Crowdsourcing and Crisis Communication
In December 2007, after the post-election violence in Kenya became widely known, a team of bloggers saw the need for a new type of crisis communication, so they designed the internet platform Ushahidi.com. Their new site uses the crowdsourcing model for charitable, non-profit goals. They want to publish information about rioting, epidemics, and natural disasters much more quickly and have that information be much more transparent for help and rescue organizations, journalists and the public at large.
“Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili and accurately describes the site. The idea is to bundle and post all pictures, reports and messages in close to real time on a virtual map on the Internet, this way the instances are recorded and proper reaction can be launched quickly if necessary.
They follow the motto that “there is always someone who is first on the scene”. Now those individuals can help out by reporting events as they see them. These eyewitness reports can be sent in almost any electronic format from email or using the contact form found on the website to text messaging, sending photos and videos directly from a phone, or via Twitter and Facebook. Journalists, NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) and bloggers then verify all reported occurrences before they are entered onto the virtual map. This Real Time Life Map is available to anyone who has a computer or phone with internet access. In fact this new method of event reporting is already being called “Crisis Mapping”.
The project began with the Ushahidi team developing a software that anyone can download for free on their website www.ushahidi.com and then use it when they need it. Then, like crowdsourcing, they hope the masses can achieve what the few cannot. By 2010 the software had already been widely distributed and in May of that year it won the “Best of Blog” award. “The German BoB award was an honor to receive“, said Erik Hersman, one of the site founders “We didn’t expect it to be such a big deal when we started in January 2008 – we were only thinking of solving our own problem in Kenya.” The four passionate bloggers that founded the site feel that during times of crisis communication is of vital importance. Erik Hersman is convinced that Ushahidi gives a voice to the people and that everyone can benefit from hearing what that voice has to say. “The Ushahidi platform is important because it is changing the way information flows. It gives a voice to people who were largely being ignored, and allows everyone to have a more holistic view of an ongoing event, be it an election, hurricane aftermath or tracking drug stakeouts.”
Many organizations now use Ushahidi. The Arabic network Al-Jazeera used it to track incidents during the 2008/2009 Gaza war. During the conflict in eastern Congo, the Ushahidi site helped localize areas of fighting and during the outbreak of the H1N1 Swine Flu it tracked the illness worldwide. In Haiti, relief organizations are using the software to gather information about the aftermath of the earthquake and the current cholera outbreak.
Crisis communication using the principles of crowdsourcing is expanding. For example, a children’s hospital in Boston recently launched Health.Map.org. We will tell you more about that project in our next blog post!