It is not necessary to say that software plays a very important role in the current Open Data scene. Developers are creating brilliant pieces of code that make working with data a fast, efficient and sometimes even fun experience. This also applies to data collection. Because sometimes it is not possible to find the data we are looking for, we are in need of gathering it ourselves. Ushahidi is a platform you will like to look at if you are in this situation.
In a nutshell, it allows citizens to make reports in a collaborative way, creating crowdsourced interactive maps. With a very intelligent approach, Ushahidi gives citizens the possibility to use the web, their smartphones and even SMS to gather data, which makes this technology accessible almost everywhere and for everyone. Originally created in Kenya to serve as an instrument for social activism and public accountability in crisis situations, the software has proven to be a great companion worldwide in bringing advocacy campaigns to a successful end. The team behind Ushahidi has not only created a world-changing technology but also they share it with others since it is released as Open Source. We contacted Chris Albon, director of data projects, and asked him some questions so you can learn more about this great tool.
1) Hello Chris, could you first introduce yourself? Briefly, what are the activities of Ushahidi as company and what is the purpose of your main product, the Ushahidi platform?
My name is Chris Albon and I am in charge of Ushahidi’s data work. Ushahidi is a Kenyan technology non-profit that builds platforms, tools, and communities extending from rural Kenya to the coast of Louisiana. As a disruptive organization we believe our place is at the bleeding edge; it is part of our organization’s DNA.
Beyond leading a movement in crisis mapping through mobile phones and the internet, and revolutionizing an industry of data-use to solve problems, we helped build the iHub in Nairobi, creating a new model for innovation and tech startups in the region and changed the perspective about where innovation comes from.
The core Ushahidi platform for data collection and changing the way information flows is now used in 159 countries around the world. It has been translated into 35 languages and has been deployed over 50,000 times. In addition, the iHub has grown to more than 10,000 members, spun out 28 companies and spawned a movement of tech hubs across the African continent.
2) Quoting your website, “the tool contributes to democratise information, increase transparency and lower the barriers for individuals to communicate their stories”. Could you give us some examples of Ushahidi-based initiatives that have succeeded on their goals?
There are many examples of Ushahidi tools being used to democratize information, from fighting sexual harassment in Egypt to civil society activism in Ukraine. For us, success is a user able to gain new knowledge and power from data from the crowd.
3) Who is actually using the Ushahidi platform? Are they individuals, NGOs, activists, public administrations? Is there a topic or an issue that is much more addressed among all the users? In which countries/continents has the platform been more actively used? Why?
Ushahidi is used by all manner of people and organizations, from small non-profits wishing to monitor an election to international organizations tracking disaster relief efforts. The platform is used globally and on a whole spectrum of issues.
4) We have recently written an article focused on data-journalism. Is the Ushahidi platform currently being used also for journalistic purposes? How can data-journalists work with it?
Ushahidi has been used to gather new data and reports from journalists. My particular favourite comes from 2012: Al Jazeera used Ushahidi to tell a story previously almost entirely untold in the international media about what Ugandans thought about Joseph Kony.
5) We see on your website that you have other products too. Could you tell us a bit more about Crowdmap, BRCK and Swiftriver?
Crowdmap is our hosted geo-story telling platform, allowing people add a layer of “place” to things that matter to them. Swiftriver is our product for tracking and understanding the social web. Ping is an app we built after the West-gate attack to help people report in that they are okay after an emergency. Finally, BRCK is our rugged router for maintaining data connectivity no matter the environment.
6) You are working hard to build up a community (support, development wiki, help forum,…). What kind of contributors are getting involved in it? How big has been the impact of it for the development of Ushahidi’s products?
Ushahidi’s community has had a huge impact on the products development in a wide variety of areas, from volunteering during deployments of the software, to bug testing, to developing new features. We could not do what we do without them.
7) Ushahidi develops open source software. What are the reasons and benefits for a company like yours for making the code available for everyone? Reading your site, “we have also built a strong team of volunteer developers in Africa, but also in Europe, South America and the US”. Is this engagement a consequence of the Open Source collaborating philosophy?
Absolutely. The open source nature of the software makes community involvement possible. If our software was not open source, there would be very little way for our great community to help us make the software better.
8) Ushahidi provides services (consulting, customization, deployment) around the platform. What kind of organisations do you count under your clients? Besides this, do you rely on other financial resources?
Ushahidi is lucky enough to have a set of great organizations supporting our work, from the Rockefeller Foundation to Google.org to many others. In addition we also provide additional services for users who want some technical customization, training, or strategic guidance in the deployment of the platform or management of crowdsourced data.
9) Recently, you have released the version 3.0 of your platform. Can you give us an insight of the new features? Also, what are the kind of development of your products we can expect in the upcoming versions? In general, which are the next steps for Ushahidi?
Ushahidi has had the same platform code base for 5 years. A year ago we spent the time to do very deep user experience research within our user base, our developer base, and our own team in order to build a new, better Ushahidi core platform. We call it “v3″.
The purpose of v3 (The next generation of the platform) is to provide a better crowdsourcing platform, so that the leaders, crisis responders, funders, and decision making organizations can do their work more efficiently, gather better information, and understand what’s happening on the ground. It is a data collection platform that makes gathering and organizing data easy. It is a mobile first platform, as always, thinking of people with simple phones and moving up to those with web access for a beautiful visual feel.
Many thanks for all your time!