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Lybia Crisis Map - Ushahidi

Harnessing the power of the crowd for good.

Flexible platform for limitless uses.

It is not often that an organization can harness a new technology and send reverberations through the entire non-governmental sector. As a result of its innovative application of open source mapping software, however, this is exactly what Ushahidi (Swahili for ‘testimony’ or ‘witness’) has achieved in three short years. 

The Nairobi-based organization was conceived in 2007 in response to the disputed elections in Kenya and the widespread violence that followed. Alarmed by the apparent gap between what they were witnessing on the ground and what was being reported in the media, a group of ‘citizen journalists’ established a website to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. This website quickly amassed 45,000 users nationwide, with the data aggregated and mapped for anyone who needed it. 

Maturing into a fully-fledged non-profit software development company, Ushahidi aspires to disrupt the way information flows in the world by providing high-quality ‘crowdsourcing’ tools with low barriers to entry, leveraging the collective power of individuals to achieve greater impact. 

The organization specialises in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. To date, the most ground-breaking uses have been in the humanitarian world. From providing real-time mapping to assist first responders during the Haitian post-earthquake relief effort in 2010, to contributing to the UN Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs’ ‘Standby Volunteer Task Force’ for Libya, Ushahidi has changed the face of how crucial information concerning conditions on the ground can be collected, analyzed and disseminated at high speed to relief workers. 

The organization is quick to point out, however, that Ushahidi’s products hold far more promise. As Executive Director Juliana Rotich explains, some of the uses will be humanitarian, but the software has already been utilised in unforeseen ways: “I think that is telling; we are a platform company, we make technology that can be used and customized in different ways, and this affords people a lot of creativity”. Ultimately, the possibilities for combining social activism, public accountability and geo-spatial information are limited only by the imagination of the organizations and groups seeking to drive change. It is for this reason that Ushahidi has had such a pervasive impact in such a short period of time, and why it has opened eyes to the potential for other fruitful marriages of new technologies with longstanding NGO priorities.

(Photo © Ushahidi)