Software can save the world

Erik Hersman, co-founder of Ushahidi

From earthquakes to uprisings, you name it; the last twelve months have been witness to them all. And when a disaster strikes, what one thing does everyone look for? Information. If you’re in the thick of it, you need to know what to do, where to run and how to hide. If you find yourself in such a crisis without the information you need, here’s a top tip. Go online and download Ushahidi. Launched by four talented techies, the simple piece of kit allows you to organise yourself and others, ensuring that everyone can access accurate and up-to-date information during their time of need.

In December 2007 the Kenyan presidential election results were announced. The incumbent President Mwai Kibaki was given victory over his opponent, Raila Odinga. Claims about rigging of the results caused voters to go on a violent rampage and a political, economic and humanitarian crisis erupted. Former UN Secretary, Kofi Annan, arrived in the country nearly a month after the election and successfully brought the two sides to the negotiating table. But reports suggest that the impact was lasting, the BBC revealing that 1500 people died and 250,000 were displaced.[i]

When this post-election violence kicked off, Erik Hersman, Juliana Rotich, David Kobia and Ory Okolloh came together online and started a conversation. Acquaintances from the blogging world, these four virtual friends could have easily felt powerless. They were dispersed around the globe and had never met face-to-face as a group before. But these were not ordinary circumstances, nor ordinary people. The group were united by two important things which meant they couldn’t turn their backs on the crisis: firstly, they were all Kenyans who loved their country; and secondly, they were all technology fanatics who believed that software could save the world.

Erik Hersman kindly gave us his time whilst we were in Nairobi. Born in America but raised in Kenya, he describes himself as an “import” but calls Kenya his home. We were intrigued to meet Erik as his accolades reach far and wide. He writes two hugely popular blogs, the White African and Afri-Gadget, which together receive up to 50,000 unique visits a month (to put this into perspective, receives 24,000,000 unique visits per month)[ii]. He regularly shares the stage with the founders of Twitter, Facebook and Google and he’s a Senior Fellow at TED (a non-profit organisation offering events, conferences and the TEDTalks video website)[iii]. By all accounts he has the credentials of a Silicon Valley don. But the events of 2008 took his career off on a tangent.

“We’d always claimed that technology allows us to overcome inefficiencies”, Erik told us. “If we couldn’t have proven that during the most inefficient time in our own country’s history then we would have had nothing to stand on.” And this is why Erik and his fellow pioneers used their collective technical know-how to lend a hand back home. Following the suggestion of one team member, they decided to collate and map the news alerts coming from various sources, building a clearer picture of the unfolding events online. In a quick fire decision based partly on the availability of .com addresses, they called their new software ‘Ushahidi’, a Swahili word which means ‘testimony’. This word also happens to be impossible to pronounce… so here’s the idiot version: “oo-shah-hee-dee”.

Thanks to their pre-existing fan base (as bloggers they were already very well known), they managed to attract attention to Ushahidi very fast. As soon as they posted a message to promote their site, they started to attract 75,000 to 100,000 unique visitors a day. Over the weeks that followed the group developed numerous iterations of the Ushahidi platform, adapting it so that local people could submit their own reports via the web or using their mobile phones. Volunteers would then work to approve and verify the information, building a much richer story of the incidents going on throughout the country.

To walk you through what this would have looked like for a user, if you’d seen a riot in your neighbourhood, you would text the details to the Ushahidi telephone number. After a short delay, your report would be plotted on an interactive map on the Ushahidi website, along with other reports submitted across Kenya. To stay up to date with the situation you would sign up to receive news alerts to your mobile phone, or go online to view the latest version of the map.

With 45,000 active users contributing to the Kenyan website in this way, Ushahidi proved to be a success. It also planted the seeds for much more, acting as a catalyst for the founders to carry on working together. When they started to receive requests for replication in other African countries, they realised that their new innovation could be of great use to millions around the world. Unintentionally they had struck upon a new way to channel information during a crisis – from the bottom up.

“The technology was nothing new. We just created another mash up. The innovation was in the humanitarian element. We were shaking the foundations of the way information flows”, Erik explained. Instead of having to rely on information which comes top down from the authorities or media sources, the beauty of Ushahidi is that it harnesses the powerful knowledge of the people on the ground. It encourages society at large to come together, share what they know and build a picture of events which has greater breadth, depth and objectivity.

By August 2008, the team of four founders quit their conventional jobs and morphed Ushahidi into an organisation with a broader remit. Their aim was to become specialists in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping. This description might sound intimidating to a luddite but here are two important words of note: ‘Free’ – Ushahidi develops software that is free for all to download and requires no registration, username or password protection so that the barriers to entry are kept as low as possible, and ‘Open source’ – Ushahidi develops software that is open for all to add their input, meaning that it’s constantly being improved by its community of users.

Over the last three years, the original Ushahidi programme has been developed to better suit people’s varied levels of technical expertise. For those born without the technology gene, a hosted version of the program known as Crowdmap is now available (this means that everything you need is available to you online without having to download any software onto your computer). Much faster to get started, this solution has proven very popular, with around 1000 people using it per month. Another piece of software called SwiftRiver has also been developed which, in layman’s terms, helps to make sense of vast amounts of incoming information. This one, however, is strictly for use by people with the gene. Nikki lost track of Erik’s explanation of SwiftRiver after an estimated five seconds!

To date there have been 17,000 deployments of the Ushahidi solution and, interestingly, it’s used by people in a huge variety of ways. The team have analysed trends in its use and discovered that it works best in ‘hot flash scenarios’ i.e. events which take place over a short period where people have a strong demand for co-ordinated information such as natural disasters, elections, political uprisings and terrorist attacks. In fact Ushahidi has played a co-ordination role in most of the major global crises of recent months and years, including the Haiti Earthquake, the Japanese Tsunami and the Arab Spring Uprisings.

“What this really is, is an extension of what the Red Cross should be doing but online”, Erik explained, an analogy which made a lot more sense once we’d been given some working examples. To share a couple with you: in Libya the UN used Ushahidi to collect and co-ordinate information from 400 volunteers across the country. This provided them with an accurate view of the violence and attacks, allowing them to target their response efforts more effectively. After the Haiti Earthquake, Ushahidi was used both by the emergency response agencies, and the people on the ground. In this case its purpose evolved over time. Used initially to identify missing people, it was later used to track the number of people who had died and then the outbreak of disease.

As Ushahidi is open to all, this does mean that the perpetrators of immoral acts could use it to co-ordinate their efforts, too. Terrorists, for example, could use Ushahidi to map out their target sites and consolidate information from their informants. The Ushahidi team are aware that the multi-purpose nature of their programs could lead people to use it for dubious purposes but they follow the same line as all major software developers. “It’s hard to be objective but the technology is fairly neutral”, Erik explained. “I could use Gmail or Word to organise terrorist activities as well.” Thankfully, Ushahidi has only ever been used once for “iffy purposes” as Erik called them, which was during the recent revolution in Egypt.

In general, people use Ushahidi to co-ordinate information for themselves. But in some cases, when the situation on the ground is highly complex, as, for example, after the Haiti earthquake, Ushahidi use their paid team and their huge cohort of volunteers, to source, approve and verify all the incoming information and then build it into a map. You could argue that this brands them a disaster relief NGO with a difference but Erik disagrees. “If someone calls us an NGO, we correct them right away. We’re a non-profit tech company much more like Mozilla.” (Mozilla are the company who own Firefox, the internet web browser program.)

Like it or not, in terms of the funding model, Ushahidi does run much like an NGO, as 80% of their costs are covered by private foundations. However, the remaining 20% of their funds are raised through contract work for external clients, making Ushahidi look much more like a company. Nike, for example, have approached Ushahidi about building them an interactive map which would help them to track grievances raised by sweat shop workers (a potentially marvellous plan; let’s hope they pursue it). Also, the team are looking at significantly reducing their dependency on foundation funding by introducing a broader suite of chargeable services.

The culture of the company is also totally business-focused. “We work fast and loose”, Erik explained, the kind of words more frequently heard from those with a business background. Ever since Ushahidi was first used in Kenya, the company has stuck to the principle that everyone involved has to be a self-starter capable of responding to any situation on their own and at speed. “If there’s a problem you solve it, you don’t go to someone else to help you”, Erik said plainly. This is essential when you can’t just knock on the door of your boss. The Ushahidi team works entirely virtually, holding only one face-to-face meeting a year.

Ushahidi only has 15 paid staff but they are supported by a huge community of volunteers who tinker with their software and are on-call when something big kicks off. Still, they’re nowhere near the size of the Googles of this world, and they plan to keep it that way. “We’re small so we can be disruptive!” Erik said, pointing out that larger organisations stay well away from anything this controversial. Whilst ‘disruptive’ might sound rather militant, in techie-speak ‘disruptive technology’ is used to describe innovations which shatter the status quo. In that way, Ushahidi is a perfect example of a ‘disruptive’ design. “We just really love creating software that disrupts the world in a way which helps ordinary people”, Erik said with glee.

The Ushahidi team plan to continue the exponential growth of their non-profit tech company and they are also supporting others to do the same. Compelled by the desire to give something back to their volunteer community and uncover the next Ushahidi, they have set up two initiatives to hot-house technical innovation. The I-Hub, an incredible community space right in the centre of Nairobi, provides a range of resources for its 4500 members including free access to the internet, training, pre-incubation advice and the best cappuccinos in Kenya! The M-Lab is for I-Hub graduates who have a serious business idea which needs further incubation and investment. With seven ideas currently under development, the M-Lab is sure to produce another prize-winning company.

Meanwhile, the Ushahidi solution couldn’t be timelier. As we were writing this article, riots were raging across the UK, bringing home to us the fact that no country is immune to unrest. However, knowing that Ushahidi is on hand to help make sense of crises to come, makes us feel a lot more reassured. When considering how to tackle social and environmental challenges, we think more people should experiment with technological solutions. The world needs more people like Erik and his partners, so if you’re an emerging talent in technology, why not give Erik’s story some serious thought and join this techie crusade.

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Copyright © Nikki and Rob Wilson 2011