Where crime runs deep, Ushahidi Liberia goes local

Aug 18, 2011

Since Ushahidi Liberia began over a year ago, our team has been crowdseeding rather than crowdsourcing.  This has been the conscious choice of our 20+ partner organizations in-country, who have trusted field reporters and a shared reluctance about involving the crowd in a context where rumors and mob violence are rampant.  As Liberia nears the presidential election, and prepares for a constitutional referendum next week, the Ushahidi Liberia team wanted to pilot crowdsourcing with the help of a willing partner.  James Sumo of Youth Crime Watch Liberia eagerly volunteered to pilot a crowdsourced approach in two communities facing chronic and underreported security issues.

James was one of 10 participants who recently completed the Universities 4 Ushahidi training in DC this June.   He returned to Paynesville, a city well-known for crime and corruption, with renewed dedication to address security risks at the community level.  James identified two areas of Paynesville that are hotbeds for criminal gangs: Wood Camp and Soul Clinic.  Youth Crime Watch invited members of these communities to their Paynesville office to discuss the Ushahidi platform.  It had been months since my last visit to the Youth Crime Watch office, and the trip reminded me of how quickly urban Liberia becomes rural.  The back roads had ditches steeper than our vehicle, most houses were made of patched together zinc roofing, and the number of decayed and overgrown houses often outnumbered the occupied dwellings.

When I arrived, twenty residents from Wood Camp and Soul Clinic were sitting in Youth Crime Watch’s office.  We went around the room and introduced ourselves, sharing one or two things we would like to see change in our communities.  It was heartening to see teenagers, men and women as well as elders represented in the crowd.  Some common themes emerged: armed robbery happens so often that many residents are unable to sleep soundly at night, and the criminals - called “rogues” - are highly organized.  Everyone in the community knows exactly where the rogues gather, who leads them, and which gangs are responsible for each crime.  If you are robbed, you can go to one of the ring leaders the next day and ask about your stolen property; he will ask where you live and what time the crime took place, and he will then call on the rogues he assigned to that robbery the day before.  Gang members are given shifts each week just like any job. “I can tell you exactly where the criminals are,” one of the crime watch leaders said.  “But no one wants to face them.”

When I explained the Ushahidi platform and how it can be used to notify authorities about these incidents, other complications arose. “Security officers have a share in every harassment that is carried out,” said one woman from Wood Camp. The local police often arrive at robbery sites and arrest the criminals, however these rogues are back in the community the next day boasting about their release and looking for anyone who might have reported the incident.  The police are known for brokering deals with the gangs, splitting the proceeds, releasing the perpetrators and charging the victims a fee if they want to retrieve their stolen items.  But even if you pay, one resident complained, “you will walk up and down and you will not get a thing from them.” Where to start when the crooks and the cops are working together, when the country has turned a blind eye to places like Paynesville, and community watch groups become targets simply for standing up?  One place to begin is with organization.  It is clear that the rogues are organized and well-networked, and the community has to fight with the same weapon of order, starting with new ways of supporting the crime watch groups.  This is where the Ushahidi platform comes in.  The platform be used by the crime watch groups across communities as a catchment for all reports of crime and violence in Paynesville; Youth Crime Watch already has a customized instance for this purpose. Once an archive of testimonies is created, it can be used as evidence of specific events and overall trends that cannot be as easily ignored as Paynesville’s eyewitnesses have been to-date.  But to what end, residents asked, if the local police are the end users of the information and they are benefiting from the current arrangement?  This is where Ushahidi Liberia’s relationships at the national level can play a part – specifically, with high ranking officers in the National Police, the Liberian Armed Violence Observatory (LAVO), Early Warning and Early Response Working Group, and other coalitions and institutions seeking to eradicate security threats and corruption among responders.

Wood Camp and Soul Clinic residents were hopeful that their reports might eventually reach these entities, but they were also notably daunted by reporting to the platform via SMS.  Very few residents at the meeting knew how to send texts, and even more challenging was communicating the detail of a crime in this condensed and unfamiliar format.  During a simulation, each member at the meeting sent in a message reporting an event; many of the messages received did not include a specific location or description of the event, such as this message that read “this is the creamer rate for Paynesville” (the crime rate).  But upon asking each reporter to describe what happened, they explained in great detail what took place.  Youth Crime Watch decided it would be best to call each reporter after the message was received and transcribe the details from the call on the final report. When we distributed business cards with SMS reporting instructions, we asked residents at the meeting to share these freely in their communities; immediately, there was pushback.  Residents were concerned that this number could be used by rogues to send false information, and for this reason we should not open up reporting to all of Wood Camp and Soul Clinic.  Once again, crowdseeding trumps crowdsourcing in Liberia.  But there is no need to push; there are several elements of the Ushahidi platform that are brand new to users in Liberia, and not all of these have to be adopted at once for the tool to be effective, or for that matter to plant the seed of change within communities. Since this meeting less than a week ago, Youth Crime Watch has heard of several robberies, murders and an attempted suicide in these communities, however none of these incidents were immediately reported via SMS.  As implementers of the Ushahidi platform, our team finds that the most dynamic aspect of this tool remains the unpredictable human element – how human behavior, cultural norms and familiarity with communication technologies can determine whether or not the platform is useful.  In two weeks time, we will be meeting again with the residents of Wood Camp and Soul Clinic to show them how their reports look on the map, and together we will continue to unravel the questions around how tools like the Ushahidi platform can be localized to serve communities like Paynesville.