Isobel Coleman

Democracy in Development

Coleman maps the intersections between political reform, economic growth, and U.S. policy in the developing world.

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Technology Innovations for Humanitarian Assistance

by Isobel Coleman
February 3, 2012

On January 4, 2012, people sit outside a house that was destroyed two years ago by the January 2010 earthquake in Port au Prince (Swoan Parker/Courtesy Reuters).


Last month, The Global Journal published a list ranking the top 100 NGOs in the world – an interesting, if ambitious task, with lots of room to quibble. The top ten list included some of the biggest, best-recognized NGOs in the world – like Oxfam (number 3), BRAC (number 4) and CARE (number 7). But number 10 on the list, Ushahidi caught my attention because it is a newcomer on the scene and relatively unknown. Ushahidi is a Kenyan-based NGO that calls itself a “non-profit technology company.” It has developed mapping software that is distributed for free, and can be modified by anyone. In a very rapid way, is it democratizing how information is collected, distributed, and used. Its great innovation is to leverage the resources of volunteer curators and translators to allow data, collected from basically any source, to be posted on a map in real time.

Here’s how it works: people all over the world document and communicate information about their environment at ever increasing rates using social media like Twitter and Facebook. With the increasing number of mobile phone users, people can also photograph and video events in real time (like in Iran in 2009 or in Egypt this past year). This is the “crowd.” The crowd puts this information up on the internet – on YouTube, Flicker, and social networking sites. This is the “cloud.” Ushahidi’s software allows that information to be plotted on a map. The result is an ever-evolving visual display of what is happening, essentially, in real time. In the middle of a disaster or in an information-poor environment (like a Libyan uprising), this kind of real-time information can mean the difference between life and death.

For example, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the first sources of information on the ground were coming from Twitter users in Port au Prince. Ushahidi set up a map, and groups of volunteers at Tufts University started posting reports of infrastructure damage, medical emergencies, locations where services were available, and incidents of violence or looting that they collected from Twitter or from radio broadcast streamed over the internet. Using Twitter, Ushahidi reached out to DigiCel, Haiti’s largest cell phone provider, to set up a short code that mobile phone users could send texts to. In preparation, they plugged into the Haitian diaspora on Facebook to find volunteer translators to translate the texts from Haitian Creole to English. They received over 80,000 text messages and 1,200 volunteers translated them. On average, it took 10 minutes from the moment the text was sent until it was posted on the crisis map. (Watch Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s Director of Crisis Mapping & Partnerships tell the story here.) Ushahidi’s map was the best source of information for the humanitarian community. Marines used it to identify where to position helicopters to rescue people.

In Libya, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) requested that a crisis map be activated and took over coordination of the map in April 2011. Ushahidi thinks that this collaboration with OCHA and the involvement of volunteers in these crisis maps is the start of a major shift in how the world responds to humanitarian disasters. It’s not governments or international agencies, but individual people – the crowd who documents and the volunteers who translate and map – whose contributions in the aggregate connect resources with the people in need.

As I’ve written earlier, open data is an increasingly important trend, and Ushahidi is playing an important role in putting crowd-sourced data to good uses. I think you’ll be hearing more about this organization, and others like it that will undoubtedly follow in its innovative footprint.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Melany

    What about the reliability of the data?
    During the uprising in Yemen last year, many of the Tweets about events were untrue.
    How does this affect Ushahidis mapping?

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