LibTech: Patrick Meier on Ushahidi

Disclaimer: I have done my best to transcribe the comments of these speakers at the conference on Liberation Technology in Authoritarian Regimes, and I apologize for any errors.

At the conference on Liberation Technology and Authoritarian Regimes, Patrick Meier, a fellow at the Liberation Technology Program, Strategy Group member at MAP, and the Director of Crisis Mapping and Strategic Partnerships at Ushahidi, presents the first paper, “Is Ushahidi a Liberation Technology?” (I was a co-writer).

Patrick begins by telling the story of Ushahidi’s founding, with the blogger Ory Okolloh struggling to post a sea of crowdsourced updates of post-election violence on her blog. Thus, with a group of fellow bloggers and the help of the mobile provider SafariCom, they created a shortcode and platform so people could post updates about the violence directly to a digital map online. Currently funded by the Omidyar Network, Ushahidi is now working on ways for people to report to Ushahidi via Facebook and other platforms so there is no one point of failure that can prevent people from using the application. So far Ushahidi has been downloaded 4,000 times and has been used by Al Jazeera in Gaza, the Louisiana Bucket Brigade in the Gulf of Mexico following the spill, and by media activists in the Kibera slum.

Patrick them presents two case studies. The first is Sudan VoteMonitor, which monitored the first elections in that country in 24 years, this past April. The monitors sent in messages based on 24 codes, which were used in both English and Arabic. Soon after, the site was blocked by the Sudanese government. Also, an unnamed international monitoring organization encouraged other NGOs not to participate. Although there were 3,000 vote monitors, there were only 257 reports on that came in to the installation. This was partly due to poor planning as the monitors received the mobile codes the day before the elections, as well as lack on funding.

In Egypt, an instance called U-Shadid (“You Witness”, in English in Arabic) to monitor parliamentary elections this November. The local implementers here are building out applications to allow people to report to U-Shahid through Facebook, Twitter, and even voice mail. The Egyptian government is trying to prevent this. The human rights group implementing U-Shahid, the Development and Institutionalization Support Center, has had members questioned and even detained by the police. Though monitors are aware that they may be arrested because of their participation, it has given them hope for accountability where they previously saw none.

Patrick acknowledges that these instances do not meet the systemic, comprehensive, and accurate standard of international election monitoring. Yet the fact that these authoritarian regimes are taking pains to shut down these efforts indicate that they offer some threat. They also build out on more formal efforts. Patrick ends by pointing out that the use of the platform is determined by human agency, for good or ill. “Ushahidi provides only 10% of the solution,” he says. Without funding, media outreach, and an understanding of nonviolent tactics and strategy, Ushahidi will not be helpful.

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