Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a technological innovation that is revolutionizing crisis response and putting the power to observe and report directly in the hands of victims. Used most recently in Haiti and Chile, and born in the 2007 Kenyan election riots, had it existed at the time, this technology could have been put to good use by displaced and suffering families awaiting aid and rescue during Hurricane Katrina. Even after the crisis, victims could use the real-time reports to support their claims of violence or innocence. If large-scale crisis afflicts Americans again, this valuable gift from Africa may empower those most in need.
[...] After Kenya’s disputed election in 2007, violence erupted. A prominent Kenyan lawyer and blogger, Ory Okolloh, who was based in South Africa but had gone back to Kenya to vote and observe the election, received threats about her work and returned to South Africa. She posted online the idea of an Internet mapping tool to allow people anonymously to report violence and other misdeeds. Technology whizzes saw her post and built the Ushahidi Web platform over a long weekend.
The site collected user-generated cellphone reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths and plotted them on a map, using the locations given by informants. It collected more testimony – which is what ushahidi means in Swahili – with greater rapidity than any reporter or election monitor.
When the Haitian earthquake struck, Ushahidi went again into action. An emergency texting number was advertised via radio. Ushahidi received thousands of messages reporting trapped victims. They were translated by a diffuse army of Haitian-Americans in the United States and plotted on a “crisis map.” From a situation room at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, outside Boston, Ushahidi volunteers instant-messaged with the United States Coast Guard in Haiti, telling them where to search. When the Chilean earthquake struck, Ushahidi deployed again.
Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation. Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.
Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.
Ushahidi remixes have been used in India to monitor elections; in Africa to report medicine shortages; in the Middle East to collect reports of wartime violence; and in Washington, D.C., where The Washington Post partnered to build a site to map road blockages and the location of available snowplows and blowers.
Think about that. The capital of the sole superpower is deluged with snow, and to whom does its local newspaper turn to help dig out? Kenya.
Continue to the full article at The New York Times website.