Ushahidi’s platform allows text messages to feed into the Web.
By David Talbot
Founding date: 2008
Funding amount: Undisclosed
In the chaos that followed Kenya’s disputed presidential election last December, 1,200 people were killed, and several hundred thousand more fled their homes. Skeptical of the accuracy of official reports, a group of Web developers and bloggers with Kenyan ties cobbled together a Web application that could receive citizen incident reports via text message from any mobile phone in Kenya and display them as a Google Maps application.
Cofounded by Erik Hersman, an American son of missionary parents who was raised in Kenya (he is author of the blog Whiteafrican.com and now lives in Florida), the group called the creation Ushahidi–the Swahili word for “testimony.” They have formed a nonprofit company and are finalizing funding with a large foundation to turn Ushahidi into a platform that can be deployed easily and rapidly in areas of crisis. Already, a version of Ushahidi is being used to track anti-immigrant violence afflicting South Africa.
“While there have been a lot of projects to do citizen reports, they are all Web-based,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a research fellow at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and founder of Geekcorps, a technology volunteering agency. “There is no strong content management system designed to take content off of SMS [text messaging]. It’s pretty sophisticated.”
Now anyone with a mobile phone can become a node on the network. “Whenever a crisis breaks out and you want distributed data gathering and visualization, our goal is to make it a lot easier to do,” says Hersman. The technology won’t require much expertise; “people can either download Ushahidi or we will host it for you.” And it’s not just for Africa. He says the technology could help chronicle fast-moving U.S. calamities such as Hurricane Katrina.