Sam Storr

The Ushahidi mobile app (Photo courtesy of www.ihub.co.ke)

Five years have now passed since the birth of the Ushahidi project in early 2008; when the contested election result in Kenya fed a climate of violence and misinformation, with reliable news sources having to leave the country, one newly-expatriated blogger’s website became the site of an innovative attempt to provide an alternate source of information in need.

What began as a suggestive blogpost quickly demonstrated the power of Volunteer and Technical Communities (V&TC’s) – as they have since been dubbed in academia – to quickly converge and produce sturdy and powerful solutions. It was also notably a demonstration of Kenyan prowess in programming, as well as in the online mobilisation of volunteers to translate from Kishwali.

The platform serves a gathering point for reporting in a crisis, from Twitter, the media, the internet, or the increasingly ubiquitous mobile phone. The information received is displayed on a map and evaluated by volunteers online for the level of its verification using factors such as the quality of the evidence submitted and found, the number of similar reports received, and the trustworthiness of the source. Behind this is the final lock of the discerning operator, which could in the future fuel accusations of partiality and control in what is a necessarily political operation.

After Kenya, the platform truly came of age in the response to the earthquake in Haiti in January 2010, and has since been adapted by others to all manner of situations, fuelling the important early research on the behaviour of communities in crisis through social media.

For this reason, the return of Ushahidi to Kenya, ran by the Uchaguzi team of collaborating organisations, is an important time to reflect on the development of what is yet to become a well-established phenomenon.

Kenya is among the countries swept up by the general boom in telecommunications in Africa, source of the much vaunted M-Pesa mobile payment system in 2007 and site to the well-connected iHub technology centre that is being used as an important staging point for Uchaguzi. This complements the increased activity of African civil society, such as in post-Millennium Development Goals planning.

One of the main attractions of the Ushahidi initiative is that it appears to be an organic emergence of what many humanitarian organisations have been trying to promote for decades; the organisation and strengthening of societies through self-help, through greater and meaningful connection with others around the world.

Therefore, the return of Ushahidi to Kenya will be closely watched by those seeking the signs of a potential force in the future world order, in which citizens are empowered to resist both the old and the new inequalities in power. Beyond the futuristic idea of an inter-connected global society of netizens, the revolutionary potential of social media may instead lie in the revival of community strengths that have been weakened over time and with the upheavals of modernity.

Although Kenyan politicians are playing down the prospects of renewed or worsened violence, land disputes, rioting in Mombasa following the murder of a Muslim cleric, and the arrest of politicians for inciting hatred in Nairobi have each caused early concern for analysts. To exacerbate matters two of the candidates for the presidency will appear before the International Criminal Court shortly after the election, facing charges of crimes against humanity committed in the previous.

The violence of the primary elections, showing evidence that Kenyan politics remains divided between tribal strongmen, highlights the need to have a clean and discerning source of information amongst the possible chaos to come. With an eye on the symbolic involvement of the ICC in prosecuting political violence in Kenya, the act of gathering testimony may have an important effect on reducing violence and ensuring justice.

Despite the promise of such new media initiatives, uptake has been relatively slow outside the UN organisations, leading technology advocates to darkly hint that they risk becoming irrelevant if they fail to closely incorporate user-generated content from previously unheard societies in crisis. Yet this perspective overlooks the important role that humanitarian NGOs can play in supporting societies, both within the digital realm and without, so that their voices can be realised.

The use of social media is a societal skill, and one that may vary according to pre-existing societal strengths. Although local discourses and memes will crop up and become important, others may need training and equipment to connect to a wider audience, so that old and new inequalities do not emerge.

Humanitarian NGOs are beginning to respond to the new reality of user-generated content, as some redouble their attempts to build resilience and capacity in place of further decades of spending on sometimes fruitless aid projects. However, there are obstacles that are yet to be overcome before this can be realised

While humanitarian aid has historically been the site of important experiments in emergency healthcare, development and population management, as organisations have grown larger and more professionalised over time they have rightly taken steps to ensure the quality of their work that affect their ability to take risks in change. This means that they will only be able to engage with social media when it suits their preoccupations (for good or ill) and standards.

This is likely to be a contentious process, and it may be a while before a mutual understanding can be fostered among the diverse actors involved. However it is clear that the main social media advocates are serious and conscientious in improving the tools they create, and have already begun to collaborate with leading humanitarian agencies on the crucial issue of security.

As the Uchaguzi project has been discovering, both caution and collaboration are integral to harnessing this promising revolution.

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