What Africa can teach us about place
Written byErik Hersman. 6 comments
What's going to happen when the barriers, access and ability to sift information are equal for every individual around the world?
In the colonial ‘scramble for Africa’ in the late 19th century France wanted to own everything from Dakar to Djibouti and drew a line between the two from East to West dividing Africa’s North from its South. Concurrently, Britain owned Cape Town and Cairo and drew another line connecting the two and dividing East from West. These two lines bisected in a dusty little unknown town called Fashoda, which is now known as Kodok, in Sudan.
I first heard this story from Edward Storcher, a wonderful storytelling ICT consultant who also grew up in Africa. It’s a story of outsiders talking about and planning for a village that had no idea it was the center of the world’s attention back in 1898. He says, ‘Everyone else is talking about them, everyone else knows some of the issues they’ve got. Quite often, they’re the last people to find out what’s going on.’
You can find the full talk by Edward at http://vimeo.com/2752747. It’s well worth listening to for so many reasons, only one of which I will highlight here: communication. Specifically, the lack of communication that brought about the birth of a new platform, a web and mobile application for crowdsourcing crisis information from the people on the ground who know what is happening around them.
The birth of Ushahidi
Ushahidi, which means ‘testimony’ in Swahili, is the organization I co-founded with a number of other Kenyans. It was born out of the turbulence that ripped through Kenya in January 2008 in the wake of a botched election. In the midst of the madness and destruction we quickly deployed a website that gave every Kenyan a voice. Using their mobile phone or the internet people could report incidents of violence, or peace, happening around them. These incidents were then placed on a map at the Ushahidi site, so anyone could quickly see what was going on, and where. Ushahidi was a way for everyone to tell their stories when the media was silent, or looking elsewhere. A way to tell the world what was really happening.
In the very first week of deploying the new site, we had stories coming in from places well out of the normal context. Stories like the game ranger who was hiding a number of women and children in the forest and who needed food, water and other relief (and who we heard was eventually helped by someone who found his report on Ushahidi). There were other stories, not all of murder, mayhem and burning buildings. Some were of peace efforts that were taking place such as the story of Rachel Kung’u, of Peace Caravan, who used her extensive network of youth activists around the country to make inroads and start negotiations where not even the big NGOs, like the Red Cross, could go.
Near the end of February, about seven weeks after the violence had started, things started to settle down. Though we hadn’t built any major tracking mechanism into Ushahidi’s original prototype, we had served over 120,000 page views and collected almost two hundred reports. Most importantly, we had raised awareness, and helped to make sense of, the situation on the ground in Kenya.
As everyone knows, the mobile phone’s entry into Africa in the mid-90s set off a firestorm of change across a continent primed and ready for a way to counteract the rampant inefficiencies brought about by corruption and bureaucracy. What Ushahidi does is to provide a way for a web of information to grow outside the status quo, using those devices that everybody carries in their pockets.
Through examples like Ushahidi in Kenya, you see this phenomenon at work in the political and humanitarian space. However, it’s not just in that sector where we see mobiles enabling extraordinary changes. We can also look to mobile banking and payment services like Mpesa (Kenya) and Wizzit (South Africa) and see quantifiable changes in the way businesses are operating. When I was growing up in Kenya, it used to take three years to get a phone line into your residence or business. Now, all anyone has to do is walk out to the street corner and purchase a $20 phone and a SIM card. The fundamental communications model has changed, and it effects everything.
Ordinary Africans, be they small town rural villagers in places like Kodok, or urbanites in a bustling metropolis like Nairobi, have access to tools that are creating a sea-change in the control and flow of information. It no longer matters that the government creates a media blackout, as they did in Kenya during the post-election violence. Ushahidi has shown that Africans themselves can continue to connect and communicate over vast distances, thereby better understanding the bigger picture of what is happening around them. We are only at the beginning of this change, but the future is starting to make itself clear.
Ushahidi, Africa and the changing world
To truly understand Ushahidi, you have to understand our roots in Africa. The challenges brought about by bad governance, poverty, low-bandwidth (all the negative things you associate with Africa) also provide an incredible opportunity. The developers who are coming up with solutions in Africa, the ones who are writing software or hacking hardware, are creating for some of the harshest environments and use-cases in the world. We live by this mantra: If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere.
Our challenge is to get people to realize that there is a real competitive advantage to developing and testing software in Africa. The development conditions are unreliable and the environment is harsh. It isn’t fun to work off slow internet connections or deal with expensive and poor mobile phone networks. All of these things, and more, make just the technological side of developing in Africa a challenge, which is why it’s also a particularly good place to try new things.
If we embrace these handicaps, we might find that there’s a silver-lining inside. Africa turns from being a place to avoid, to being a great location to test new ideas and applications, and build for robustness and real-world use.
This means that we should focus first on mobile phones, then on the internet. From the beginning, Ushahidi has been about letting ordinary people use what’s in their pocket, their mobile phone, to send in reports happening around them. The mobile phone is the default device. We’ve focused on mobile-only interaction as a basic tenet, and created a platform that serves the developing world first. But we want to offer that platform to the West as something that they can use too.
Recently we have seen an increased discussion of the mobiles vs PCs debate, but I actually see this as a false dichotomy. We know what people are using right now in places like Africa — mobiles, and we also know what can be done when we build database-driven services for high-bandwidth internet connections. Both these things are needed and both are good. And Both will be used in Africa eventually. However, as Steve Song of the Shuttleworth Foundation states:
I think there is a temptation to pick one technology that is going to ‘save’ the developing world but the reality is that there are going to be many solutions. The only thing that we need to be absolutely clear on is that everything should run on the Internet Protocol (IP).
Mobiles, even simple SMS only phones like those found in Africa, are already being used to get the word out during tense times. We saw it with Ushahidi in Kenya. Then we saw it again in Zimbabwe’s election, where ordinary Zimbabweans were capturing pictures of the count tally at polling stations. And now we have seen it most recently in Mumbai, Gaza and Iran. These were all hot-flash political emergencies, and mainstream media is troubled, as are many experts and government officials, by how empowered ordinary people have become in gathering, disseminating and amplifying information in ways that just weren’t possible before.
If anything, the terrorist attacks in Mumbai has brought home the fact that we are all part of a sea change in news and information flow and transparency. The barriers are now so low that anyone can tell their story, and the whole world can see it live – in real time. There is no stopping this change in information dynamics, there is only harnessing it in ways that make it a level playing field.
What we’re seeing is that it’s no longer a one-to-many mass broadcast environment, it’s now a mass-broadcast to mass-broadcast environment. In Kenya, rightly or wrongly, the government wanted to shut down the mobile phone infrastructure so that messages inciting violence couldn’t be sent. They eventually saw this couldn’t work. How do you stop 6 million SMS messages without crippling your own businesses, infrastructure and ability to get work done?
The answer is not to take it down or make people share less — that will never happen and it’s a short-term solution at best. Instead, we need to figure out ways to harness information from an even greater number of people, and make this information even more useful.
Ushahidi is here to make this whole process more open, with a platform that anyone can get started on. Using what we’ve learned from building Ushahidi, our goal is to do one thing very well: create an engine that makes it easy to crowdsource crisis information.
Turning the tables
Ushahidi is now a free and open source software project, with developers scattered all over the world, but with a strong central core working out of Africa. It’s Africans developing for African needs and exporting that product to the West. Its programmers in Ghana, Kenya, Malawi and Uganda that are shaping the way the world will interact with location and information in times of emergency.
How does this apply to those in Kodok? It’s the beginning of something new, a better way for these people to understand their place in the world. A way to pierce the veil of information that never makes it to their village, and a way to influence the world around them in a way that wasn’t possible before. Changes in mobile phones, mapping and web technology are beginning to show what happens when ordinary Africans are empowered with not only information, but the knowledge that they can do something with it.
But it’s not just Africa, and it’s not just Ushahidi. In a way, we were all our own Kodok prior to the internet and mobile phones. We were at the mercy of the traditional media talking about us, about large organizations setting the agenda and running our lives. New tools are changing how information flows, who disseminates it, how we find out more about what we’re interested in, and who we trust as we gather information to use in our daily lives.