Crowdsourcing Crisis Information with Ushahidi

My latest post on the AshokaTech blog:

ushahidi

On December 7, 2008, incumbent Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner of a highly contested presidential election with Raila Odinga.  Odinga and his supporters cried foul, and international observers agreed that the election count was flawed.  Violence soon erupted as a reaction to the election news.  In the end, a coalition government was formed, but not before, according to the BBC, “some 1,500 people died in political violence.”

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a response to this violence.  According to the Ushahidi web site,

“Ushahidi’s roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis.

The new Ushahidi Engine is being created to use the lessons learned from Kenya to create a platform that allows anyone around the world to set up their own way to gather reports by mobile phone, email and the web – and map them.”

The engine is now available for download and has already been used in a variety of applications.  Some uses in the field include: Vote Report India, a collaborative citizen-driven election monitoring platform for the 2009 Indian general elections; Swineflu.Ushahidi.com, a site to track the Swine Flu reports coming in from official and unofficial sources; War on Gaza, an Al Jazeera implementation covering the activity happening in Gaza; and the original Kenya mashup, used to track reports of incidents of violence around Kenya.

Ushahidi co-founder Ory Okolloh hopes that Ushahidi “will facilitate wider coverage from the ground much earlier so that people can have a better sense of what is going on (complimentary to mainstream news sources) and a much better sense of where help is needed if it is a crisis situation.”

She was also kind enough to take the time for a short interview, which can be read below:

What systems need to be in place for an organization to utilize Ushahidi?  Are there basic infrastructures/technologies that must exist?

An organization would require hosting space – if they are not able to self-host, they can host with Ushahidi.  They would also require someone with a bit of technical skill for the initial installation – mainly PHP experience.  If they are using the sms functionality, they’d need to have a useable number/sim card and a dedicated phone for the SMS hub (see www.frontlinesms.com for details) There is some help available via the Ushahidi community forum.    In the future we will be working on a much simpler installation process.

What feedback have you received from those using Ushahidi in the pilot projects?

We are still in early stages of testing and it is an ongoing process.   Most of the feedback we have received related to the alpha version of Ushahidi, many of the changes requested have been incorporated into the beta version, which we will now be testing with additional organizations.  Overall, the testers have appreciated the utility of the platform and how easy it was to get up and running.   However, because different organizations want to use Ushahidi for different projects/situations, we found that our basic template has to be a lot more flexible and easily customizable.   Other changes that we have worked on include:  making it easier to import existing data into an Ushahidi instance, allowing the report categories to be customizable, including the abilit to enter latitute and longitude from GPS devices; facilitating information sharing between organziations; and improving the twitter integration.   We also need to work on making Ushahidi instances load faster in low bandwidth areas.

How did you choose which projects would be able to test Ushahidi?

Mostly of the testers are organizations that had already expressed interest in trying out Ushahidi, we have also tried to cover a wide range of issues that go beyond political crisis,  and to ensure there is geographical diversity and diversity as far as the size of the organizations.

As all incarnations of Ushahidi have been for reporting purposes, what systems are in place to measure the accuracy of the reports being filed?

Right now it depends on the administrators to use their judgement to decide what reports to approve and which ones to verify based on their local expertise.   If reports are unverified, they are marked as such.   We have also built in rating mechanisms to allow citizen reporters to build credibility over time (think of Digg for example) and a facility where readers/users can report abuse.   We are also currently working on a data filtering mechanism, see http://forums.ushahidi.com/topic.php?id=18 for details.

What features can users expect in future versions of Ushahidi?

  • Simplification of setup and admin UI
  • Faster loading of pages in low bandwidth areas
  • Better integration with Frontline SMS
  • Mobile-based applications
  • Simple sign-up and hosting process for users who want to be hosted on ushahidi.com
  • Fully-developed plug-in architecture
  • Improving the language translation process
  • Improving the data-sharing capability
  • Improving data security management

How can those interested in your project help out?

They can find out more on our website and our community forums – where we’ve posted a wishlist of things we need help with.   We are always looking for developers to join our open source community.   We could also use help with writing cases studies and working with the testers.

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