(This is part one of two posts on Ushahidi as an organization, it sets up the historical context of how we think about who we are and how we think of success in our space, so that the next post makes more sense on what we’re doing next.)

While Ushahidi maintains a startup mentality internally, we’re 4 1/2 years old now, which is a long time in tech years. In an industry like ours, where nimbleness and speed are rewarded, this mentality needs to be maintained. Earlier this year we started asking ourselves a bunch of questions about the platform itself, included in that discussion was whether or not what we built 4 years ago was relevant today. In short, it is, as we continue to see about 1000 new deployments each month. When we look and see over 30,000 deployments in 156 countries, it seems like a strong signal for the platform.

It’s not.

We sometimes talk about those numbers like they’re the proof-point for success, but that’s a mistake that we shouldn’t get sucked into. You see, it’s an easy thing to throw out big numbers to make yourself look and sound important. While we’d like to see everyone create a Crowdmap whenever they need to map something, the test of our platform’s success isn’t built into pure numbers alone. The test of Ushahidi’s success is whether or not it’s used when someone needs to map something with input from the crowd quickly and easily. The test is whether people’s lives are positively changed by having access to Ushahidi.

I remember in early 2009, when we were a year old and starting to talk to funders for larger funding to scale the organization, we were asked, “Is your goal to have 10,000 maps with 10 reports, or 10 maps with 10,000 reports.” A fantastic question that led to much debate within the founding team. It’s a deep question that carries a lot of weight in how you build an organization, a platform and develop a strategy to address your core mission.

  • [Depth] Is it more important to build a tool that’s used in a couple key deployments (crisis, elections) and has massive engagement?
  • [Reach] Is it more important to build a tool that democratizes the ability for anyone in the world to easily map and crowdsource information (and let a thousand burger maps proliferate)?

Basically, that question boiled down to “depth or reach”.

Over the year’s we fine-tuned how we speak about ourselves internally to each other, what we mean to ourselves and how we understand ourselves in the world. We codified this in the way we dream about global change and making our mark on it by saying, “we change the way information flows in the world.” In a world of top-down information sources (big media, international NGOs, government, etc), it’s very unsettling for people to have their own voice and not be limited in how information is shared and acted upon, for example when mapping the power of the street during the height of the Arab spring. We’ve realized that our core essence, the core character of Ushahidi’s team, is built around the seed that we aren’t happy with the status quo way that information flows and the power structures that support it. We see Ushahidi as our way of addressing the imbalance, a platform that lowers the barrier for ordinary people to speak and be heard, such as when citizens want to be directly involved in ensuring the integrity of the electoral process in their countries, a role traditionally played by unseen observers and monitors.

This same base understanding of who we were and how the platform adjusted the power structures came out in our answer to that question above on whether it was depth or reach that we needed to provide. We thought it was a false dichotomy, because we realized that the concept of Ushahidi was malleable, which led us towards a two-pronged approach.

1. It was at that point that we decided to create Crowdmap, the cloud-based version of Ushahidi that lowered the barrier for non-techies to use Ushahidi. This is where we see the most growth, where the mundane and the experimental happen. On any given day we might see the BBC, Russian civil society, Dutch ice skating maps or an election monitoring effort get underway. It really is astounding the levels of creativity and what people decide to map when the barrier to creation, deletion and re-creation are virtually nothing. The technology used to share a story is never as important as the person telling the story, thus the need for Crowdmap’s simplicity and our need to let it get out of the way.

2. At the same time we continued to refine and reach out to the open source community around the core Ushahidi application. This was where we thought the most intense and deep deployments would happen. With incredible flexibility and customizability, and a growing group of deploying people and organizations globally, we put our efforts into supporting and showing how crowd mapping crisis information, elections and disasters was valuable to those acting within those contexts. Indeed, large organizations that were at first skeptical about the crowd providing any valuable information into the space that they used to own the messaging in completely, have now realized the contextual value provided by people on the ground. For example, in hearing directly from the users of a local rural pharmacy on the lack of essential medicines.

This strategy has served us and the deploying community well, and the deployments speak for themselves around the world, most of which we as the Ushahidi team only had limited involvement in. It’s not a rare or unique strategy at all, we followed the WordPress model here who had cut the road ahead of us showing that both customizability and simplicity could be reached by tweaking the same core code. That a server-based model for non-techies served as much of a purpose as a downloadable customizable platform did for the technically inclined.

However, as we looked into the future, we wondered what needed to happen next… Stay tuned for part 2.