Courtesy UNHCR

Courtesy UNHCR

It’s been a little over three weeks since we went live with the Ushahidi DRC page.   As we mentioned, we went live with software that was still very much in alpha so there were a lot of kinks to be worked out from the technology side including integrating the mobile function, incorporating multiple news feeds, and building in translation capabilities.    This was a good learning process for us about what changes still need to be incorporated into a platform and also helped learn about potential difficulties when deploying in a crisis situation that is unfolding and where we lack familiarity.

What we did not anticipate is just how hard it has been for Ushahidi to “take” locally.   We had foreseen and tried to account for some of the challenges e.g.

  • Lack of good local internet connectivity (which is why we pushed hard to get the mobile component ready)
  • Lack of an Ushahidi point person on the ground…since this was a rare instance in which we were going to manage the deployment itself…at least initially (which is why we have tried to partner with groups such as Heal Africa)
  • French being the lingua franca in the area (which is why we are working on translation and why we recruited volunteers to help translate reports
  • Difficulty raising awareness about Ushahidi to the local population and encouraging them to use it (we have again tried to do PR wherever we could – local bloggers, local orgs, international NGOs, local radio etc.)

Despite these efforts (which were much more structured and actively undertaken in comparison to when we launched in Kenya) and the great coverage the Ushahidi DRC page has received in the press, we are not seeing the volume of reports we anticipated, especially given the fact that most of the people who are affected by the crisis or who having been concerned/watching the situation closely  have complained about the minimal coverage the conflict in the DRC has been receiving.  While we did not have an unrealistic expectation about us getting thousands of reports given the challenges above, we certainly expected more than we have received so far.  So I have been racking my brain trying to figure out what we could be doing better and why exactly the DRC has been a hard nut to crack, not just because I’d like to see the tool working better for the people affected by the crisis but also because it could provide useful lessons for us in the future.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far that I think has been useful to learn not just for us but for more importantlyothers interested in the applying the concept of crowdsourcing for early conflict warning and for crisis situations given the distributed model that we will apply when Ushahidi is released to the public (i.e. we will rarely handle our own deployments) :

AWARENESS RAISING

  • As Ethan recently pointed out,  it helps to have a relatively active and connected blogging community to raise local awareness about the tool (Mumbai, Kenya being good examples).  Local bloggers definitely help raise the profile of social media tools.   Now DRC is interesting because it does have a comparitively small, but active blogging community comprised of both locals and expats – we have tried to reach out to both and even encourage the bloggers to share their reports on Ushahidi but so far no takers – not sure what gives.
  • We need to crack the translation issues and also get plugged in to a wider network geographically & linguistically.
  • The tool needs to remain simple and functional as much as possible – more bells and whistles not only slow the platform down but might make it tricky to adapt in a situation where there are few resources on the ground.
  • We need to be clear about what Ushahidi is and is not e.g. in Eastern DRC the question we often get when we try to approach local organizations  / contacts is what direct benefit will a person get from reporting.

ISSUES SPECIFIC TO CRISIS SITUATIONS

  • As one person closely involved in assisting people affected by the crisis in DRC pointed out to me, in a crisis situation most people are on the run – they don’t have time to file reports etc.   In a place like Eastern DRC that is compounded by things like electricity cuts so phones can’t be charged; difficulties having the resources to buy credit so the SMS functionality doesn’t really help them (and unlike in Kenya there is no MamaMikes option for donating credit…we are trying to get Zain interested in this); people are not used to a culture of free press and people asking for their opinion; and most importantly there is a huge lack of trust and concerns about whether someone will get targeted for reporting.   We have tried to emphasize the reports need not focus on individuals i.e. they can be generic like “help is needed because of cholera outbreak in Rutshuru” and can be anonymous.
  • Fatigue among the locals in an ongoing conflict like DRC – Ushahidi becomes just another organization that is looking for information, reports, etc where past experience has shown that sharing this information with the media, NGOs, UN Missions and so on has not really changed things for them.
  • Given all the challenges I’ve referred to, what we had really hoped would work out is that we would either get local bloggers to take over running and administering the page (with our help) or a bunch of local organizations to be the primary “owners” of the site given their familiarity/expertise/tons of info. etc.   This hasn’t quite happened I suspect for a combination of reasons – the benefits of information sharing might not be clear especially to sharing with a “non-insider”; there is no time to “do one more thing” that doesn’t seem to directly address the people’s needs;
  • There is a distinct desire to silo information among humantarian organizations who should be the natural users of Ushahidi – we had this problem in Kenya as well.   Again I’m not sure why when the benefits of bringing more attention to a crisis and helping direct help to where it’s needed the most should be obvious – maybe there are competition issues, or it comes down to whoever sits with the information can raise the most money…in any event it’s a huge problem.  Even worse when such organizations purpotedly speak for the people who are affected by a crisis – how do we bring them on board or get around them if necessary?  [And along with that you can add the general reluctance to embrace innovation].

These are just some of my musings, hope to hear from the wider community out there on how we can tackle some of these challenges.