How the Ushahidi platform works, and what comes next

Nov 5, 2018

Over the course of the last decade the Ushahidi platform has transmogrified from a simple Wordpress blog with dots on a map into an entire ecosystem of software and tools built to facilitate the work done by human rights advocates, journalists, election monitors and those responding to disaster and crisis. What began as an effort to bring light to the experience of individuals during the 2008 Kenyan Elections has expanded to a global scale with more than 150,000 deployments in 160 countries. Those who use the platform tackle some of the fundamental issues of humanity and our evolving attempts to recognise and address the issues of people across the planet. You can read more in our Case Studies.

The goal of the platform has always been to help make all voices count by reducing technical and technological barriers to entry for all people working to capture what is happening to them, those around them, their environment and, essentially, to reflect back to society their lived experiences. Our tools are built from and use a mix of Python, PHP, Javascript, Ionic, Ansible, Terraform, AWS Services, Codeship, Travis CI, Github repositories and ultimately any technologies we can get our hands on that will allow us to improve the software we make for those that need to use it, provided we can support the fundamental tenet of being Open Source.As software developers we have worked hard to ensure that we are always moving toward the latest technology, improving our development processes and creating features and interfaces that directly benefit our users by facilitating their work. Throughout Ushahidi’s history, Designers have played a pivotal role in the direction of our software, under the auspices of our Design Leads we leaned heavily in the direction of Human Centred Design, and worked to focus not solely what features we think might be interesting but primarily on what features derive immediately from the needs of our users.

What is the Ushahidi Platform today

1. You can collect data in multiple ways When people raise their voices, their stories and reports bring attention to local and global issues. Information is powerful because it informs decisions and can lead to positive change. Ushahidi collects crowdsourced data and targeted survey responses from multiple data sources. Ushahidi’s aim is for platform users to interact, communicate, and collect data via the technology their stakeholders are already using, which should reduce barriers to engagement.

2. You can manage the aggregated information. Information is helpful when it is properly managed so you can see it and understand the data. The Ushahidi platform allows you to organize your data using categories. You can search and filter data to easily find information that is most relevant to you, and in turn save these custom filters and/or export them. The Ushahidi platform also allows you to limit access and permissions to functions on data using roles and permissions. All of these functions help you be more efficient to save you time and resources.

3. You can visualize and analyze the data. It is important to understand the data visually. The Ushahidi platform displays all reports using a map, data mode and activity views. This way, you can easily see what’s happening in every location and pinpoint any trends or problems. The live map can be filtered and search by time and category. The data can also be exported via CSV to be analyzed further in an external tool. Information collected manually can also be uploaded to the platform via CSV for merging of analysis.

4. You will know how to respond quickly. Being able to visualize and analyze the data means you can make decisions more quickly to plan interventions, deploy needed resources, or adjust project activities to improve impact. The platform allows your team to set up workflows and assign tasks to improve program management. Finally, you can close the feedback loop by triggering automatic notifications of pertinent information to beneficiaries, stakeholders, or field staff.

How to use the Platform

We work with all types of organisations to help them use the Ushahidi platform. Through an Enterprise Partnership, Ushahidi will host and maintain the platform for you as a service, and offer a catalogue of expert technical support services to build your team’s capacity to use the software effectively. For example, Ushahidi can:

• Provide technical set-up;

• Support your survey design;

• Train your team;

• Ensure ongoing technical support;

• Assist with metrics and analytical support;

• Share strategies for engagement with your stakeholders; and

• Design and build custom features, if needed.

Self-service Ushahidi helps individuals, community groups, and small grassroots organizations engage with the peers and stakeholders, get the help they need, and shed light on important issues and advocate for change. We provide a self-service software option that allows users to demo or purchase a hosted deployment of the Ushahidi platform to use independently on a cost-effective monthly basis. In order to minimise the barrier to use, we also offer free Ushahidi self-service plans to small grassroots organisations that have yearly operating budgets of less than $250,000. Ushahidi has seen groups of activists who were passionate about problems in their communities use the Ushahidi platform to help others raise their voice. Some of these groups have turned into fully operating organisations fighting for their causes. These organisations are built upon the use of our software, and some include HarassMap, Abaaraha, Humanitarian Tracker, or Safecity.

Open Source: We also make the code base to the Ushahidi platform available open source for use by other software engineers and developers. Here are the resources you need based on what you are looking to do.

• You can download code directly from GitHub or the Ushahidi website

• You can install the code base by following these instructions

• If you are looking to contribute to our software, or find ways to get involved in our open source community, explore your options here

• If you’re looking to engage with other open source users or contributors, or if you need technical support, dive into any of these live channels below. They are all linked and posting on one channel will post on all channels simultaneously: Gitter at ushahidi/Community

; IRC at #ushahidi on Freenode. You can also post your questions on the forums

• Ushahidi has also set up an internal Crisis Protocol to provide clarity on how our team can provide support during times of crisis. Ushahidi will point to and promote efforts within our network via blogs, social media, etc., and also offer some technical and developer support

Support Focus

One of the most important technical barriers to entry for any Open Source project is documentation. Our Support Team is working to redevelop our User and API documentation with a focus on ensuring the docs are consistently up to date, available in as many languages as possible and ideally accessible irrespective of literacy level by providing video and audio content. Over the last year, we have begun working on ensuring the accessibility of our tools for all users, working towards adhering to the Web Content Accessibility Standards.

To foster Open Source users and contributors we will be taking part in the Hacktober Fest and Google Code-In in projects. If you are interested in taking part you can get involved by simply visiting our github repo and signing up to taking on some issues. There are many ways that anyone can contribute to Open Source work, code is just one part of it. Ushahidi is always interested in having Open Source testers come poke holes in our software so that we can make it better for everyone, if you’re interested in helping out with testing you can contact us through our IRC or Gitter channels here.

What’s next

Ushahidi is experimenting and researching new paths for our existing tools and whole new directions to better serve our users. Over the last 2 years, we have worked with partners at the University of Sheffield’s Natural Language Processing Group and the Open University’s Knowledge Media Institute to implement and test a set of Artificial Intelligence systems designed to improve the work flow of Ushahidi users and to enrich the data that they are collecting. The Community Resilience and Social Innovation During Crisis (COMRADES) project is focused on two application areas at the moment, Election Monitoring and Crisis Response, the tools classify and categorise collected responses, enrich it further by semantically linking it to DBpedia, determining actionability and evaluating veracity.

The ultimate intention is to allow users to triage large amounts of inbound data quickly by using Machine Learning algorithms to initially categorise the data, this allows for quickly clustering and filtering data to help responders focus their efforts. The semantic linking approach provides a way to add more context and information to the data by constructing links to persons, places, or things. For example, if a short inbound data snippet mentions a monument where an event is occurring the tool can make a recommendation of which monument that may be in DBpedia, if the semantically linked data contains geographic coordinates then we can transform otherwise flat data that has to be human interpreted into much more valuable and useful information that can help first responders route their efforts more immediately. Ushahidi’s intention in pursuing AI integrations is to construct software that works with our users to clearly and transparently make recommendations where the user remains the ultimate decider and reduces the human labour involved in parsing through huge quantities of text. You can read more about this project in our blog post "Ushahidi's First Steps Towards Integrating Machine Learning".

Ushahidi is also working to expand the software tools which we offer, recognising emerging needs from our user base and responding to their changing environment. Over the last year we have launched and begun rolling out a tool designed to help teams stay safe in critical situations, Tenfour.

And we are experimenting with new ideas all the time. We are currently Alpha testing a tool to algorithmically match those in need with those capable of providing help in crisis. This tool will help increase the number of citizen responders in a crisis, as well as help institutions get immediate requests in the areas they are serving and give them immediate matching and turn-by-turn directions to dispatch help to where it is needed most. If you would like to learn more about this or become part of our closed beta project, you can contact us.