Wednesday, February 25, 2009

We Media 2: Crisis reporting, one text message at at time

Not all of the gamechangers here at the We Media conference rely on cutting-edge technology. In fact, a project that depends on villagers in rural Africa has, in my mind, one of the best chances of the way distribute breaking news.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is a non-profit organization that has built a unique crowdsourcing information. Crowdsourcing is the journalistic process of gathering information from a large number of people via blogging, texting and other digital media.

Erik Hersman, director of operations, told a auditorium of Ushahindi works primarily in Africa to gather and forward crisis information. While it will take e-mail and Web information, the tool of choice for its contributors is the simple cell phone. Not the iPhone, Blackberry or other smartphone. Just the cheap “dumb phone” that does little else but make voice calls and allows text messaging.

In countries where wired phone systems are unreliable, newspapers seldom make it to the hinterlands and broadcast media is often government controlled, the cell phone is ubiquitous across social classes. For instance, the International Telecommunications Union said about one in four Ugandans – 8.2 million – carry a mobile phone.

When a natural or political crisis erupts, an Ushahidi user sends details by text to the organization. After a local NGO verifies the account, Ushahidi logs the incident on database and plots on a digital map with space for pictures and video. Reports can then be texted back to local leaders, who respond to disaster or mediate community conflict.

It’s almost too simple to be true. It reminds me of the old “farm telegraph” where the call for help was passed from neighbor to neighbor by ringing bells. In this case it is done by with open source software Ushahidi shares freely with others.

Take a look at . This is not only a stellar humanitarian effort by a simple use of technology that could be modified for many uses.

1 comment:

HASH said...

Clyde, it was great meeting you at WeMedia. Thank you for the kind words on Ushahidi, and I hope we can make it live up to the potential that it represents.

I'm hoping we stay in touch too, so that we can get access to some of your deep knowledge and insights into journalism and media.