Jim Fleming: There’s another situation in which, as plugged in as you may be day to day, you might be short on information, vital information, lifesaving information. During a natural disaster or civil conflict critical information can be hard to come by, but as the tweets and Facebook feeds coming out of the Arab Spring proved, even if the phone lines are down, and the power is out, smartphones and the right kind of web platforms can be a powerful combination.
Ushahidi is a suite of open source software that allows people to send and receive that kind of information via text message. David Kobia is one of Ushahisi’s founders. He told me how it got started.
David Kobia: Ushahidi was born out of the post-election violence in Kenya in early 2008. There was a media blackout in Kenya right after a contentious election and, no radio, no TV, no newspapers. The one thing that was open is the internet, so a group of us, all bloggers, connected in one way or another through Kenya. Came together on one weekend, came up with a platform where people could send in reports of things they were seeing, violence, police brutality.
In one weekend it ended up being a simple mash up and reports started streaming in by text message, which is a really powerful device everyone had.
Fleming: I think what surprises people outside of that kind of situation is that the internet would be open and that mobile phone would be open so that people would have access to it, and you said you had no TV, no radio, no print. Clearly there was an attempt to keep people from getting information, and yet there’s this wide open highway.
Kobia: Yeah, maybe it’s a factor of a lot of governments being slightly naÃ¯ve to the power of the internet at the time, and obviously in 2012 things might be a little bit different.
Fleming: So tell me what the name means, Ushahidi.
Kobia: Ushahidi means witness.
Fleming: Witness is exactly what you’re about.
Kobia: Precisely. It is about witnessing, it is about the everyday person telling stories of what they see. Telling their own version of the story.
Fleming: So you and your colleagues, your friends, put together a website, at the time in 2008, to gather all of these reports that were coming in, and of violence. How did people discover you were there and collection this information?
Kobia: Well all of us being bloggers, we had pretty good readership just between the four of us. It was easy for us to promote our efforts by our blogs. So that was the beginning, and of course, main stream media picked up on it at some point, and from there things really escalated.
Fleming: What kind of reports were coming in?
Kobia: Reports, like, burned house, burned car, policeman attacks boy, mostly reports of violence more than anything.
Fleming: And they were coming from all over, people were calling you, using Twitter, using Facebook I suppose, to some extent?
Kobia: Actually at the time it was not even really prevalent social media that exists today, it was text messages. We had a short code number, a four digit number that people could send text messages to. So once word of this phone number got out it really began to escalate, and with efforts of folks in Diaspora, sending text messages back to Kenya, this number that you could report to, people learned more about it.
Fleming: I can imagine though, once it began to be of interest to people, you must have been almost overwhelmed by the amount of information that you were receiving.
Kobia: Yes, truthfully it was a little surprising. We didn’t know that it would be this big, and this was a weekend effort but, it was good to be overwhelmed. It means that people really wanted to share something.
Fleming: But at the same time then, that’s exactly what Ushahidi was built to handle. You may have not known it that first weekend but, what Ushahidi does, as I understand it, is to use and use an open source software method to gather all that information and process it so that everybody can see what’s going on.
Kobia: Precisely, we built a free and open source platform. It has been translated to almost 20 languages, and been used in a little over 100 countries. It’s a really good way to surface crowd source information.
Fleming: Was there a moment when you were working on this when it began to occur to you that this would be valuable beyond Kenya?
Kobia: We worked on it at the time. We thought we really would go back to our day jobs, then we got a call from some people in South Africa who are dealing with xenophobic violence, I think this was right around March/April of 2008, and they asked for something similar. Then we began to realize, with requests from other people, that there was a need for something like this. People needed to be able to tell their stories somehow, some way.
Fleming: Well let’s talk a little bit about how it’s been used. You said it was used in Kenya that was your origination.
Fleming: And then to South Africa, in fact now as I understand, it’s being used to track violence in Syria. So in some ways, a similar situation, sort of technologically advanced, but given the violence, hard to keep track of.
Kobia: Yes, so like, in Syria for instance, of course they’re using a combination of Twitter, email, phone, there’s even a, what they call, speak to tweet phone number that you can call [laughter] to send your text messages. That is actually a courtesy of Google, so instead of actually having to get on the internet you can call a number and your voice will be heard on Twitter.
The platform itself, I mean, the Syria deployment has aggregated over 1500 reports. Actually documented over 1000 individuals killed, and all this is via crowd sourced information of course.
Fleming: I was just thinking about your four friends in Kenya who came together one weekend and said, “We need to get all of this together.”In some ways you could see four friends getting together in the suburbs of Damascus and saying, “We need to be able to present this information.”The difference being, that they know about Ushahidi and can start there.
Kobia: Actually, right at the beginning when we embarked on the effort, built the software, like, really built it out, we went by that mantra, which was basically; make it easier for people to do what we did. Basically, here is what you need you’re, again like you said, four similar people to us, but you don’t have to spend time coding it up. We have documented all of the processes, so here, take this and run with it.
Fleming: And it’s not just parts of the world where there is civil war. This was used to help coordinate relief after the earthquake in Haiti, wasn’t it?
Kobia: Yes, but the effort in Haiti actually validated a lot of thinking around crowd sourcing a crisis. There are actually quite a few groups involved, working with Telco in Haiti. The U.S. state department, the first responders, and what not, but the way it worked was that Telco sent a four digit number to all their subscribers and said, “If you need help this is who you should text it to.â€
Our system aggregated over 45,000 text messages. These text messages were translated by Haitians in the Diaspora, mapped out and immediately sent back to first responders close in that loop of request for help, and with a response to it within a very short time frame.
Fleming: So what would a map look like in Haiti that had aggregated all of this information, and had it translated, and put it back so people could use it? Is it color coded? Are there links that show you there is fire in this area, there is too much physical damage in another area?
Kobia: Yes, it was broken down into 20 different very specific categories. Anything from; someone just needs water to; someone is trapped under rubble or, just different needs, all very specifically categorized. Again, this made it very easy for first responders.
Fleming: And of course it isn’t necessary for you to have the latest technology. You don’t have to have an android or an iPhone in order to process this information. In fact giving the information can be as simple as using a cell phone?
Kobia: Yes, and I think that’s why this took off in Kenya. I think in Africa we have a penetration of over 70 percent of people with cell phones. That’s almost 700 million people with cell phones. They might not be smartphones, but they’re cell phones that can send text messages. There is a very powerful tool that’s on everyone’s hip.
Fleming: Al Jazeera is now involved in using Ushahidi I understand. They have help build a project called, Somalia Speaks.
Kobia: Yes. They really, just, were reaching out to people in Somalia, and asking how the conflict had affected their lives. It was a very simple question, and they said, “Here is the number to text.”The messages were translated and mapped. When you look at it, it has over 2000 events all over the country of Somalia.
Fleming: Has there been, to your knowledge, any effort to subvert this? You could, I suppose, suffer from false reports.
Kobia: Yes, the efforts to subvert it, the efforts to poison the data. Sometimes, if you have enough crowd source information, it validates itself by having similar reports from multiple, reliable sources. That usually depends on the sensitivity of the situation, and [xx] would be very sensitive. Whereas the Washington Post with snow cleaning efforts are on Washington D.C. It might not be as important to verify each and every report. There is a difference in how you look at each situation but, yes there are definitely efforts to try to subvert. Governments don’t like these kinds of mechanisms for sure.
Fleming: This does raise the issue of how it is used. It is not just for violence torn countries. It can be used for election monitoring, it’s been used, I gather, for helping poor farmers get fair market prices for their goods. It’s not just about crisis and violence, in other words.
Kobia: Not at all. I think crisis and violence actually motivates the crowd to participate, to try to get this digital front seat to an event happening somewhere in the world. Like I said, it has been a different main stream media. Companies have used Ushahidi, like, mapping corruption, and mapping potholes.
Fleming: You said that governments don’t like platforms like this very much. Why is that do you think?
Kobia: I think even in democratic countries, there is an effort to control a conversation, which is why, even here; they are jumping on the social media. When they see things like Twitter and Facebook, and people having this conversations then, these conversations moving from small to really huge, and these are the people that vote for them, then it starts to become a real problem I think, because they don’t have control. People can participate somehow; it’s not a one way conversation.
Everyone is sitting there and watching, listening, and to some extent, can participate, especially mobile. Mobile is driving this effort and allowing people to leapfrog, and become part of the conversation.
Fleming: David Kobia is one of the founders of Ushahidi. You can find a link to their website on our website; ttbook DOT org. While we are talking about information, we’ve started tweeting, so if you want to look at an upcoming show, to keep track of what’s on our minds or, to take a peek behind the scenes, follow us on Twitter.
I’m Jim Fleming, it’s ‘To The Best of Our Knowledge,’ from Wisconsin Public Radio, and PRI, Public Radio International.