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October 6, 2011

Ushahidi – A Stroke of Social Genius

“There is a great satisfaction in building good tools for other people to use.”
– Freeman Dyson

Social networks have been much in the news recently as tools for political change that helped bring to an end brutal dictatorships in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Facebook and Twitter were cited for their pivotal role in helping citizens in these countries coordinate their protest activities and maintain an open communication channel to the outside world when mainstream media could not. But there are other, less publicized social tools which have been deployed in response to intolerable conditions. Consider Ushahidi.



Ushahidi was first conceived by political activist and blogger Ory Okolloh. In December 2007, she was blogging about the government violence that followed the disputed election of Kenya’s President Mwai Kibaki. The mainstream media was banned from reporting on the crackdown. Okolloh collected reports of the government’s misdeeds and reported them on her blog, the Kenyan Pundit. It quickly became a key source of information for the outside world about the violence occurring in the country.

Overwhelmed by the large number of reports being e-mailed to her, Okolloh posted an idea about a tool that could be used by citizens to report incidents of violence and have this information displayed on a map in near real time. Okolloh christened it Ushahidi, which is Swahili for “witness” or “testimony.” Her vision became reality when her post was read by two programmers, Erik Hersman and David Kobia, and turned into a web-based application.

Today, Ushahidi is a powerful social platform that aggregates information and provides it on a map as a way to get an immediate sense of a situation – e.g., the pattern of violence during ethnic conflict. But the real genius of the tool is that its creators made it flexible enough to apply in many critical situations. For example, Ushahidi has been used to:

  • Monitor violence in the Democratic Republic of the Congo
  • Track election fraud in Mexico and India
  • Record supplies of vital medicines in several East African countries
  • Locate the injured after the recent earthquakes in Haiti and Chile

logo-ushahidiUshahidi describes itself as “a non-profit tech company that specializes in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping.”

The recent events in the Middle East and the evolution of tools like Ushahidi make one thing clear. The interactive nature of social media is transforming us from consumers to collaborators; from audience to actors. As our tools become more powerful, we have the opportunity to effect positive social change on a scale never imagined.