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Opinion: Crowdsourcing crisis information

Response to Kenyan crisis creates new technology to map crises.

Ushahidi, which means witness in Swahili, is a new mapping program which uses information sent in by cell phone to chart outbreaks of human rights abuses or other events. First developed in Kenya to map the outbreaks of political violence in early 2008, shown above, the program has been adapted for use in elections, outbreaks of disease and weather disasters. (Patrick Meier/GlobalPost)

BOSTON — Groundbreaking technology has come from Kenya in which cell phones and computer mapping programs are used to chart human rights abuses and health crises.

Ushahidi, which means witness in Swahili, was developed when political/ethnic violence broke out in Kenya following that country's disputed elections in December 2007.

Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh wrote about the reports of violence coming from all over Kenya. Shortly after she fled from Nairobi due to this violence, Okolloh posted the idea that it would be good to use Google Earth to make a map of where the violent incidents were being reported and she appealed to people on the blogosphere to help her.

“Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” wrote Okolloh.

Within 24 hours, Erik Hersman in Florida answered her call to map the crisis and fellow Kenyan David Kobia in Kansas worked around the clock to program the mapping tool. From that emergency, Ushahidi was created and has been refined to be used in other crises.

Ushahidi is a simple, free and open-source web-based platform that allows “witnesses” to map evidence of human rights abuses. Observers can provide information by posting reports of events directly onto the website or by emailing them. Witnesses can also map events via text message thanks to FrontlineSMS, a text messaging platform built into Ushahidi. People with smart phones can also download a range of free Ushahidi apps to map alerts.

The Ushahidi platform can collect and map crisis information in real time and over a wide geographical area with specific location information. The tool has been used to document human rights abuses and election irregularities in a dozen countries including the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Lebanon and Afghanistan, as well as the Gaza Strip.

Ushahidi has also been used to monitor the global outbreak of swine flu and was recently deployed in the Philippines to monitor the disaster response to the recent typhoons. A few weeks ago, the United Nations used Ushahidi in Colombia as part of a countrywide earthquake simulation exercise.