Innovating Democracy

Apps for DemocracyLater this week, the winner of the final round of Washington DC’s “Apps for Democracy – Community Edition” will be unveiled. It’s another competition run by government to get developers working for social outcomes. But it’s also one that’s proved highly successful.

The first edition of Apps for Democracy yielded 47 web, iPhone and Facebook apps in 30 days, which authorities say delivered a $2,300,000 value to the city at a cost of $50,000.

Winners of that edition include the “Carpool Mashup Matchmaker” that uses mash-ups to improve uptake of carpooling within the city by making it easier to plan pick-ups and drop-offs that are close to you; and “DC Bikes – Your Guide to Biking in DC”, which, errr, does what it says in the title by drawing bike routes and facilities, bike theft data, bike maintenance and shops, again into a mash-up.

This time DC set out to capture citizens’ ideas about problems that could be solved through technology, through blog posts, email surveys, video testimonials, twitter and face to face.  Then “citizen-technologists” were set the challenge to build the perfect technology solution to meet those needs. Technology developers competed through 3 rounds of “code jam”, the results of which are what we’ll hear later this week.

The winning solutions may not have much relevance to the UK. But of course they might do. And in any case the competition approach, while tried here too, appears to be delivering very tangible savings for the city and its people.

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.