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Ushahidi: realtime social media lessons from crises (and a model for slow news?)

Yesterday, at the Legatum Institiute‘s Next Generation Philanthropy Forum I got to meet Juliana Rotich, programme director at one of the most interesting open source projects in the world, Ushahidi.

If you don’t know it, Ushahidi is an open source platform for communicating in a crisis. At simplest, it is a way of aggregating text messages, emails, Tweets, blog posts and mainstream media articles to form a clearer picture of what is happening in a fast moving situation, say in a war zone or a natural disaster. It’s also been put to good use in places like the Lebanon and Mexico by people wanting to monitor the fairness or otherwise of their own elections and to help with the effective distribution of vital medicines in Malawi, Kenya, Zambia and Uganda.

So on a geeky level Ushahidi’s obviously fascinating, on a humanitarian level it’s seriously inspiring, but there are lots of other elements of the project which are useful to consider.

Listening to Juliana’s presentation (I understand the videos will be live on the Legatum site soon) and chatting to her in the break, there a few notes I made that I will share here:

  • Web as witness: This is my take on what Juliana was saying, but I got a sense that by managing information on Usahidi served both as resource for people involved in it but also to put things on the record. As Juliana put it: “If a tree falls in a forest and Google doesn’t hear it, does it make a sound?”. Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili – so I guess this purpose has been baked in to the development of the platform.
  • Spreading social web beyond developed countries: Juliana is interested in how you stop “social media becoming an enclave for developed countries”. There are so many talented developers and creative people in the developing world, and she wants “to invest in those minds”. You can see her point – a massive latent cognitive surplus, to borrow Shirky’s phrase, is in developing countries, with all its incredible potential denied to the networks for now. If I was a VC with a long view, I’d think about heading for Africa…
  • Mobile is key to connecting the developing world: This is not news, I appreciate, but mobile handsets and access are the way that the developing world can connect right now. As Jared Cohen of the US State Department said in his speech earlier in the day, the economy of Kenya is so reliant on mobile payments that it would collapse tomorrow if you were to remove the GSM network. The mobile is the “default device” for Ushahidi’s developers, said Juliana. She also lamented that Twitter lacks a text message interface [I paraphrase]: “With SMS Twitter could become the pulse of the whole world – not just the developed world.” Now there’s a thought…
  • Near-realtime filtering: A major challenge for Ushahidi is filtering information as it comes in in near realtime. There may be disinformation from antganists, but also incorrect information, and alot of echo (re-tweets count as this) and maybe spam. Ushahidi uses manual filtering, Akismet and Swift River, a kind of crowd-filtering approach which “rescues data from the river and puts it on the bank”. This process involves a lot of human intervention at the moment, but they are working on algorithms to automate a lot of this.
  • Realtime media with a slow news legacy?: It strikes me that the combination of fact-checking and contextualising of realtime information is an immediate benefit of Ushahidi, with emergent benefits being that complex data has been curated which can be used by journalists, NGOs and others who want to analyse and learn from a crisis later on. This model is maybe how news organisations need to think about their role. I first heard about Ushahidi via the Al-Jazeera Labs project using the platform during the recent war in Gaza. Is there a case for the BBC to run a similar model when breaking news hits, or for news organisations to cooperate with a Usahidi like model to make sense out their reports and the mix of witness accounts on the ground?

There’s more on this approach in this video, which highlights the danger of rumours in a situation like the Mumbai terrorist attacks:

An Introduction to Swift River from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.


Swift River looks like it could be a very important development, not just for Ushahidi, for everyone living with the explosion of data brought about by the realtime web. There are obviously lessons here for news organisations and others (i.e. most organisations and communities of interest).

: : Bonus link: I’ve posted some more notes and my presentation slides from the Next Generation Philanthropy Forum on the iCrossing UK blog.

: : One more thought. Friends of mine in NGOs have told me before and the theme came up again yesterday that it is impossible to micropayments efficiently online because of the cost of transactions. That is to say, if I donate £1 to UNICEF online at least 21p of that pound will be lost to the transaction cost in the *best case*. PayPal or Google Checkout should develop a charity / NGO model – imagine how much money could be freed up for NGOs they were able to ask millions of people to send a few pence or cents?


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Public notebook

Love in the time of textual harassment

Image: The Kiss Wall on Brighton seafront (credit: Fast Eddie 42)
Image: The Kiss Wall on Brighton seafront (credit: Fast Eddie 42)

I met my wife when my internet access was restricted to a 36 kps modem at one computer in my office, next to the fax machine in the secretaries’ room.

I bought my first mobile phone after we’d been together for about six months. It would be a year or two before text messaging started in the UK.

Image: What my first phone looked like - what the image doesn't show is the credit card sized SIM card or the massive brick-sized battery.
Image: What my first phone looked like - what the image doesn

If we phone one another in the day during that honeymoon period it would be on a land-line. That would happen maybe once a day.

I had email. She didn’t.

So… I have no idea what online dating, or the early stages of a relationship conducted in the modern world is like. I’ve never had a Facebook status other than married and I’ve never had to de-friend an ex and divide up our friends online like so many paperback books.

Have some sympathy, then, for today’s yoot. While it may be easier to meet potential partners, once you have the etiquette is shifting as fast as the technologies and if you happen across someone whose boundaries are different to your own, there might be trouble. Your web shadow, social network presences and always-on personal comms device (mobile) mean that when things you don’t like kick off they kick off fast.

Encouraging, then, to see sites like thatsnotcool.com offering teens a helping hand with dealing with a terrifyingly long list of behaviours that might upset them, including:

  • Cyber-bullying
  • Pestering via email and texts
  • Malicious slander
  • Hacking email and social network accounts
  • Asking for inappropriate photos
  • Posting said photos online

The has advice, spaces to discuss these issues and an amusing/disturbing set of “call-out cards” you can send / post to a harasser’s web page by way of a hint to them to back off (a selection of which are below)…

Image: Call out cards
Image: Call out cards

Via Dirk at Herd