Ushahidi Empowers Global Citizen Journalists

Set up amid Kenya's election crisis, the African nonprofit gives people an online platform to report on human rights abuses and political problems

The burning of a bus. People slashed by machetes. Indiscriminate gunfire. Excessive police force. All were part of the violence that occurred during Kenya's post-election crisis in 2008.

The world learned of these incidents mainly through individuals playing the role of citizen journalist. Technological tools provided by Ushahidi, an African nonprofit group, helped make it possible.

Ushahidi, which means "testimony" in Swahili, operates an online platform that allows individuals and organizations to post real-time information about unfolding crises. Going far beyond simple blogging, Ushahidi's Web site allows users to aggregate information and present it on maps, charts, and timelines.

For example, visitors to Ushahidi's site during the Kenya crisis could call up a digital map of the country, locate the flashpoints, and read accounts of what was happening. Color-coded markers helped identify the locations of government forces and refugees, pinpointing where riots, looting, rapes, and other acts of violence were occurring. The platform also creates an archive of citizen-generated data that can be used for future study.

Kenyan Harvard Law Grad began posting

Besides documenting violence in Kenya, the platform has been used to monitor elections in Mexico and India, track the spread of swine flu, and alert authorities to shortages of medical supplies in several African countries. Ushahidi is one of 26 Technology Pioneers recognized on Dec. 3 by the World Economic Forum for offering new technologies or business models that could improve the global economy and have a positive impact on peoples' lives.

Ushahidi grew out of a volunteer effort that began during the Kenya crisis in early 2008. Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan who had recently graduated from Harvard Law School, was working for a human-rights group in Kenya and was alarmed at the lack of information available from the traditional media outlets that were subject to government censorship. She mobilized her network of contacts and began posting online updates every two hours about the spreading political violence.

As Okolloh was preparing to leave Kenya to join her family in South Africa, she sent out a digital plea for help in setting up technology that could automate the process she had started. African techies responded, helping to build a platform that let users file reports either by text message, Twitter, or e-mail. That led to the founding of a nonprofit group by Okolloh and two other U.S.-educated Kenyans—David Kobia and Julia Rotich—along with Erik Hersman, an American raised in Africa.

Ushahidi now has a 10-person staff and a network of volunteers across Africa, the U.S., and Europe, with expertise ranging from human rights work to software development. The group has no offices. Staff members, based in Kenya and South Africa, stay in touch through Skype (EBAY) and the Internet. Ushahidi's services are offered free of charge to humanitarian organizations and other groups that gather information locally and then forward it to the Ushahidi platform.

Next: A Digg-like rating system

Started on a shoestring, Ushahidi recently received funding from the Omidyar Network investment firm, established by eBay founder and chairman Pierre Omidyar, which will provide the group $1.4 million over the next three years.

Now, Ushahidi is moving to fine-tune its service, setting up mechanisms to help verify the accuracy of field reports. It has a project called Swift River that aggregates data from Twitter, Flickr (YHOO), YouTube (GOOG), and local mobile and Web social networks, as well as its own site. Anyone with Internet access can rate information as it comes in. Pieces of information with higher ratings, just as on Digg, are highlighted and displayed more prominently.

Ushahidi aims to become a source of information not only to citizen groups, but also to media outlets during crises when there are no centralized sources of reliable information. Okolloh acknowledges, though, that the platform cannot replace professional journalism. "We cannot totally eliminate misinformation, this is inherent in any citizen reporting," she says. "But we can make it easier for people to make decisions."

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