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Communicating During a Crisis

Social software can help during a catastrophe–and after.

Ushahidi was created in response to the crisis after the failed elections in Kenya in 2007. In our quest to minimize the impact of riots and unrest around the country, we developed a free open-source platform that allows people to report incidents they witness. Their reports are added to an online map that rapidly becomes a source for information neglected by media and governments.

Watching Ushahidi in use after disasters like the Haitian earthquake has shown that in a crisis, the barriers of complacency and cultural indifference break down. People directly, indirectly, and even remotely involved in a situation are suddenly open to collaborating and sharing. It is at this moment that the crowd is the most powerful. Once the crisis is over, though, apathy breaks up this cohesion. With Ushahidi, in keeping with a pattern seen in other social media, a mere 1 percent of participants actively contribute new content, 9 percent interact with it, and the other 90 percent are mere viewers. These ratios slide further toward passive viewing once an event is no longer front-page news. Finding ways to help keep the crowd engaged beyond the crisis is one of our greatest challenges.

Like anyone trying to promote user engagement, we must relentlessly remind people of our message to encourage them to use the service. We have to connect different sources of information that otherwise would never be linked. Adapting Ushahidi to incorporate social media is a big part of our strategy: it encourages user-generated content and gives everyone a front-row seat as events unfold.

After a user reports a crime or a dangerous situation, the balance between give and take is crucial. A first responder can take action if appropriate, or the person who reported the event can sign up for alerts of similar events reported by others nearby. All this is made possible by tools like text messaging and mobile-phone applications that reduce the barriers to participation.

Ushahidi has often been described as simply a map with red dots. That is not far from the truth. But people often forget that behind each of those dots is a human experience–perhaps a life or lives that have been touched by disaster.

David Kobia is director of technology development for Ushahidi and a member of the 2010 TR35.

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