Here are three interesting misconceptions about Ushahidi and crowdsourcing in general:
- Ushahidi takes the lead in deploying the Ushahidi platform
- Crowdsourced information is statistically representative
- Crowdsourced information cannot be validated
Lets start with the first. We do not take the lead in deploying Ushahidi platforms. In fact, we often learn about new deployments second-hand via Twitter. We are a non-profit tech company and our goal is to continue developing innovative crowdsourcing platforms that cater to the growing needs of our current and prospective partners. We provide technical and strategic support when asked but otherwise you’ll find us in the backseat, which is honestly where we prefer to be. Our comparative advantage is not in deployment. So the credit for Ushahidi deployments really go the numerous organizations that continue to implement the platform in new and innovative ways.
On this note, keep in mind that the first downloadable Ushahidi platform was made available just this May, and the second version just last week. So implementing organizations have been remarkable test pilots, experimenting and learning on the fly without recourse to any particular manual or documented best practices. Most election-related deployments, for example, were even launched before May, when platform stability was still an issue and the code was still being written. So our hats go off to all the organizations that have piloted Ushahidi and continue to do so. They are the true pioneers in this space.
Also keep in mind that these organizations rarely had more than a month or two of lead-time before scheduled elections, like in India. If all of us have learned anything from watching these deployments in 2009, it is this: the challenge is not one of technology but election awareness and voter education. So we’re impressed that several organizations are already customizing the Ushahidi platform for elections that are more than 6-12 months away. These deployments will definitely be a first for Ushahidi and we look forward to learning all we can from implementing organizations.
The second misconception, “crowdsourced information is statistically representative,” often crops up in conversations around election monitoring. The problem is largely one of language. The field of election monitoring is hardly new. Established organizations have been involved in election monitoring for decades and have gained a wealth of knowledge and experience in this area. For these organizations, the term “election monitoring” has specific connotations, such as random sampling and statistical analysis, verification, validation and accredited election monitors.
When partners use Ushahidi for election monitoring, I think they mean something different. What they generally mean is citizen-powered election monitoring aided by crowdsourcing. Does this imply that crowdsourced information is statistically representative of all the events taking place across a given country? Of course not: I’ve never heard anyone suggest that crowdsourcing is equivalent to random sampling.
Citizen-powered election monitoring is about empowering citizens to take ownership over their elections and to have a voice. Indeed, elections do not start and stop at the polling booth. Should we prevent civil society groups from crowdsourcing crisis information on the basis that their reports may not be statistically representative? No. This is not our decision to make and the data is not even meant for us.
Another language-related problem has to due with the term “crowdsourcing”. The word “crowd” here can literally mean anyone (unbounded crowdsourcing) or a specific group (bounded crowdsourcing) such as designated election monitors. If these official monitors use Ushahidi and they are deliberately positioned across a country for random sampling purposes, then this becomes no different at all to standard and established approaches to election monitoring. Bounded crowdsourcing can be statistically representative.
The third misconception about Ushahidi has to do with the tradeoff between unbounded crowdsourcing and the validation of said crowdsourced information. One of the main advantages of unbounded crowdsourcing is the ability to collect a lot of information from a variety of sources and media—official and nonofficial sources—in near real time. Of course, this means that a lot more of information can be reported at once, which can make the validation of said information a challenging process.
A common reaction to this challenge is to dismiss crowdsourcing altogether because unofficial sources may be unreliable or at worse deliberately misleading. Some organizations thus find it easier to write off all unofficial content because of these concerns. Ushahidi takes a different stance. We recognize that user-generated content is not about to disappear any time soon and that a lot of good can come out of such content, not least because official information can too easily become proprietary and guarded instead of shared.
So we’re not prepared to write off user-generated content because validating information happens to be challenging. Crowdsourcing crisis information is our business and so is (obviously) the validation of crowdsourced information. This is why Ushahidi is fully committed to developing Swift River by early 2010. Swift is a free and open source platform that validates crowdsourced information in near real-time. Follow the Ushahidi blog for exciting updates!