Crowd-sourcing Crisis Information: one story of an emerging African IT renaissance

<p>A few years before publishing &ldquo;A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis&rdquo; (number three on the list of <a href="allthings/128/Top-Five-Critiques-of-Development-and-Humanitarianism.html">&ldquo;Top Critiques of Development and Humanitarianism&rdquo;</a>), David Rieff wrote an article titled <a href="">&ldquo;In Defense of Afro-Pessimism.&rdquo; </a>While the article was replete with statistics about languishing economies, conflict and lack of political transparency, the main point seemed to be that wishful thinking that oversimplifies the problems of Africa was, in fact, part of the problem. <br /> <br /> Rieff is a sharp thinker and a powerful writer. But at its core, Afro-pessimism tends to underestimate the ability of average citizens to impact collective destiny. Right now, there is a creative explosion at the intersection of human ingenuity and cheaper, better communication tools that has the ability to dramatically change the African political, economic, and social landscape. <br /> <br /> <a href="">Ushahidi</a> (Swahili for &ldquo;testimony&rdquo;) is an organization whose story represents both the challenge and the opportunity of the modern African experience. In early 2008, Kenya<a href=""> exploded into violence </a>after a contested election took on the dimensions of ethnic conflict. The original Ushahidi team saw a dramatic need for a system for reporting acts of violence in order to improve emergency response. Recognizing the propensity for societies to forget their most horrific and violent episodes, they also wanted a way to bear permanent witness to the atrocities. <br /> <br /> Their opportunity was two-part. First, the explosion in <a href="">mobile phone usage</a> in Africa and Kenya particularly meant that they had, potentially, millions of witnesses and citizen reporters at their disposal. Second, they had a small but dedicated core of <a href="">locally available web developers</a> who had the skills to build a web-platform that could automatically aggregate and map inputs from SMS text messages. Soon regular Kenyans from around the country were able to send reports that were immediately placed on a map and a timeline, creating a dynamic<a href=""> living witness</a> to the violence. <br /> <br /> The really transformative part of the story, however, was what happened next. Their original idea executed, the Ushahidi team looked outward for support. They reached out to the <a href="">Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society</a>, who helped them build support for the vote-driven <a href="">NetSquared</a> Mashup Challenge, a contest (that they won!) hosted by TechSoup designed to help change agents collaborate with technologists to create social value. They&rsquo;ve since been announced as finalists for the <a href="">Knight-Batten Awards</a> for Innovative Journalism and are featured presenters at technology/social-change focused conferences including <a href="">MobileActive&rsquo;08 </a>in South Africa and <a href="">Pop!Tech&rsquo;08 </a>in Maine. Finally, a grant from <a href="">Humanity United</a>, a foundation &lsquo;committed to a world in which&hellip;mass atrocities are no longer possible&rsquo;, has allowed several members of their team to devote full-time efforts to the project. <br /> <br /> A few months ago, the tool was deployed again, this time in <a href="">South Africa</a> to monitor anti-emigrant violence. With the announcement of the grant, Ushahidi is now focused on building &ldquo;a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.&rdquo; Imagine that in every conflict, every natural disaster, every moment of political unrest, average citizens had a tool to share information about what was happening. The platform could fundamentally change the nature of our emergency response. <br /> <br /> But for how exciting the specific Ushahidi project is, it&rsquo;s the general story behind the platform that should inspire even the most ardent Afro-pessimists to pause for re-appraisal.</p>
<p><br /> A group of concerned citizens with no individual political power to speak of saw a problem much bigger than them, but had the tools to enable more people like them to become part of the answer and have since engaged the communities of support necessary to dramatically expand the potential impact of those distributed efforts. When you boil it down, that&rsquo;s exactly how the world changes. The fact is that when it comes to Africa, there are more tools available and more communities of practice and support than ever before. <br /> <br /> To learn more about how mobile technology is allowing every-day people to create new forms of economic and social value, check out some of the following resources:<br /> <br /> Africa/Technology focused blogs and news:<br /> <a href="">Apprica</a><br /> <a href="">Afrigadget</a><br /> <a href="">White African</a><br /> <a href="">Afrigator</a></p>
<p><em>Nathaniel Whittemore is the founding director of the Northwestern University <a href="">Center for Global Engagement</a> and blogs at <a href="">Do Good Well.</a> He is currently running a pilot project of his new startup, <a href=""></a> in northern Uganda</em></p>