Q & A: Brian Herbert, Developer for Ushahidi

Free crowdmapping software every news website can use right now

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.

LK: With so many messages coming in through Crowdmap, especially in a time of crisis, how could a news organization verify that the information is correct? And how well can Crowdmap filter these messages, so readers don’t suffer from information overload?

BH: Well, those are two separate issues. The verification is up to each individual deployment. Depending on the situation, it might be incredibly important that everything is 100 percent verified and accurate, and there are different ways of doing that. When someone submits an SMS report, the phone number is stored with the message, so you could call them back if you need to do the follow-up, or you can actually respond to the SMS directly from the Ushahidi system, so you can just type in a response, like “Please give us more information,” or, “Are you really there?” Then it’s really up to the administrators’ journalism skills to verify events that are happening.

But in a lot of cases, it’s really important to just get information out there. In the case of Haiti, there were people sending messages that they were stuck in a collapsed building or something. You don’t really have the time to send out a team and make sure the building is really collapsed; in that case it’s better to just get the message out that, “Hey, there’s probably somebody stuck in there, so if you’re over there, you should check it out.” So it really is deployment-specific.

Another cool thing about Ushahidi is that [an administrator] can approve a report [to be published], but not verify it. Then on the list of reports, on the far right, it will say whether it’s been verified, so you can make your own determination about whether you’re going to believe that report.

And the second question was how to handle the massive flow of data. Ushahidi is also developing a platform called SwiftRiver, and one of the betas [was released Monday]. It’s a suite of API tools for developers to use to help you manage your data. If there’s way too much data coming in, there’s a tool, for instance, that will determine which Twitter messages are re-tweets or duplicates. It also has some ability to determine which messages are probably important to look at. It doesn’t take the human out of the equation, but it filters things so that you can make your determinations much easier and faster.

LK: How does a piece of software determine which messages are important?

BH: It’s a combination of machine algorithms, looking at the location of whoever is submitting the message, people voting things up and down, like Digg. A combination of factors goes into creating what they call a “veracity score,” a score between zero and a hundred—one hundred meaning, “this is probably valid,” zero being “not valid.” We want to stay away from saying something is true or not, because just because a lot of people say something is true, doesn’t mean it is.

LK: The Washington Post’s “Snowmaggedon” website seems to be the first major news organization to take advantage of Ushahidi on the local level, in their case, to connect snowed-in DC residents to volunteers who could help shovel them out during a blizzard earlier this year. Do you happen to know the results of that experiment? I see about 320 problem reports on the site, but I can’t tell how many were actually resolved.

BH: I have no idea, but I do remember seeing a report that somebody ran out of beer. So I hope they got that taken care of….[laughs]

LK: Do you have any advice for local news sites who might want to use this software? Are there things that news organizations should be doing that maybe they aren’t thinking of?

BH: We created Crowdmap so people could just play around with it, because it takes so little time to get a deployment going. For instance, with the TBD.com deployment [of problems on the Metro system], we didn’t really think to do that. So it’s those types of innovative uses that we’re really looking forward to seeing, that we can then share with other organizations. [News organizations] can track whatever’s important to each community. Tracking public transit in rural Kentucky, where I am, is probably not very important, for instance.

LK: How would you want your local Kentucky paper to use Crowdmap?

BH: In general, using it to report potholes or litter or something like a “311.” [The city of Ann Arbor does something similar.] I think this is a good tool for doing that—as long as a partnership exists with the government entity that would be responsible for cleaning it up. Otherwise, you’re just submitting a report without knowing that anybody’s going to read it. So as long as I knew there was a partnership in place, I would be using the tool myself.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner