“Activist mapping” at Ushahidi

How a non-profit tech company is combining crowdsourcing, citizen journalism and geospatial information to drive social activism and public accountability

“Thousands of young men burst out of Kibera, a shantytown of one million people, waving sticks, smashing shacks, burning tires and hurling stones. Soldiers poured into the streets to fight them. In several cities across Kenya, witnesses said, gangs went house to house, dragging out people of certain tribes and clubbing them to death.”[1] This was the aftermath of the Kenyan 2007 presidential election where Mwai Kibaki, the incumbent, had just been declared the winner. Supporters of his challenger, Raila Odinga, rejected these results with accusations of vote rigging. Violence erupted across the country.

Within this chaos, Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan lawyer, sent out a plea through her blog: “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps.” [2] This was the birth of Ushahidi, a non-profit technology company founded to help marginalized people raise their voice and those who serve them to listen and respond better. (Ushahidi means ‘testimony’ in Swahili).

With a hunch that the violence statistics being published in the news were grossly understated, the ad hoc founding team of technologists and bloggers developed a website that allowed Kenyans to send reports of violence. These reports were added to Google maps and within days, individual witnesses had compiled a more complete picture of the violence than any one organisation.

No monetary incentives were provided for participating. Instead, participants were inspired to contribute by the deep resonance they felt with Ushahidi’s mission. As part of this mission, the founding team stressed that recording the truth of what was happening would help the later process of reconciliation. [2]

The Ushahidi team made a number of design choices to address foreseeable challenges. Chiefly, concerns regarding the submission of fraudulent reports led to the establishment of a ‘quality assurance’ function. A blogger was assigned to verify reports in consultation with NGOs and other trusted parties in affected areas. Secondly, recognising that many respondents would not have access to internet, a combination of text messages and e-mails was accepted. Finally, due to the sensitive nature of this industry, Ushahidi saw the need to constantly update its platform to address ever increasing threats.

Ushahidi created value by delivering transparency that exposed the false reports being published. Later studies found that Ushahidi reports documented an important number of violent events not reported by the mainstream media and citizen journalists, always had specific location information. Additionally, Ushahidi reports covered a wider geographical area than both mainstream news and citizen journalist bloggers. [3]

While the value creation was undisputed, it was not immediately clear how value would be captured. The platform was set up to be open source and thus, available for free to anyone who would like to use it. Perhaps in part due to this free model, Ushahidi experienced tremendous growth with over 125,000 deployments in over 160 countries. Some of the use cases were: [4]

  • The response of the United Nations Department of Field Services and Peacekeeping to the Haiti Earthquake in 2010
  • The Obama Campaign for America 2012
  • Allowing women to report on sexual harassment

Currently, the organisation funds the operations of its ~20 employees through grants as well as contributions from NGOs and other aligned organisations. [5]

Sources

[1] “Disputed Vote Plunges Kenya into Bloodshed.” New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2007/12/31/world/africa/31kenya.html

[2] “Ushahidi: Crowdmapping Collective that Exposed Kenyan Election Killings.” The Guardian.  https://www.theguardian.com/news/blog/2011/apr/07/ushahidi-crowdmap-kenya-violence-hague

[3] “Crisis Mapping Kenya’s Election Violence.” iRevolutions. https://irevolutions.org/2008/10/23/mapping-kenyas-election-violence/

[4] Ushahidi Partners. Ushahidi website. https://www.ushahidi.com/other-products

[5] Ushahidi Financial Statements for year ended Dec 31. https://www.ushahidi.com/uploads/financial-reports/Ushahidi_fs_2016.pdf

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