Witness Projection: How Ushahidi is mapping crises around the world

Nairobi, Kenya

In the final days of 2007, a tense election in Kenya led to widespread violence. After a disputed count, the incumbent, Mwai Kibaki, a member of the Kikuyu ethnic group, was declared president in a hurried ceremony. Within hours, attacks began in the Rift Valley. Members of the Kalenjin ethnic group smashed and looted Kikuyu-run shops, attacked their neighbors with machetes, and burned down houses and churches. Kikuyus carried out retaliatory attacks on Luos and Kalenjins in the slums of Nairobi, the capital, and Naivasha, a town to the northwest where tribally mixed groups of migrants work in the vegetable and flower industries. As the riots spread, police officers killed more than a hundred people in failed attempts to control the chaos. By the time a coalition government was formed two months later, more than 1,200 people were dead and 500,000 had been driven from their homes. This month, when Kenyans vote in a presidential election for the first time since 2007, their choices will include Deputy Prime Minister Uhuru Kenyatta, who is under indictment by the International Criminal Court for his role in the violence. Kenyatta is one of the front-runners.

Ory Okolloh wrote about the 2007 election on her blog, Kenyan Pundit. When the attacks started, she gathered reports from friends around the country but saw that the Kenyan media was barely covering the story. Okolloh got in touch with a group of tech-savvy friends in the United States and Kenya and proposed creating a “mash-up”: a Google Map that plotted the incidents reported by her sources and could be updated on the fly by anyone with new information. Within a few days, the first version of Ushahidi (which means “witness” in Swahili) was up and running. New reports could be submitted by email, text message, or online. “We were a little embarrassed because it was so rudimentary,” said Erik Hersman, who helped write the code. But it worked: although Ushahidi was neither well known nor well publicized, it ultimately received 465 reports from around the country.

As the Kenyan election crisis subsided, the individuals who had briefly become the Ushahidi team—Okolloh and Hersman, along with David Kobia, Daudi Were, and Juliana Rotich—talked about how to build on what they had created. In May 2008, Hersman and Kobia won a $25,000 prize for Ushahidi at a tech competition in San Francisco; additional funding allowed the team to start working on the project full-time. The platform they created allows for real-time reporting on humanitarian crises anywhere in the world. It remains open-source, can be downloaded for free from the Ushahidi website, and allows updates from Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube in addition to text-message and email reports. Once a map is launched, its creators can monitor and moderate it or leave it alone. “We are giving people a skeleton on which they can flesh out their own ideas,” said Rotich, who is now Ushahidi’s executive director.

The breakout moment for the platform was the Haitian earthquake of January 2010, when a map created by an Ushahidi staffer based in Boston became the prime resource for emergency services and aid agencies working in Port-au-Prince. In the following year, Chileans used Ushahidi to map damage from their own earthquake, Pakistanis used it to track catastrophic flooding, and Russians used it to coordinate relief for victims of summer wildfires. When severe snowstorms hit the East Coast of the United States, midwives set up “Blizzard Babies 2011,” a map that showed pregnant women the whereabouts of the nearest midwife and how to get in touch. “That was the moment I realized this was different, this was generative,” said Rotich. The platform was used to find out where humanitarian aid was needed during the revolution in Libya and to share and disseminate information following the tsunami in Japan. Some of the maps are more lighthearted: “Burger Map,” for example, allows you to “submit a burger” rather than a crisis report. (Okolloh, who now works for Google, is worried about mission creep. “The name is not accidental. It means ‘witness,’ ‘testimony,’” she said. “There’s a risk of that being lost.”) The software has been used to create more than 40,000 maps in 159 countries and thirty languages.

For the March elections in Kenya, Ushahidi’s founders plan to operate the platform themselves. They’ve launched a new site for the event called Uchaguzi (Swahili for “choice”). “Last time we were reactive. This time we want to make sure we have something set up in advance,” said Hersman, the current director of operations and strategy. During a Kenyan constitutional referendum in 2010, Ushahidi gathered information from voters and passed news of irregularities to an observer group. (In the end there were very few complaints, and the new constitution was approved after a peaceful day at the polls.) As the votes from this election are tabulated, the company hopes to use its crowd-sourced reports to keep the count honest. Voters can monitor their own election alongside traditional observer organizations.

For almost two years, a group called Syria Tracker has been documenting the deaths in the Syrian uprising against the regime of Bashar al-Assad using an Ushahidi map. Security concerns mean the simplest method of submitting reports—text messaging—is not permitted: “The number-one thing we did not want to do was SMS: they can be traced,” I was told by one of the group’s four staff members, who did not want to be named for fear that relatives and friends still living in Syria might face reprisals. People wishing to submit reports are given instructions on how to mask their identity and location. By the end of 2012, Syria Tracker had compiled reports of 47,887 deaths culled from thousands of emails, tens of thousands of news reports, and millions of tweets (marked with the hashtag #basharcrimes). The group removes duplicates by comparing the reports based on time, date, and location. Like all crowd-sourced information, Syria Tracker’s reports are incomplete and imperfect, but they may nevertheless prove to be the most accurate records available of the bloody events in Syria. The data collected there could provide a prosecutor with invaluable evidence should the Assad regime finally fall.