How Ushahidi Maps The Voices Of Those In Need

Dominic Burbidge | FreeSpeechDebate | November 12, 2012

Dominic Burbidge discusses how Ushahidi’s transformative crowdsourcing techniques have alleviated crises in Kenya and beyond.

The wake of Kenya’s 2007 presidential election held little promise. As the new year broke, protests over disputed election results gathered pace and swelled into violence, leaving around 1,300 people dead and 300,000 displaced. To travel Kenya’s old railway, stretching from the western city of Kisumu to the eastern city of Mombasa, was to pass through a society tearing itself apart. But something small and positive was about to rise from the ashes, something that would catch the imagination of development practitioners across the globe.

From her city of Eldoret, one of the epicentres of Kenya’s post-election violence, Juliana Rotich joined other Kenyans online to try to make sense of what was going on. In a simple yet groundbreaking move, this group of friends documented what they heard from people via text message and email onto an online map. In the face of a media blackout, the digital age stepped forward, giving space to those who wanted to know exactly what was happening during one of Kenya’s most destabilising periods. An innovative form of crowdsourcing was born, and “Ushahidi” – Swahili for “testimony” – soon gained recognition as one of the 10 best NGOs in the world.

The Kenyan team mapped on a macro scale reports of riots, deaths and looting from the very people affected by what was going on. Word spread and Kenyans were able to attract international attention to their plight. After two days of coding the software, one of Ushahidi’s founders, Ory Okolloh, launched the website on her blog and wrote...