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.

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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