Sunday, September 04, 2011

Ushahidi & Small Progress on Humanitarian Efforts

By Gary Berg-Cross

It’s peak hurricane season again and we’ve already experienced a range of natural disasters from earthquake to tropical floods. Around the anniversary of Katrina and 9/11 it is natural to think of recent mega-disasters including the Asian tsunami, the Haitian and the Japanese earthquakes along with various mega droughts in African compounded by social unrest. But sometimes it brings out the best humanitarian instincts in people and leads to real improvement in how we deal with problems.

I ran across one of these humanitarian projects recently. It grew from simple blogging to a crowd sourcing system to help disaster victims. The effort was started in 2007 by Ory Okolloh, a prominent native Kenyan lawyer who blogged about post 2005 election violence in Kenya. Early in January 2007, UN agencies and other humanitarian bodies were getting general reports that tens of thousands of people had been displaced and dozens killed across the country (sort of like the reports coming out of Syria now). But in this part of the world details on the extent, location, and chronology of the violence are hard to establish. As a result humanitarian agencies had difficulties planning effective response. But Kenya turns out to have a tech savvy cadre of people and Ory’s blogs triggered responses to her reports and the possibility of war in Kenya. This was a virtual crowd of friends but also strangers, of technology experts and neophytes. They all volunteered their services to create and support developing a mashup – a Web 2.0 applications that combine content from more than one source into an integrated experience. The mashup/system was called Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili. A Ushahidi mashup site was created in 2 days. It could gather incident reports from people who observed violence (e.g. Riots, Deaths, Property Damage, Government Forces, Civilians, Looting, Rape and displaced people) and create maps that documented cases of violence & political repression.

Back in 2008 Ushahidi allowed Kenyans and relief organizations to keep current on information needed for informed decisions. Ushahidi illustrates the use of crowd sourcing, which is the idea of using open calls to an undefined group of people to complete a (usually large-scale) task that is difficult for a person or small group to handle. Wikipedia content, for example, is crowd sourced. Crowd sourcing has now been widely and successfully applied based on the assumption that an open call can draw a crowd that is fitted for the task. The internet and mobile phones facilitates communication and creates a virtual source of information. In the Ushahidi application citizens volunteered geographic-based information on violent incidents in order to aid workers in emergency response situations. It’s success relies upon:

  1. a self-established user community in which the citizens are not only willing to volunteer information, which may be as simple as looking out of the window to report what you see and also
  2. to actively search and respond to calls for updates within their ability.

Some of the recent disaster scene video we see on Youtube reflects this type of effort.

Since 2008 Ushahidi has grown into a large project impacting a number of communities around the world. The open-source program now provides a way for volunteers to collect information from a range of sources including text messages, blog posts, videos, phone calls, & pictures. These can then be placed on an integrated in near real time.

An uplifting story is how Ushahidi was used during the Haitian earthquake. Two years after it started in Kenya, Haiti was devastated on January 12 by a colossal earthquake. 1.5 million people were left homeless. In response special Haiti Ushahidi application was set up just two hours after the earthquake by Tufts University volunteers. Following that a short mission code (4636) was created for incoming text messages reports. Word on this code was passed on via local & national radio stations. The code allowed Haiti based observers to text information about what they were seeing or experiencing. For messages that were immediately actionable, e.g.: "there are 5 people trapped in a building located near the intersection of Rouge & Deltier," then a Haiti Ushahidi volunteer would map the GPS coordinates and provide the information to rescue teams on the ground.

The work in Haiti was amazing but Ushahidi has also been deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo to monitor unrest, by Al Jazeera to track and provide transparency into Israeli-Palestian violence in Gaza, and to help monitor the 2009 Indian Elections. It has even been used to help gather reports globally about recent Swine Flu outbreaks.

And such grassroots, shoestring efforts have inspired others. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) Crisis Mapping and Early Warning program has built on such efforts and has set out to develop an evidence base to evaluate information technologies role to enable humanitarian efforts. They have:

“ convened the humanitarian and technical communities, to facilitate dialogue among humanitarian actors, and to provide new sources of data to improve understanding of conflict dynamics.”

Ushahidi is one of those global, grass-root humanitarian advances that modern technology and an innovative spirit afford. It’s a small piece of evidence that humanitarian instincts and the search for a more peaceful world are not Utopian. It’s a small, concrete example of people helping people in trouble spots across the world. But it also contributes to the idea of a viable global citizenship through the best kind of globalization that transcends the barriers of place, race, religion, gender, sexuality, politics, and language.

“Ushahidi is testimony to a universal generosity of spirit that will ultimately triumph over preconceived structures and static ideologies.”

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