January 29, 2010
Born in Africa, crisis-mapping site comes of age in Haiti

Ushahidi’s Haiti site on 1/29/10.

Ushahidi, which is Swahili for “testimony,” is an innovative web platform that aggregates info from many sources — “crowd-sourcing.” Worldfocus spoke to Ushahidi about crisis-mapping in Haiti.

To give info to Ushahidi about events in Haiti: send a local text message to 4636 or int’l SMS to +44 7624802524 / e-mail Haiti@ushahidi.com / Twitter with #Haiti or #Haitiquake

Worldfocus: How does Ushahidi work?

Ushahidi: The Ushahidi platform, initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008, aggregates information received via email, SMS, twitter and web reports.

The information is then collated into a dashboard where the administrator of the instance or group of approved volunteers can approve the message (geo-locating it on a map) and thus making it display on the map front-end as a red dot and/or icon.

Each report includes location, date, time and description and allows users to posts additional information as comments. Reports are also flagged as “verified” or “unverified.” The team is working on adding another flag for “acted upon.” The platform is Free and Open Source Software that is continually being improved upon by programmers around the world.

[For the Haiti quake], we set up situation rooms at the Fletcher School at Tufts University in Boston and in Washington, DC. As of Monday, 1/18/10, another situation room was set up in Geneva, Switzerland, and a training was held on Tuesday evening in Boston to recruit additional volunteers, a critical concern for sustainability of the project. Volunteers have mainly focused on “crowd-sourcing the filter” which includes combing news reports and Twitter feeds.

We’re also gathering photos and video footage. We’re mapping that information as quickly as we possibly can. We are processing hundreds of incoming text messages direct from Haiti in near real-time.

90% of incoming SMS are in Creole, and they are translated by a group of Haitian volunteers in the United States.

Worldfocus: How quickly did Ushahidi respond to the earthquake in Haiti?

Ushahidi: Patrick Meier found out about the earthquake around 7pm on 1/12/10. He immediately contacted David Kobia, our director of technology development and within half an hour we had a basic Ushahidi install for Haiti up and running.

We then collaborated with a number of our colleagues within the Ushahidi family, especially the International Network of Crisis Mappers, which Ushahidi co-founded and launched in October of 2009. It’s a group of about 500 people who are specialists in technology and humanitarian response.

Worldfocus: Who uses Ushahidi?

Ushahidi: Ushahidi is an open source project. The code is available for free download and as such is not a traditional for-profit-modeled competitive organization.

The more data that’s available, the better. It’s important that information is shared, not siloed. Data on the Ushahidi platform is available for anybody to take.

We’ve got RSS feeds, we’ve got an open API; people can just scrape that information right off and do whatever they need to do with it. We’re hoping that they also contribute information, so that we have at least one go-to place that people can visit to find what they need.

We simply need to get this information to as many people on the ground in Haiti as possible — that they know about Ushahidi, that they know the short code, that they know that humanitarian response teams are monitoring it in order to form their operational responses.

Currently, the following organizations are using Ushahidi to track incidents in Haiti: Red Cross, United Nations Foundation, Clinton Foundation, U.S. State Department, International Medical Corps, USAID, FEMA, U.S. Coast Guard Task Force, World Food Program and the UNDP Newsroom.

Worldfocus: What’s one example of your success in Haiti?

Ushahidi: Here’s the transcript of a 1/18 event from one of our translators in the Ushahidi chat room:

(18:27:24) Jennifer: “This is from the clinic that my friend is operating in on the ground: ‘Just received an email to put the diesel need on [the] map. Then I got a call from Hal Newman to see if the need was legit. He is an emergency manager supporting the Haiti response. He just sent the deisel [sic] request to Marcie Roth, the senior FEMA advisor, who will contact the State Department. They will contact the military and the diesel should be on its way.'”

(18:27:41) Jennifer: “They were desperate for fuel yesterday.”

(18:28:16) Jennifer: “And very grateful for the fast response they got back once entering their clinic location and need on the map.”

– Ben Piven

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