Ushahidi, a word that means “testimony” in Swahili, is the name of a group of computer programmers and human rights workers who are developing innovative crowdmapping tools for humanitarian aid organizations and local news sites. CJR’s Craig Silverman wrote last week about how Ushahidi connected first responders to problem areas following the earthquake in Haiti this year, and about a new software project of theirs—called SwiftRiver—that will help filter information in times of crisis. SwiftRiver was just released in beta form on Monday (and is best explained by this video).
To learn more about how news organizations can take advantage of Ushahidi’s free software to get their readers engaged in problem-solving on the local level, CJR assistant editor Lauren Kirchner spoke with Brian Herbert, a core software developer with Ushahidi. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.
Lauren Kirchner: I first learned of your software by looking at TBD.com’s map of problems in the D.C. Metro, but I understand you’ve been developing your software for years. How did Ushahidi first get started, and when did you get involved?
Brian Herbert: I wasn’t one of the founding developers, but what had happened was, after the elections in Kenya in 2007, there was election violence that started around New Year’s in 2008. [Director of operations] Erik Hersman called [Director of technology development] David Kobia on New Year’s Eve, and David decided to cancel his plans and stay home and write the very first Ushahidi. That was the first time that was used. It was taking messages via SMS and plotting them on the map so people could go and see what was going on.
I was actually a user of Ushahidi at that time, because I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Kenya, and I had moved back to the States before the election. I was watching Ushahidi being used by people on the ground, and I was taking those messages and passing those on to my friends who were still in Kenya at the time. So I was a user of the program in the beginning, and then later on they announced that it was going to be an open source project, and so I decided to volunteer my time, and here I am.
LK: What did Ushahidi’s developers learn from that first deployment? How has the process been adjusted or improved since then?
BH: With that first deployment, they learned how to get this thing up and running technologically. They were lucky because three of the four programmers were bloggers—pretty well-respected bloggers—in Kenya, and people were already reading what they were writing, so they were able to promote the deployment at the time of the crisis. The second deployment was one for the Democratic Republic of Congo, and that one didn’t go as well. They set up this deployment and expected that people would begin to use it, but it didn’t really work out that way. What they learned was that there’s really a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid for a truly successful deployment to happen. Either that, or they have to have pretty significant resources to educate the public rapidly.
LK: But in a situation like an earthquake or a terrorist attack, you can’t plan ahead in the same way that you can for a national election. How is the process different when a crisis erupts suddenly and you want to deploy the software right away?
BH: That’s actually why we built Crowdmap, which is what we call our Wordpress-style Ushahidi, where you can just go and set up your own deployment, it takes about five minutes. It’s really easy, you just type in the address where you want to start, make an account with a username and password, set the terms of service, and you’re good to go.
The only problem with that is some people might think that if they get a deployment, people are automatically going to start using it. Technology is really only about 10 percent of the solution. The other 90 percent is getting volunteers, getting people to respond to the messages that come in, educating people about what it is, and having people actually submit content.