The Documentalist

Ushahidi: Using Social Media to Track Crises

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

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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.


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  1. […] Here is the original: Ushahidi: Using Social Media to Track Crises « The Documentalist […]

  2. […] expenses — but one of the most promising examples is Ushahidi, an open-source platform that tracks crisis situations. The New York Times wrote about it recently, explaining how the tool originated in Kenya to […]

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