Ushahidi: The Power of Crowdsourcing

NB: This article was originally posted on Jun 27, 2015 so content references are correct as of that date.

Africa is quickly becoming a mobile-connected continent: mobile phones are often the only technology available, especially in places where it is hard to find power lines, fixed-line telecom infrastructure, or personal computers. This technological explosion is changing people’s lives in several ways to an even greater extent than in developed countries and opening up a wealth of new opportunities.

This series will focus on several African projects that are leveraging existing mobile technology to have a significant impact on people’s lives, from education to banking, from health to conflict outburst handling, and more. Articles in this series will not only cover the available technological ground of those projects but also try and explain their impact on African society.

This InfoQ article is part of the series “Mobile-First In Africa”. You can subscribe to receive notifications via RSS.

At the end of 2007, a political and humanitarian crisis erupted in Kenya due to suspicions that incumbent presidential candidate Mwai Kibaki had rigged the recent elections. Supporters of the losing candidate reacted to the announcement of Kibaki’s swearing-in by staging non-violent protests, as well as violent attacks that caused deaths in several parts of the country. Violent demonstrators were shot by the police, which in turn elicited more violent behaviours. The violence quickly acquired an ethnic character and was initially directed against the Kikuyu people, the elected candidate’s community, who are widely felt to have dominated the political scene in the country since independence. Quickly, the situation escalated out of control. Overall, it is estimated that some 1,500 people were killed in the first two months of the crisis, and up to 600,000 were displaced.

A few days into the crisis, a group of Kenyans in Nairobi launched Ushahidi, a website to map violence “based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phone”. As Ory Okolloh, one of Ushahidi’s founders, recounted in a 2010 interview, Ushahidi started as “an ad hoc group of technologists and bloggers hammering out software in a couple of days, trying to figure out a way to gather more and better information about the post-election violence”. As Okolloh wrote announcing Ushahidi, they believed “that the number of deaths being reported by the government, police, and media [was] grossly under reported”. Furthermore, they aimed to contribute by putting “names and faces to the people who [had] lost their lives in this mess”.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was a huge success. Its initial deployment had 45,000 users in Kenya and, according to the book SMS Uprising, which we’ll review later in this series, made it possible to document “hundreds of incidents of violence that would have otherwise gone unreported”. It was also instrumental in bringing alleged perpetrators of reported crimes in front of “the international criminal court in the Hague charged with crimes against humanity”.

The tool was initially a mash-up of Google maps and crowdsourced data that people provided via web and SMS, and was awarded the first place at the NetSquared Challenge in 2008. Google maps allowed users to view and zoom in on satellite images of Kenya in order to show the locations where incidents of violence had been reported, including photos and videos, with textual content providing more detailed information.

In its original design, Ushahidi followed the Darfur Museums Mapping Initiative, a partnership between Google and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which allows the user to view professionally collected photos, videos, and testimony from Darfur, including images of destroyed villages and before-and-after satellite images.

In comparison with the Darfur project though, Ushahidi introduced a significant novelty: crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing made it possible for people from many different areas to report incidents and for the project to grow quickly and cover an extended geographical area. Crowdsourcing is of course not without its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to verifying reports. In respect of this Okolloh writes:

[With social media] ‘Truth’ is not guaranteed – but the idea behind crowdsourcing is that with enough volume, a ‘truth’ emerges that diminishes any false reports.

Regardless, all reports were monitored before going live, to identify those that appeared to be patently false. As Okolloh explains, they used quite an “ad-hoc” verification process:

  • where possible, they tried to get back in touch with the reporters;
  • anonymous reports were counter-checked against other available sources, such as mainstream media or reports coming in from other people in the same area;
  • where verification was not possible but the reports appeared credible, incidents were posted but noted as non-verified.

Ushahidi beyond Kenya

Ushahidi’s overall success has been largely fuelled by its being open-source, which has made it possible to use it for many other projects:

Overall, Ushahidi has provided the foundation for projects in 132 countries around the world.

The importance of a tool such as Ushahidi is highlighted in a Haiti Crisis report by the United States Institute of Peace, where it is stated that:

“The traditional emergency response system in Haiti struggled to utilize local knowledge and engage the Haitian population in the decision-making process. […] The inability of disaster response organizations to effectively utilize information coming from Haitian communities compromised the relief effort.”

The report goes on to describe how Ushahidi was quickly deployed in the aftermath of the earthquake to collect information useful to save lives and to control some violent incidents. Violence, though, was not the main issue in this case, only related to “isolated incidents of social tension around food distribution points”. On the other hand:

“The majority of reports received included requests for what were being categorized as “vital lines”—food, water, and shelter. During the first week, the next most common reports were of services available, such as locations of field hospitals and distribution points, and of emergencies, such as reports of trapped persons and urgent medical needs. These tailed off as the growth of new services slowed and the situation on the ground stabilized.”

That data was “used by organizations such as the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), UNOCHA, the U.S. Agency for International Development, Marine Corps, and the U.S. military and Coast Guard to direct assistance”.

As Graig Fugate of the FEMA Task Force tweeted:

“The crisis map of Haiti represents the most comprehensive and up-to-date map available to the humanitarian community.”

Ushahidi today

In the years since its launch, Ushahidi has grown to become a platform developed by a global non-profit company aiming to “change the way information flows in the world and empower people to make an impact”. The Ushahidi Platform is written in PHP and is based on Kohana, a hierarchical model-view-controller (HMVC) framework. The main purpose of the Ushahidi platform is to collect information from several sources, such as SMS, Twitter, RSS feeds, and email, and help to categorize it, geo-locate it, and publish it on a map. In 2012, Ushahidi underwent a complete rewrite which has led to Ushahidi Platform v3, currently in beta. A key reason for the rewrite was that use cases had grown well beyond their initial definition, including its use to “monitor elections, track pollution, report corruption, manage disaster response/recovery,” and “all types of social good activities, not simply crisis”. Ushahidi v3 has additionally provided the chance to improve the platform in many respects, by making its UI fully responsive, adding theme customization, more advanced categorization features, etc.

The Ushahidi Platform is now just one of several products in the Ushahidi ecosystem. Other elements include:

  • Crowdmap, a collaborative map-making tool built around an open API that can be used to build custom apps. Crowdmap is a hosted service that is free to use for anyone, although paid subscriptions do exist that provide more advanced capabilities, such as private maps and custom stylesheets.
  • CrisisNET, a platform directed at journalists, data scientists, and developers. It is able to “consume and interpret” crowdsourced data concerning governments, business, humanitarian crisis and disasters coming from social media, such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and others. CrisisNET was used to gather data about the Syrian crisis, as CrisisNET’s creator Jonathon Morgan explains: “The system first translates the information into English, then scans the post for key phrases like “barrel bomb” that we know are associated with air combat or chemical weapons. Finally we employ complex natural language processing techniques to identify the names of cities or regions buried in the text, which in turn makes it possible to assign an estimated latitude and longitude to each status update, image or video.”
  •  Ping, a “group check-in tool” that was born out of the experience of the Nairobi mall massacre and allows to create a list of people to text in case of emergencies. Messages always end with “are you ok?” and are sent three times every five minutes until someone replies. If there is no response within a given timeframe, Ping will start texting people’s contacts and ask whether they have any information about them. Ping is currently in private alpha.
  • SMSsync, which allows users to set up a two-way SMS gateway using an Android phone and SIM card.
  • BRCK, a “self-powered, mobile WiFi device”. The BRCK is specifically designed to cater to requirements that are typical of African regions, such as the unreliable availability of electricity and internet connections both in rural and urban areas. The BRCK uses an 8-hour battery and is “solar-ready”. The project was kickstarted and featured on TED.

Challenges and future of crowdsourcing for social activism

The Internews Center for Innovation and Learning published a report, called “Mapping the Maps”, “to study various crowdsourced-mapping platforms, searching for data patterns that can tell us more about the functions of these tools and their limits as well as potentials”. The report highlights the importance of crowdsourcing as a “new tool of accountability” that populations can use to limit their governments’ power, even in cases where they have succeeded in stifling or intimidating the press. It is still not clear, according to the Internews report, what leads some crowdsourcing projects to successful deployments, and calls for future research to investigate this so to establish “best practices for users and potential users”.

As mentioned, though, crowdsourcing has got its own challenges to overcome. First and foremost there is the issue of verifying the data on a crowdsourced map. This is not always an easy task, particularly in cases such as the Syrian war, where danger makes it particularly hard to “double-check information on the ground”.

Another issue concerns anonymity, since “governments around the world monitor the Internet and could take reprisals against a citizen who puts sensitive information on a crisis crowdmap”. As usual in such cases, using encryption software or systems like Tor can be extremely valuable to protect reporters’ identities.

Still, as Okolloh wrote, crowdsourcing maintains all of its promises:

“Ushahidi demonstrates how we can use open source software in humanitarian crises, the potential power of crowdsourcing, and the advantages of keeping tools simple and easily adaptable.”

About the Author

Sergio de Simone is an iOS Independent Developer and Consultant. Sergio has been working as a software engineer for over fifteen years across a range of different projects and companies, including such different work environments as Siemens, HP, and small startups. Currently, his focus is on development for mobile platforms and related technologies.He tries to be a successful iOS independent developer and he is always on the look for challenging and new endeavours as a consultant. In his spare time he is waiting for his twins to grow up a bit so he can teach them some programming. You can find a few pointers about him on his contact page.