Open source project Ushahidi (meaning ‘testimony’ in Swahili) started as way for the public to document the crisis in Kenya in January 2008. Ushahidi is now an ever-evolving platform for NGOs, activists and others to share, visualize and connect information, using simple technologies such as texting, where official channels are not present or trustworthy.
Limo Taboi is the Finance Manager of Ushahidi, and he tells us how the Nairobi based company is going from idealistic start-up to global player. If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere.
Can you tell us about how you ended up at Ushahidi?
My background is in finance; I worked for a bank for several years and blogged about finance. I know some of the founders through the Kenyan blogging community. I kept up with them and watched them build this wonderful small company and was asked to join when they needed someone in finance last year.
What’s the most important thing that has happened in your first year?
For me, it’s mostly a personal change, not having to wear a suit or work in bank, but among visionary people. My office is basically anywhere there’s Wi-Fi and a chair. I enjoy working with my friends, and although the financial aspects are the same, it’s a cultural change.
How has Ushahidi evolved so far?
It has never really broken out of the humanitarian mould, but it’s spread itself and evolved beyond NGO-level. We see it as a good tool for a variety of things. But you need community support for that tool to be useful. We work with a lot of organisations that want to use Ushahidi, and they see many ways to combine creativity and humanitarian work through Ushahidi. For instance, the Kenyan government wants feedback and mapping of its services throughout the country. Our base is the iHub (an innovative open space for the tech community in Nairobi), which has meant a lot in terms of partnerships and meeting young entrepreneurs. We participate in talks and seminars and we see that the idea of Ushahidi is spreading. It’s good to be copied, since we can’t do everything ourselves.
How do you spread the word?
We document our work primarily online. And attend conferences and events such as this, where we might find new partners. Ultimately, our partners market us. Ushahidi is used all over the world, but each country is different. It’s been peculiar to me the different ways that information weighs. In places like Liberia word of mouth has more weight than digital information, however verified.
How fast can Ushahidi be set up if something happens?
In five minutes you can be up and running with Crowdmap crowdsourcing. As an event or crisis unfolds, it’s hard to retrieve information, but crowd mapping is a way to create an archive of information. It’s easy to document things as they happen. Ushahidi has been used in trouble spots and made a difference. From having no information available, you are able to see how events evolve and with verified data, that is easy to pass on. Especially in election monitoring, Ushahidi has been refined during the last 3 years.
Are you ever concerned that it could be used for bad?
Yes. There will be incidents. Police or officials might manipulate the information provided and that’s a concern. There is an active forum that provides tips on how to protect yourself. But we’re looking to provide best practices and a toolbox as well. A lot of work goes into building awareness in the community and to make sure Ushahidi is not abused.
Are you content with the way Ushahidi users ‘use it and leave it’?
Yes…our focus is on the development and it’s up to the community and bloggers to take it further. For instance, there was a fuel shortage in Nairobi, and people were quick to start mapping where to get fuel via Twitter. Many of the drivers on twitter didn’t’ run out! But that data is not used now. If there’s fuel shortage again, it’ll be used again.
… Some would say ‘Hey, we’ve got the data on these drivers, let’s use it to build a community or to market something’
Sure. But we basically say no to ‘do more’ – to take on a new project, we have to look at our resources and who are free to do it. Our 15 people in various countries work as a team, and our focus is on software development. If there’s new natural disaster like Haiti tomorrow, we won’t see the same problems again. As a company, we want to stay small. We take part timers in to do particular projects, or we redirect people with good ideas to others. In that way we’re also building a community around Ushahidi.
How and why do you ensure that Ushahidi is used for good?
We’re able to monitor, but we’ve never seen someone setting it up to do something bad. But we don’t see a problem with people using it commercially. We’re in the information-gathering business and at some point Ushahidi should make money. I see our product SwiftRiver as something that might do that.
What’s the next step for Ushahidi?
We planned our strategy last month, and we’ll meet again next year to evaluate. Are the apps and technology working? Are our goals met? It’s about continuous improvement and bettering the services. We want to have even better partnerships, more secure funding and better processes for development. Basically, our goal is to decipher thousands of messages even faster and better.