Ushahidi helps people by tracking what’s happening in a crisis by web and SMS

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All too often African web apps have been pale copies of their Northern cousins and have not really seemed to either have found a real usefulness to their users or acknowledged the presence of the mobile phone. The idea that sparked Ory Okolloh’s Ushahidi site is an interesting and brave one that in a continent trying to make peace with itself may well succeed. Russell Southwood spoke to the women who got the whole thing off the ground on a recent visit to South Africa.

Ushahidi means testament in Swahili and the is about allowing anyone to submit crisis information through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form. The idea came to Okelloh when she was visiting her home country from South Africa in the period of the post-election violence:”I was writing what was happening on my blog. After media restrictions in Kenya, the blog became a source of information and people started sending me stuff.”

From this, Okelloh decided to set up a web site where people could say what was happening where they were by web or SMS: crowdsourcing as the jargon has it. This information was then geo-mapped on to Google maps so that things like the date and spread of violence could both be tracked and hopefully addressed:”On 3 January I put the idea out on my blog and asked whether there were any Kenyan techies who were interested. Erik Hershman and David Kobia got in touch and said they were interested in getting other techies together.”

“Initially it was a volunteer thing. Someone donated server space. The blogging community got the word out and someone gave us the short code for the mobile messages.” Eventually having run for several months the Kenyan post-election page was retired but kept as a memorial of those events.

So why track a crisis like the post-election one in Kenya? “A lot of people ask: did we save lives? I think our main contribution was to assist in directing help. We have a How to help page that lets people know what they can do.”

Having responded to one situation, Ushahidi’s team was bombarded with interest in the idea of turning it into a global web site to allow the gathering of crisis information anywhere globally. In other words, when a crisis hits, an organisation can just download the software, tweak it a little bit and set up their own version. The main challenge to this approach and one that preoccupied Okelloh during the site’s Kenyan post-election period was: how do you verify the information people send in?

But any agency or Government organisation seeking to understand what is happening in a crisis is faced by the same situation. Only this week the Indian security forces declared that they had dealt with the gunmen who had attacked various locations in Mumbai. But it was someone on Twitter who reported that gunfire was still continuing. Information in a crisis is a patchwork of sources and you can only hope to build up a full picture by having as many sources as possible.

The latest crisis addressed by the website has been the unfolding civil war and refugee crisis around Goma in the DRC. It has already partnered with Heal Africa to offer the service and hopes to be able to partner with other organisations. But there are real difficulties for some organisations: in a political situation like this, they don’t want to antagonise people they might have to work. When we spoke to Okelloh about a week after the site went up, about 30 reports had been posted and this number had more than doubled by this week.

Okelloh had her misgivings about setting up for the Goma crisis but felt it was too important not to do it:”The software’s still in the alpha version. We’re also working on a French version and looking at how we can put a translation function in future versions.” In South Africa they also shared the code with who were tracking racist attacks on non-South Africans in the townships.

From the original idea, it’s now turned itself into an organisation, initially with money from the Net Squared Mash-Up Challenge which it won first prize from. It has now added a grant from Humanity United for US$200,000 which will allow it to realise its ambitions.

It hopes to be able to release the final version of the software by the middle of next years and it is currently testing it with 10 organisations in fields as various as the environment, disease mapping and human rights violations. It is working with Ken Banks of Frontline SMS to integrate use of the software and is also looking at how to integrate smart phones and other phones more typical of those used in developing countries. It will also build in a user feedback mechanism. There will also be mainstream news feeds that will add to the patchwork of information sources. Although it’s early days, it’s already getting around 30,000 individual visits a month.

It’s all based on Open Source software with around 15-20 developers making different contributions. Most of these developers come from Africa and the majority are Kenyans. In approved Open Source fashion, Ushahidi will release the software for free but charge fees for technical optimisation.