Beautifully Obvious

Feb 9, 2010

This is a guest post by Jonathan Shuler, the multimedia journalist behind our latest video profiling some of  the people behind the

Information to save lives

It’s three o’clock on a January afternoon and I’m running around the basement of the Fletcher School at Tufts University on the outskirts of Boston.  I’m trying to keep up with Carol, a grad student in dark rimmed glasses, a down vest, and fingered gloves who is rapidly eliminating possible interview locations for me.  She, like most people I have met today, seems tired and worn out, but energized by something.  Classes haven't started yet, but the manila walls are buzzing with activity in the handful of underground rooms that have been re-christened with names like “the Command Room” and “the Map Room.” This is the makeshift HQ for the mapping section of the Ushahidi/Haiti program. We stride past dozens of new volunteers learning how to put information into the Haiti Ushahidi instance after confirmation.  Veterans, some with as much as a week of experience, help the greenhorns figure out how to interpret the data. There is an urgency on everyone’s face.  Despite the thousands of miles that separate Haiti from these Bostonian students, there is weighty reality: This information could save someone’s life.  Glancing at them as Carol and I roll past, I see the new volunteers with their laptops, crunching on information over the basic college wifi network and I feel like this seems so elegant and simple.  Ushahidi, now, feels obvious.

Getting the big picture

About five years ago I spent a few weeks in Sri Lanka trying to help rebuild after the Tsunami.  We got there in March so most of the real chaos had died down, but all along A2–the highway that hugs the Indian Ocean south of Columbo–the devastation still felt fresh and raw.  People where struggling to put their lives back together. Well meaning people like me where trying to come in and help, but it was clear that even the best of us were short of information; we where making mistakes.  Whole tent cities seemed to be completely unoccupied, despite the proud “Tents provided by....” sign.  Where were the people? When you are trying to effect change during a crisis it’s hard to think about what other groups on the ground are doing or if your are working at cross purposes.  It’s even harder to know what is happening in places where you do not have people.  In Sri Lanka tent cities were built, budgets where laid out, clean water hauled in, back hows contracted, everyone trying to react to the issues as they knew them based on the information they had.  As someone who was primarily an observer, it was a well meant and noble effort, but it struggled to affect the change in aimed for.  Our forward team spent a month on the ground trying to get a fix on the situation and they did a great job, but they still got things wrong. There was no way the team could have gotten the big picture.  The devastation was too big for a couple of guys to ingest. It required a mob of understanding. Ushahidi is that place were that Mob of Understanding comes to gain a voice, to be a witness and be witnessed.  Ushahidi takes conventional ideas about western intervention–“us” coming with our information to help “them”– and turns them on their head. Haitians are delivering the information via basic communication tools like SMS. Haitian expats are translating and contextualizing the information for western volunteers in DC, Boston, the North West and Europe. These volunteers are then culling the information and mapping it. It’s not a geographically centralized beast, Ushahidi is not “based” anywhere.  There are no sophisticated contractual arraignments. It’s completely relationally driven (like the rest of the world.) After about 30 minutes of trying different rooms and a quick rabbit trail to find Coffee, Carol and I decided to conduct the interviews in the rooms that the action is taking place, just like I had with Ushahidi’s developers in Atlanta two days ago as well as my interview at the State Department yesterday.  In two and half days I’ve seen the most functional end of Ushahidi–it’s developers feverishly repairing and improving the software as it’s running. I’ve met with Government officials who have been able to help plug the information Ushahidi provides into actionable results, and now I’m wrapping up with my last interview about 20 minutes before I grab a cab for the airport.

It’s about people and ownership

Sabina Carlson is a Fletcher School volunteer with the role of Diaspora Coordinator.  Her title as well as her insight into the people of Haiti betray her young undergrad smile as she explains that her job is to think long term for the Haiti Instance.  “Ultimately, it will be the Haitian Diaspora (in Haiti, in the States, and around the world) who own the reconstruction in the long term.” So her job is to plug them into Ushahidi so they can own the effort now.  It’s not about western intervention, it’s about people and ownership. And that is why all of this feels so obvious to me, and so beautiful. jon-shuler-thumbJon Shuler is a Multimedia Journalist focusing on humanity during and post crisis.  Utilizing photography and video, Jon has traveled extensively covering such topics as Trauma Healing in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the South Asian Tsunami, and Balkan Stability. You can see more of his work at