Ushahidi is a good example of digital innovation that took root in a developing country and has now been repurposed for use all over the world. Amid the violence in the 2008 elections in Kenya, a group of bloggers decided to use crowdsourcing to keep track of areas of violence on a Google Map. Members of the public were quickly transformed into citizen journalists as they sent in their reports using email and text-messages. True its name, meaning testimony in Kiswahili, Ushahidi gave a better understanding of the situation based on eye-witness testimonies. This helped give Kenyans the most current updates and was very helpful in efforts to provide relief.
From this model emerged an open-source platform for crowdsourcing and social activism. Ushahidi makes it easy for people in any part of the world to disseminate and collect information about a crisis. It simply receives texts messages, photos, videos and reports submitted online, and then posts them in real-time to an interactive map that can be viewed online by the public. This tool overlays field reports on maps, providing critical and often life-saving information during emergencies.
The success of Ushahidi has been based on an understanding of the region and the people who use it. People in the west have asked the question, “Why can’t they just use twitter”. Well, Ushahidi does not require one to have an account with a username and password. With a simple mobile phone people can send reports to the system and receive alerts happening around them. This overcomes the barriers to connectivity that are faced in developing countries or during emergency situations.
Ushahidi has given the power of dispersing information to the people, therefore increasing transparency. Individuals can freely share their stories as they happen and the readers do not have to rely on tailored reporting by news cooperations, a concept now referred to as activist mapping. To maintain its transparency, Ushahidi does not accept government funds. It relies on profits made from custom deployments of its software and donations from philanthropic organizations.
As an open-source platform, Ushahidi can be customized to fit different communities’ needs. It has been deployed to other parts of the world to report on news events and natural disasters including the earthquakes in Haiti, the 2011 tsunami in Japan and the snow cleanup in New York city last winter.
Ushahidi as an organization has grown over the past few years and is now serving clients like Al-jazeera, World Bank and the United Nations. It has also expanded to create more tools like SwiftRiver, an information collection platform that helps people make sense of a lot of information in a short period of time. Crowdmap is its user-friendlier interactive mapping platform that allows users to set up their own deployments of Ushahidi. These platforms work in concert with the main Ushahidi platform. In June, 2013 at the TEDGlobal conference, Ushahidi announced the release of BRCK, a modem that connects to the Internet without electricity. The availability of a reliable source of electricity is scarce in remote regions and especially in developing countries.
Ushahidi serves as a good example for organizations in emerging technology markets to emulate as they work towards developing products that suit their needs. It also shows how innovations can be made and used creatively even with accessibility challenges.