We went into the first deployment of Ushahidi (Kenya 2008) with eyes wide shut. We had some ideas about an open platform for crowdsourcing via mobiles and the web, but we had no real clue what would happen. When we launched, we blogged it. That was all. Yet it went national and international.

Why did it work?

The “Trust Bridge”

Over the past three years we’ve seen thousands of Ushahidi deployments (12,000+ as of this writing), some of them big, many of them small. We always think about what makes a deployment successful. Why do some catch on and others don’t?

The common denominator for successful deployments that get the crowd involved, where communities are engaged and using the platform for both sending and receiving information, is that they’re run or endorsed by people or organizations that people trust. These entities form what I call the trust bridge. They’re the necessary glue that brings credibility and trust to a deployment so that people are willing to take part.

In the case of Kenya 2008, the reason that the first version of Ushahidi worked was because the public trusted us, the primary drivers and bloggers. Those of us behind the building of Ushahidi were well known and credible to thousands of readers, who in turn took that trust and passed it on to their friends and family in Kenya and in the diaspora.

The same applies to deployments of the platform in places like New Zealand earlier this year, where an open community worked and drove a successful operation. In Haiti, where a group of trusted organizations and volunteers came together to coordinate a rapid crowdsourcing response. The same applies to many others, including Japan, Australia, Kenya’s referendum and the Russian fires.

Building Your Trust Bridge

How do you get to a place where you’re the trusted entity?

The short response is that it doesn’t come at the time of an emergency. This applies if you’re an individual or a large organization starting something off; you have to have credibility and trust from others in order to gain traction.

The longer answer is that assuming you have that first level of credibility, you still should look for further verification and trust building through other trusted intermediaries vouching for you. There are a couple ways you can build this:

    Partnerships – Find other organizations that fill roles that you lack or that share the same mission as you. Encourage them to take on roles that are highly inclusive and transparent to the community that you’re interacting with.

    News Media – Contrary to popular belief, crowdsourcing and new media do not do away with traditional media. Over the years, these organizations have built up a certain amount of credibility. If your local media is compromised, you should still reach out to international media for coverage. One of the great benefits of international media is that they attract the diaspora to your cause, who in turn can volunteer or spread the word on the ground through their local family/friend networks.

    Community – The most successful deployments of Ushahidi are those that are done by, and for, members of the community which is affected. Instead of closing off operations, messaging and administration of the deployment you should instead be reaching out to and openly involving these members to be a part of it. Give responsibility and extend your reach.

The technology that is the Ushahidi platform, Crowdmap and SwiftRiver are excellent tools. However, deploying of these tools is only the first, simple step, in a successful crowdsourcing and community engagement. Building trust bridges, communicating openly and effectively and running a well administered site are the real juice that makes a deployment catch on and thrive.