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Social enterprise working for democracy and humanitarian relief

Bradley Cleveland, 13 March 2013

How do social movements, social enterprise and social media combine to strengthen democracy and save lives? The answer has been powerfully demonstrated in Kenya, where a group of volunteer software developers and programmers created the Nairobi-based social enterprise Ushahidi to map the reports of violence following the contested presidential election of 2007.

Having proved its international value following the Haiti earthquake in 2010, where its network, software and platform aided the relief effort, Ushahadi has gone on to create the Libya Crisis Map, which was used to coordinate humanitarian relief during the revolt against Moamer Kadhafi.

The platform has since been deployed to monitor elections in Bulgaria and human rights in Nepal, to document environmental degradation in Brazil, and mining disasters in the Philippines, violence in Congo and human rights in India.

Back in Kenya, Ushahidi’s staff and volunteers were on duty again in this year’s election, of which Uhuru Kenyatta was declared the winner last week. Defeated candidate Raila Odinga filed an election challenge with the Kenya Supreme Court due to election irregularities that raise questions about Kenyatta’s razor-thin margin. (According to the Independent Elections and Boundaries Commission, Kenyatta received 50.07% of the 12 million votes cast; the 8,000 vote margin allows Kenyatta to avoid a runoff.)

Last time, over half a million people were displaced and 1,200 people were killed in post-election violence that swept the country. This time, however, the country remains calm – so far – and that is no accident. Various civil society organizations mobilized thousands of Kenyans to monitor the election and ensure the peace. Prominent among these groups is Ushahidi.

After the 2007 election, when the Kenya government was downplaying the post-election violence, the Ushahidi “crisis mappers” took reports submitted from citizen journalists via SMS messages, Twitter and the web to map incidents of violence and efforts to keep the peace. Since then, Ushahidi founders have incorporated as a social enterprise to develop the free, open-source platform and enhance its features.

It went international and proved invaluable following the 2010 earthquake in Haiti. While buildings and infrastructure collapsed, a mobile phone tower in Port au Prince remained functional amidst the rubble. Ushahidi aggregated the SMS and tweets coming out of Haiti, and organized members of the island’s diaspora to translate these messages, so that volunteers in Boston could map the situation on the ground in near real-time. The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs and humanitarian organizations used the resulting map to coordinate their relief because it provided reliable, comprehensive and up-to-date situational assessments.

Ushahidi is both a community of “crisis mappers” and a web platform that creates online maps based on real-time reports from “the crowd”. Its open-source tools now include Swift River, which filters text messages, Twitter feeds, and other social media to extract useful information from these crowd-sourced reports, and the web platform that visualizes data on an interactive, online map.

Even with the most sophisticated online tools, “crisis mapping,” defined as leveraging mobile platforms, geospatial technologies, and visual analytics to power rapid crisis response by the International Network of Crisis Mappers is a laborious, time-intensive process.

In the run-up to this year’s Kenyan election, Ushahidi established partnerships with the Election Observers Group to bring the new high tech reporting and alert tools to the group that would train and deploy 2,000 election monitors, and PeaceNet, the coalition of civic groups working for peace on the grassroots level.

Ushahidi launched the website Uchaguzi last month, stating the goal of the project was “to contribute to stability in Kenya by increasing transparency and accountability through active citizen participation in the electoral cycles. . . By amplifying the voices of ordinary citizens, Uchaguzi allows citizens to continue to play a positive role in elections before and after voting.”

During and immediately after Kenya’s vote, citizen journalists submitted tweets and text messages via a “short code", a free mobile phone number. While the Ushahidi platform filtered incoming messages, volunteers at iHub, Nairobi’s high tech incubator facility, then reviewed the reports. The reports then moved to a global network of 220 “crisis mappers".

Using Skype “chat” to coordinate their work, these international volunteers worked round the clock to find the geographic coordinates of the incident mentioned in the report, such as a polling station in Mombasa failing to open. Before an incident report would go public on the Uchaguzi map, people on the ground in Kenya would verify the accuracy of the report. If necessary, the report would be forwarded to the appropriate authority – election commission or the police – for action.

Last Saturday, 9 March, after the election commission declared Kenyatta the winner, Daudi Were, who managed the Uchaguzi project, called an end to the election “deployment” of crisis mappers. Uchaguzi received over 5,000 text messages, and incorporating over 3,800 of those reports in its interactive map.

Thanks in part to the work of Ushahidi and the global network of crisis mappers, Were was able to report: “So far Kenya is largely peaceful, and we anticipate that it will remain that way.”

  • Bradley Cleveland, a former union organiser, has recently completed a Masters at UCLA and is working with Public World to develop a project to explore how informal economy waste pickers could improve their livelihoods by strengthening disaster risk reduction in developing country cities.
     
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