Kenya: Local Firm to Map Out Somalia Crisis

Digital Content

A Kenyan-based non-profit software development firm has teamed up with Al Jazeera media to use its technology to assess the impact of the conflict in Somalia on the citizens.

Ushahidi and Al Jazeera English channel have partnered under a deal dubbed "Somalia Speaks".

The project aims to record the experiences of Somalis, both within the country and in the diaspora, using text messages.

Launched last month, the project will be the first informal citizen survey conducted on Somalia by any establishment since eruption of civil war in 1991.

"The aim has been to spur citizen engagement and amplify the voice of the voiceless, as well as leverage on simple technology to increase engagement and get stories," said Soud Hyder, Web and social media manager at Al Jazeera. About 5,000 text messages were sent to phone numbers owned by ordinary citizens in all major regions in Somalia.

They read: "Al Jazeera wants to know how the conflict of the past few months has affected your life? Please include the name of your hometown in your response. Thank you"

So far, about 4,000 responses have been received from Somalia with several hundred from the diaspora through the Web.

The messages sent to the site by Somali citizens act as intimate situational reports on the country's political, economic and social realities.

"The response has been good," Linda Kamau, software developer at Ushahidi, told Smart Company.

"This has started an important project that tries to bring people together and sets a conversation on what has been happening in Somalia all these years."

Since most of the responses coming through the site are written in Somali, the developers opened up space for volunteers to help in translating them into English.

Hyder says it is mostly Somalis in the diaspora who have been spearheading the translation process on a voluntary basis.

"As we rolled out the project, which was initially targeted at Somalis in Somalia, we were getting a significant number of responses from the Somali diaspora," he said.

Hyder said that this suggested that the Somalia conflict has global implications as residents living all over the world responded.

"It is only fair and right for their voices to be heard as well," he said.

The pilot project has, however, faced a number of challenges, including translation work flow, which had been problematic in the inception process.

There were also security issues, where a sender's text message appeared with full names and geographic location, raising concerns that an individual's opinion might expose him or her to dangerous circumstances.

Though the technical glitch was fixed, and text messages now appear with information on location and content only, managers at Al Jazeera say they are looking into opportunities in which they can co-create and solve problems with their audiences.