chinese government, the entire Chinese dissident community and diaspora can freely scrutinize and discuss it; if a document arrives from Iran, the entire Farsi community can analyze it and put it in context.  Sample analyses are available here.”  As stated on the WikiLeaks About page:

Wikileaks is a multi-jurisdictional organization to protect internal dissidents, whistleblowers, journalists and bloggers who face legal or other threats related to publishing. Our primary interest is in exposing oppressive regimes in Asia, the former Soviet bloc, Sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, but we are of assistance to people of all nations who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations. We aim for maximum political impact. We have received over 1.2 million documents so far from dissident communities and anonymous sources.

We believe that transparency in government activities leads to reduced corruption, better government and stronger democracies. All governments can benefit from increased scrutiny by the world community, as well as their own people. We believe this scrutiny requires information. Historically that information has been costly – in terms of human life and human rights. But with technological advances – the internet, and cryptography – the risks of conveying important information can be lowered.

WikiLeaks has combined a number of technologies to create an uncensorable version of Wikipedia (though there is no legal relationship with Wikipedia).  The technologies they draw from include MediaWiki, OpenSSL (an open source version of Secure Sockets Layer, a cryptographic protocol for internet security), FreeNet (a decentralized, anonymous information distribution network), Tor (an onion router for secure message transmission–see the Tor post on this blog), and PGP (Pretty Good Privacy, a  cryptographic privacy and authentication program).  By combining these technologies with their own in-house programing, WikiLeaks is able to provide a space for untracable document leaking and commentary that “combines the protection and anonymity of cutting-edge cryptographic technologies with the transparency and simplicity of a wiki interface” (WikiLeaks About).

Other Users of Social Media Build on WikiLeaks’s 9/11 Text Messages

The 9/11 text messages release of November 25, 2009 is just one example of the sort of information that can be acquired and shared when there is a safe forum for anonymous document circulation.  True to WikiLeak’s stated goal of providing a means by which members of the public can comment and elaborate upon the documents released on their platform, at least two researchers have used the internet to begin to analyze and make sense of the content contained in the text messages (see Jennifer Lee’s Times article for an overview of these projects).

On his blog “Neoformix: Discovering and Illustrating Patterns in Data,” Jeff Clark has created and published a video (available in his blog post) of  a “Phrase Burst Visualization” of the waxing and waning of  100  representative (as determined by Mr. Clark himself) words or phrases from the 9/11 messages over the course of the 24 hours captured in the sample provided to WikiLeaks.  In the visualization, words and phrases emerge and recede from view such that “[t]he larger the text the more frequently it was used during the 12 hour period[analyzed]. Text appears bright[ly] during the times of high usage and fades away otherwise. [...] This phrase burst visualization is basically a word cloud where the brightness of the words varies according to how prominent the words were during specific periods of time.”  He has also provided a time-line graphic measuring the peak of each of the 100 terms between 8:00 am and 8:00 pm on September 11, 2009.

Colin Keigher, another programmer, has created a seachable database of the WikiLeak 9/11 text messages that allows users to search by keywords or phrases, as well as do boolean searches.  The tool makes it easier to find specific information within the 40-megabyte file housed at the WikiLeaks site, where a user would need to read through the messages as presented.  The 9/11 Page Search Index, as the tool  is called, is available on-line in a no-frills presentation of the search field with almost no explanation of what it searches or why it was created, but it is an interesting example of how individuals can engage with the materials presented at WikiLeaks.


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