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Crisis Mapping Meets Check-in

New features could make a Web tool that has helped track events in Japan and the Middle East even more useful.

From Libya to Japan, a Web-reporting platform called Ushahidi has helped human rights workers and others document and make sense of fast-moving crises. The platform allows reports from cell phones and Web-connected devices to be collected and displayed on Web-based maps.

Now Ushahidi is adding a concept borrowed from location-based social networking, as well as layers of private access—functionality that could make the service more efficient and useful in politically charged circumstances. It could allow groups like aid workers or election monitors to keep track of one another, note their progress in deploying resources, or enter notes that can be formalized later, without making that information public.

The new feature is known as “check-in,” also used by social sites like Foursquare—in that case as a way of alerting friends to your presence at a particular location. For Ushahidi, this is “a pretty powerful step forward,” says Ethan Zuckerman, a board member of the nonprofit, and a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. “Adding check-in to this equation allows me to pull my data apart from the whole. That makes maps usable for multiple purposes—group reporting as well as tracking of my own movements.”

Enabling such tracking simply requires a GPS-equipped phone to allow a quick log-in to record whereabouts. This is simpler and faster than a normal Ushahidi crisis report, which might include photographs or text reports submitted after the reporter has a chance to sit down and produce the report. “Reports can be news articles, photographs, or other material and are often data intensive,” says Brian Herbert, a member of the Ushahidi development team. “A check-in is just a snapshot—‘I’m here’—and maybe a sentence of information.”

Ushahidi arose in 2007 as a tool for monitoring government violence and riots after a disputed election in Kenya, and was later adapted to map ethnic violence in South Africa. It soon took off as a ubiquitous crisis-mapping platform. Most recently it has been used to document events related to the Japanese earthquake and highlighting areas where people might be trapped and where supplies can be obtained.

Earlier in March, a volunteer task force used it to generate a comprehensive crisis map for the conflict in Libya. Other users have included media outlets like the BBC, which used it to map events in floods in Cornwall, in the U.K.; and the Chicago Tribune, which used it to map events during a blizzard.

The check-in option comes on the heels of efforts by Ushahidi to make deployments even simpler by basing it from a remote data center. Previously, users had to download the software for crisis mapping before they could launch a new reporting effort. But late last year, the group moved to a cloud service so that users could just set up a Web address and get going. The new effort is called Crowdmap. “We like to say that with any Ushahidi deployment, the technology would be just 10 percent of the problem,” with most efforts focused on getting people into the field and making reports, says Herbert, who runs Crowdmap. “Now with crowdmap, it takes that down to zero.”

The check-in feature—which, like the rest of Ushahidi, is open-source—can be used on any Ushahidi deployment, he added.  So far, it has only been used by Ushahidi staff members, but Herbert says, “We hope people really use this functionality and come up with things we haven’t seen before.”

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