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Kenyan Techie Honored for Role in Tracking Post-election Violence


Thursday, July 3, 2008
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When Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan living in South Africa, heard about the post election violence in Kenya, she was concerned that the numbers of fatalities and displacements reported in the Western media were not accurate enough. She was also concerned that Kenyans would soon forget the tragedy and move on just as they had after electoral violence in the previous years. 

On Kenyanpundit.com, her blog, Okolloh asked for any ‘techies’ who would be willing to document the violence on a timeline.  Erik “Hash” Hersman of Whiteafrican.com and David Kobia of Mashada.com took her up on the offer and two days later Ushahidi.com premiered.

Ushahidi is a Kiswahili word meaning “testimony.”  The Web site is a repository for violent acts in Kenya.                                                                                   

The home page of the Web site has different colored push pins keyed to show different acts of violence, blue for riots and red for deaths. If all incidents are reported, there is a small fire on the map. The logic behind Ushahidi is crowd sourcing crisis information, which is using many people to gather information in the face of tragedy.

At a time when the Kenyan government had restricted live broadcasts there was a desperate need for correct information, especially for people living abroad. Through Ushahidi, people could take pictures on their cell phones and upload them on to the engine. However, there were reservations about people reporting incidents that did not occur. Citizens reported violence and their reports were then authenticated through independent sources like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) or National Public Radio (NPR). Kenyan journalists and bloggers were also used to authenticate the reports.      

While Ushahidi was initially a repository for information, it gradually evolved into coordinating peace efforts. After reading about the violence, people living abroad were eager to help, but they had no way of sending help to Kenyans.  Together with Mama Mike’s, an online gift shop, Ushahidi helped send vouchers for food and other necessities to internally displaced people.              

Some groups donated airtime to reunite separates families while others donated hot meals and clothing.                                     

Kobia did not envision that working for two straight days without any sleep could bring about this kind of awareness.  

“I did not expect this thing to go beyond Kenya,” he said.

Just when he thought he was done, violence erupted in South Africa, when citizens of that country turned against immigrants. People needed a way to represent that violence in the fourth dimension.  Ushahidi.com was then ported over to create UnitedforAfrica.co.za. The Web site is a South African version of Ushahidi mapping killings and other forms of xenophobic violence.                    

Soon after the South African version was launched, NetSquared, a community of social entrepreneurs (and their supporters) who use Web technologies for social change, came calling. The group is owned by TechSoup.

According to the Marnie Webb, Co-CEO of TechSoup, the NetSquared mash up challenge organizers were looking for a compelling project that combined a social justice component with leading-edge web and mobile technologies.  A mash up is the layering of two of more databases in a way that makes them more visually compelling and easy to use.There were an estimated 122 entries which were further narrowed to 21 finalists through an online voting process in late March.  The 21 finalists went to San Jose, Calif., for the two-day third annual NetSquared conference held on May 27, where they spent two days presenting their concepts. At the end of day two, each conference participant was given three tokens to vote on their favorite projects.  They could use all three tokens to vote for one project, or they could divide their tokens any way they wished.

The jackpot was $25,000 going toward improving the winning idea. Hersman, a co-founder of Ushahidi, explained that in creating the geo-mapping engine, they took shortcuts because speed was imperative due to the escalating violence in early January.

Kobia explained that the whole system needs to be rewritten again in order to expand its use. The newer version will also pay special attention to cell phone users, so that they can get rapid feedback.                   

Ushahidi was started as a way to visualize acts of violence in Kenya, but other people have expressed interest in the mapping engine. Countries like Madagascar have requested a version to help visualize deforestation on the island.

Hersman said he had confidence in the use of geo mapping to effect social change.

“Maps have the tendency to create understanding and grab attention in ways that simple text can’t,” Hersman said. “With one view of a map showing specific data, like Ushahidi in Kenya, you get a better understanding of the situation immediately.”

Kobia and the Ushahidi team already have plans for the future. They plan to build similar software on a grand scale and give it to whoever finds it useful. He does not think of himself as different.

 “I was just doing what needed to be done,” he said. “The proudest thing is that it has proved that Kenyans can compete on the global stage.”

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About Dorcas Komo

Dorcas Komo is Mshale's correspondent in the Southern states of the U.S.

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