Developing World-wide web

Haiti earthquake social mapping

Africa’s problems always seemed too great for the worldwide web to solve.  Even with Web 2.0, innovation seemed to flow strictly in one direction – philanthropically from developed to developing world.

Now a social media mash-up developed in rural Kenya has reversed that. Ushahidi (which means testimony in Swahili) is being used to map crises and direct relief efforts as far apart (in human tragedy terms) as Haiti and Washington DC.

The simple service mashes up user-generated reports from people hit by a crisis and Google Maps. Victims provide on-the-ground data, then a self-organising army of volunteers around the world translates text messages, tweets and other alerts so that aid workers on the ground have access to precisely mapped information of where people are in the greatest need.

Ushahidi was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election riots at the beginning of 2008. Because few Kenyans have access to computers, it was built to work on SMS and the mobile web. Because there was no financial backing, it was developed in open-source. And those are its strengths now it’s being used across the world.

In the last month, Ushahidi has proved a hero directing aid efforts following the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes. And last month it came to the rescue in Washington DC to direct snowploughs to road blockages in the snowstorms that closed much of the city.

In doing so, Ushahidi creates a legacy of citizen-reporting to capture the real stories that lie behind tragedy. And Africa is teaching the rest of the world a thing or two about the importance of social media.