Today’s New York Times reports on Ushahidi--Swahili for testimony–an open-source platform for user-generated content. Or, to put it less generically, Ushahidi is social networking for humanitarian relief, a disaster-witness wiki.
Ushahidi was developed in Kenya to respond to the violence that followed the 2007 election. Kenyan lawyer and blogger Ory Okolloh
posted online the idea of an Internet mapping tool to allow people anonymously to report violence and other misdeeds. Some technology whizzes saw her post and built the Ushahidi Web platform over a long weekend. The site collected user-generated reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths. It collected more testimony — which is what ushahidi means in Swahili — with greater rapidity than any journalist or election monitor could. Ushahidi had found a quintessentially 21st-century way of bearing witness.
Recently Ushahidi was used to respond to the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and in the D.C. area to “Snowmageddon.” People on the ground reported by SMS message about persons buried in rubble or snow-blocked intersections to a central location that mapped the reports. A single report does not have much weight–people lie, exaggerate, misreport addressesses–but veracity increases as the site receives more reports from separate cell phones, some accompanied by photos. The response depends on the situation. Following the earthquake in Haiti Ushahidi coordinators at Tufts University relayed incident information to rescue personnel in Haiti. Snowmageddon coordinators sent snowplows, or volunteers monitored the site to find nearby locations that needed help.
The Times says Ushahidi represents
a new paradigm in humanitarian work. The old paradigm was one-to-many: foreign journalists and aid workers jet in, report on calamity and dispense aid with whatever data they can get. The new paradigm is many-to-many-to-many: the victims are re-imagined as agents who supply on-the-ground data; a self-organizing mob of global volunteers translates the text messages and helps to orchestrate relief; journalists and aid workers use this information to target the most pressing problems.
But Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation . . . 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 accessible by cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture capitalists backing it, it had to use open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for their own projects.
This is the best Internet application I’ve encountered in a long time. Read the whole article.