Tag Archive

Ushahidi: An African technology with global reach

Comments (0) Africa, Business, Featured


The mobile crowdsourcing platform, launched by Kenyan entrepreneurs nearly a decade ago, has been used by an estimated 90,000 projects worldwide.

Ushahidi, the mobile crowdsourcing software used to alert people of danger during civil unrest and to help aid agencies provide relief in disaster zones, is taking the world one text at a time.

Used in 159 countries and 31 languages, the software was developed and first deployed during post-election violence in Kenya nearly a decade ago. Today, Ushahidi estimates 90,000 projects worldwide have used the software, which is available as a free download.

Ushahidi, which means “witness” in Swahili, has grown from an ad hoc team trying to save lives in a crisis into a sophisticated nonprofit software development organization that aims to help solve global problems.

Its widely used open source crowdsourcing tool enables people to share information and interactive maps on their phones using SMS text messaging.

Platform documented violence

Four Kenyan technologists developed the software in 2007. As protests over disputed elections spiraled into violence at the end of that year, an estimated 1,500 people were killed in two months. In Nairobi, unwittingly walking into a neighborhood where violence had erupted could mean injury or death.

Enter the Ushahidi crowdsourcing software, which enabled residents to report flare-ups. The software mapped these reports to show people what areas they should avoid in real time, potentially saving hundreds of lives.

The initial deployment drew 45,000 users in Kenya who documented hundreds of incidents of violence that might have otherwise not been reported.

It was developed in a few days by an ad hoc group of technologists and bloggers “trying to figure out a way to gather more and better information about the post-election violence,’’ according to co-founder Ory Okolloh, who said the group believed the government and police were underreporting the number of deaths.

Ushahidi map

Helped aid workers after Haiti earthquake

The platform gained international prominence in the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, when it was used to identify and map locations where rescue and aid were needed. Within days, a live Ushahidi map had 2,000 individual reports that were mapped using satellite imagery. The platform was credited by aid workers with saving hundreds of lives.

Use of the platform has grown exponentially and has adapted to different situations.

While it is impossible to know how many people are using the platform because it is a free download, Ushahidi estimates it has been deployed for 90,000 projects with 6.5 million posts that have potentially reached 20 million people.

Deployed in media crackdowns, war zones

In Nigeria, Mozambique, Zambia, Colombia and Albania, groups used the participatory platform to detect election fraud. It is being used in Sweden to collect reports of anti-gay discrimination. It was also used during media crackdowns in Egypt during and after the Arab Spring. Organizations including the United Nations Office of Humanitarian Affairs have used it to coordinate aid activities in Libya, Syria and Afghanistan.

In Nigeria’s election-monitoring, one report found that use of the Ushahidi software increased voter turnout by 8% in 2011.

In a 2015 election in Nigeria, social media was a force in keeping the polling process transparent but the Ushahidi data-collection platform offered more credible information, according to Liesl Louw-Vaudran, a consultant with the Institute for Security Studies.

“Lively activity on social media also has a downside, however, with rumors of violence, cheating and slandering of opponents being rife on Twitter,” Louw-Vaudran said. “This is almost impossible to control, but data-gathering software like Ushahidi, can serve to provide early warning of potential election violence.”

Global software developer

With philanthropic support, Ushahidi has grown into one of Africa’s major software developers. Headquartered in Nairobi, it has global operations. Backers include the Omidyar Network, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, Humanity United, Google and Cisco.

While the crowdsourcing software is a free download, organizations pay Ushahidi for support and customization, as well as other software products it has developed including data collection, management, visualization tools and enterprise systems.

Another Ushahidi project includes partnership in the Resilient Network Initiative, which trains community organizations to use open-source tools to engage with their local governments.

Read more

African Solutions to African Problems: Ushahidi is Taking the Internet to the Next Five Billion

Comments (1) Africa, Featured, Leaders

Ushahidi's BRCK

Representing a new frontier of innovation in Africa, non-profit technology collective Ushahidi is developing African solutions to African problems

“If it works in Africa, it will work anywhere,” is the motto of Ushahidi, a Kenyan non-profit technology collective which designs and builds open source software and digital tools to help people in the developing world.

Indeed, while in the West technological possibilities are being stretched to their bounds, across Africa something as seemingly straightforward as an Internet connection is unreliable. Figures from the East African Community (EAC) suggest 90% of schools and 30% of hospitals are still off-grid. Only 24% of the developing world is connected to the internet. And, as Ushahidi comments, “power spikes and outages are everyday occurrences in Nairobi and across Sub-Saharan Africa, no matter your income level”. But in a region lacking adequate roads and clean water, developing reliable Internet connectivity is simply not a priority for governments.

There are a number of Western companies working to solve the problem – and at the same time bringing their products to the world’s next five billion Internet users. For example Google has ProjectLink Uganda and LoonBalloon, and Microsoft is experimenting with the TV White Spaces spectrum. But Ushahidi has developed an African solution that really might solve the African problem.

The Internet back-up generator BRCK

Designed to be an “internet back-up generator”, Ushahidi has developed BRCK, a piece of hardware that offers rugged and reliable connectivity. Working like a phone, it can be used in any area that gets mobile signal, as it works by intelligently and seamlessly switching as per the need between the strongest network types in the vicinity (broadband, Ethernet cable, Wifi, CDMA, and 3G or 4G mobile phone networks). It supports up to 20 wireless connections at a time. And it also has up to 16 gigabytes of storage space and a BRCK Cloud connection so it can serve as a back-up server and sync with connected devices and cloud applications.

Designed to face Africa-specific environments, the portable hardware handles the heat and dust of even the most demanding environments. And while it connects to the mains, is also comes with about 8 hours of power back up, can be charged via a car battery, or plugged to a solar charger, combating the region’s lack of reliable energy sources.

“As the next 4.5 billion people (65% of the world) start coming online, the need for rugged, reliable, and simple connectivity becomes critical in places with poor infrastructure and limited resources. While existing technologies work well in modern cities, the demands of emerging markets necessitates a rethinking of how technology is engineered, packaged, delivered, and supported. BRCK was conceived in exactly this type of environment. In particular, our struggles in Africa with reliable connectivity inspired us to rethink the entire concept of rugged internet access device – designing the world’s first go-anywhere, connect-to-anything, always available internet device,” says Ushahidi.

Ushahidi driving innovation in Africa

Indeed, Ushahidi, which is part of the thriving Kenyan tech start-up scene – nicknamed the Silicon Savannah -, developed BRCK as a solution to its own problems. “As a company full of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply couldn’t get connected as reliably as our peers in the developed world”.

Ushahidi designed and developed BRCK with $172,000 raised on Kickstarter. And in doing so, pushed another frontier of innovation in Africa. Crowdfunding is a relatively new phenomenon in the region, but Ushahidi’s Kickstarter success has kick-started crowd-funded entrepreneurship and innovation.

UshahidiExpanding technology’s reach

Co-founder Ory Okolloh, previously Google’s policy manager for Africa and named by Forbes as “one of the most influential women in global technology”, is committed to bringing the benefits of technological innovation to Africa. The company’s first project, for example, was a location-based crowdsourcing crisis-tracker map developed in the wake of Kenya’s 2007 post-election violence. Empowering individuals to document and report incidents in real time, the software allows users to text, email, tweet, or photograph information which is then plotted on to a map. The idea is that media, governments, and relief organizations can see a live picture of what’s happening on the ground and can target responses in real-time. The map has since been used in India during the 2008 Mumbai attacks, during the Haiti earthquake in 2010, and in Japan during the tsunami in 2011. It has also been used to log medicine shortages across Africa and reports of violence in the Middle East.  The company takes its name from this piece of software; “Ushahidi” means “testimony” in Swahili.

And the company is currently expanding its reach with the launch of a digital classroom – the Kio Kit. Ushahidi explains: “You open a box and there are 40 tablets inside, there is a BRCK inside and on the BRCK there is a Linux [open-source] server — so we can locally cache educational content, and serve it up to the tablets.” Ever prepared for the African environment, the modem is in a watertight, hardened-plastic wheeled suitcase and acts as a wireless charging station.

African solutions to African problems has become a bit of a catchphrase, but the impact of socially motivated entrepreneurs could have huge implications for the technological development of the region.

Read more