By gutter via Flickr

By gutter via Flickr

Over the last few months, the Ushahidi technical team has been focused mainly on the release beta version and on building out Swift.   We have also been working closely with a select group of testers to figure out to make implementations easier, to address bugs that have come up, and to build a tool that remains simple but yet adaptable to a myriad of events.

When we started out with the rebuild of Ushahidi, we made a strategic decision to leave the implementation of the tool to the particular organization or individual who wanted to use it.   Implementation includes the marketing of the site, addressing issues of validation, building partnerships, and working to make sure that the feedback loop (as far as how the information is actually used) is closed.   

The approach is similar to lets say, WordPress or Blogger as a tool.   The only exception to this rule will remain Kenya, where will continue to be actively involved in installs there because that’s where the idea of Ushahidi was born and because we need to “get our hands dirty” somehow in order to continue to make Ushahidi a better tool.    There are several reasons why we took this decision.   First, we can’t be everywhere at all times in terms of resources.   Second, we can’t even begin to match the levels of local expertise that would be required to implement Ushahidi well.  Third, we did not anticipate the creative ways in which people would want to use Ushahidi and we wouldn’t want to mess with that.

Are there risks with this approach?  Yes, the most common one that gets thrown our way is how do you stop Ushahidi from being abused e.g. by a particular group during a civil war.   The truth of the matter is we cannot.   And there is nothing wrong with that (is there?).   This is a problem facing any medium of communication.   The same thing was said about – the printing press, radio, TV, mobile phones, blogs, twitter, [insert other media here]…should we ban radio because we there are radio call-in shows that we find inflammatory on the airwaves?   You cannot control what people end up doing with any particular medium of communication.  Will there be cases of abuse?   Probably, yes.  But just like with anyone other medium, the expectation is that the positive uses of Ushahidi will vastly outnumber the negative ones, and the outliers will quickly be apparent and ignored.

That being said, it is not possible (nor desireable) for us to take a completely hands-off approach to how Ushahidi is being used. When approached to assist with a particular implementation, we do offer advice on the best way to go about.  And we will showcase implementations of Ushahidi that we think are good models.

Some of our tenets:

  1. Be open!  At the heart of Ushahidi is the idea of liberating information and avoiding the information silos and data-hugging disorders (copyright Juliana!) that tend to occur especially during crisis events.   This does not necessarily mean opening up all instances of Ushahidi to citizen reporting – perhaps it could be encouraging your field staff to share reports internally, or it could be sharing expert-filtered information with the general public, or getting relief agencies working in a long-term crisis situation to share information with each other.   Also be open to criticism and self-reflection.
  2. Seek partnerships/build community This is important, particularly when using Ushahidi to generate citizen reports, both in terms of getting the word out and to help with filtering the reports and providing context.  You must remember that installation is just part 1, getting content is hard and time-consuming work.   Vote Report India is a great example of building partnerships and collaboration (even though the didn’t do as well in getting the word out to the general public…a whole other blog post, especially when it relates to one-time events like elections). Sharek 961, which is reporting on the just concluded election in Lebanon is another great example especially on the content partnerships side.
  3. Be clear on your objectives and on the kind of information you are displaying.
  4. Try and close the feedback loop.   Why should people send reports to you?  What happens next?
  5. Find ways to get the word out beyond the internet.  Yes, bloggers and twitter helps generate interest, but that’s not enough – partner with radio, get on the local newspapers, make use of the mobile alerts, if you can afford it get a mobile short-code that’s easy to remember.

Also,  if concerns about a particular implementation are shared with us, we do raise them.   We are also actively working with experts and organizations in the field to better understand and address the shortcomings of the tool, and more importantly to encourage them to use the tool themselves and help us come up with creative ways to address some of the challenges (see e.g. ICT for Peace).