Apps for Activists: SwiftRiver Does it Right

My recent post on apps for activists, which focuses on the tool CrowdVoice, is one of the most-read on the site, so I’m following up with another post on another piece of activist technology called SwiftRiver, which just launched its beta version last week. SwiftRiver is an open source platform that helps users analyze large amounts of realtime data, like tweets or SMS messages. Although it has non-activists uses, like brand monitoring and trend-spotting, it was created for activists tracking information coming from crisis locations. While it is often hard for activists technologies to grab a niche, SwiftRiver provides a nice model. Here’s what they’re doing right:

  1. Fill the Concrete Need of a Specific Group. The wrong way to start developing an activist application is with the phrase “wouldn’t it be great if activists could…”. Building a tool for “activists” in general will result in a tool that is marginally useful to many people but really critical to no one. By contrast, SwiftRiver was born out of Ushahidi, a platform for mapping digital crisis information. Two of Ushahidi’s developers, Chris Blow and Kaushal Jhalla, noticed the intense quantity of citizen reporting coming out of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks and saw the need for a better tool to aggregate and analyze crisis information. They started building SwiftRiver.
  2. Build in a Context. Of course, they didn’t just take this idea and run with it. They were still working within Ushahidi, and were able to draw on the needs and expertise of the people in that organization. They also tested their software on other crises, like the emergency landing of US Airways Flight 1549. This forced them to constantly check the practical utility of the software as they were building it.
  3. Make the Process Public. In February of 2009 Erik Hersman, a co-founder of Ushahidi, wrote a post on the Ushahidi blog introducing SwiftRiver, sharing prototype images, explaining its utility, and asking for input from other activists. “If this type of tool interests you,” wrote Hersman, “and you’d like to help, then do let us know. Here’s a glimpse at some of the idea flows that spur on our conversation at Ushahidi.” That post got 44 comments. By being very transparent about the tool they were developing, Ushahidi created a sense of shared ownership of the project. Making the platform open source was also critical to creating this collaborative environment. It was no longer an Ushahidi software project, but a platform that could be useful to a variety of activists.
  4. Independence. Though SwiftRiver seems to still be connected to Ushahidi, the project now has its own web site,, and presents itself as an independent project. While their first app, Sweeper, was designed for Ushahidi to filter crisis information, a post on the site’s blog notes that “there are more Apps coming, Sweeper is just the first and it was specifically designed to optimize the workflow of Ushahidi users.” This independence is likely to attract more groups. This isn’t just a utility for Ushahidi, this is a utility for activists, researchers, reporters, anyone who can use it.

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