Fom Kenya to Haiti to Russia, this crowdsourcing tool allows anyone with a phone to take part in a coherent coverage of a humanitarian crisis.

Tapping away furiously at her well-worn keyboard, close to tears, Ory Okolloh feared Kenya was on the brink of civil war. A media blackout ushered the country into 2008, ensuring there was little coverage of a crisis that would go on to claim more than 1,100 lives and displace more than a quarter of a million people.

Okolloh, a prominent lawyer, recalls the contested Kenyan election of late 2007: “There was a realisation that we're not that far from a civil war. There was fear and anger, and a sense of community soon grew. It spiralled completely when people were struggling to find out what was going on, including journalists.” Widespread protests escalated into ethnic violence as the president, Mwai Kibaki, was declared to have been reelected on December 30, 2007. Raila Odinga, leader of the opposition, claimed the vote was rigged. Okolloh took to the internet as her country turned to ruins.

Posting updates on her Kenyan Pundit blog, Okolloh soon became deluged with comments from people reporting instances of violence throughout the troubled country. There has to be a better way of sharing this information, she thought. Then, two days after coming up with an idea, she wrote: “Last week, in between nightmares about where my country was going, I was dreaming of a Google mashup to document incidents of violence, looting, etc that have occurred during the post-election crisis. Today, Ushahidi is born.” Two years later, when a colossal earthquake struck Haiti and 1.5 million people were left homeless, her platform for crowdsourcing crises was put to work again. Within four days, Ushahidi was said to have received more than 1,00,000 reports from the ground. A fortnight later, volunteers had only managed to process half the messages. To date, the application has been downloaded more than 4,100 times.

Ushahidi — Swahili for “testimony” — works by mapping user-generated reports of incidents submitted by SMS, email and Twitter and via the web. The text message option means that those submitting information do not need to have access to the internet, which makes reporting incidents open to many more people in the developing world: Kenya has 17 million mobile phone users.

“It feels like it was just last year,” says Erik Hersman, one of Ushahidi's founding members, reflecting on the two days in January 2008 when “the world's greatest crowdsourcing tool” went from being an idea to a platform pinpointing a sequence of catastrophes.

“In the first week of post-election violence we were all blogging and it was this one bullet point on a long blogpost that mentioned Google Maps and I thought, ‘Ah — we could do something with that',” he recalls. “We were looking for technological solutions to overcome the inefficiencies of commenting — that looked like a good answer to it. We Skyped and tried to get a few people involved, then we were only 24 hours into this idea about what it could be and we were talking about names. All the good ones were taken.

“We cared about the micro game. If we cared about the macro game, we wouldn't have chosen the name Ushahidi! The feeling was that we needed to get this out there, even if it wasn't perfect. We launched it on the Monday after a weekend of work, thinking it's got to be better than nothing.” But, apart from a few structural updates, little substantial had changed in Ushahidi until now. Groups wishing to use the tool — be they collections of citizens, international humanitarian bodies or media organisations — had to install the platform on a local server and pay for domain hosting rights. All of which acts as a barrier to entry.

This month those barriers were removed and Ory Okolloh, very much the mother of Ushahidi, is under no illusions as to how important this new service — dubbed “Crowdmap” — is. “This is huge. It's a landmark,” she says. “This has the potential to take us to the next level in terms of scale, like Blogger did for blogging — Crowdmap has the potential to do that for mapping.

Quick deployment

“A lot of the groups wanting to use Ushahidi didn't have a techy person to assist or couldn't afford a host, so the idea is to make the tool more accessible, like with WordPress and wordpress.com.” With expertise, Ushahidi can already be deployed within a matter of hours.

In the past week, extreme weather conditions sweeping across large swaths of China, Russia and Pakistan have brought Ushahidi into new territories. Faced with the worst drought since records began, Russian bloggers found that the best way to coordinate a relief effort was to use Ushahidi. This should come as no surprise, but its use from Haiti to Chile, Pakistan to Congo, Philippines to Peru, Kenya to China, never fails to astound the four-person team whose idea was born out of a close-to-home crisis.

“I don't think I've processed it yet,” Okolloh says. “If you'd asked me three years ago if we'd still be doing this I'd have said: ‘Forget it'. We had so many things we didn't have a clue how to do. There was a naivety we had when we started off — we just wanted to make it easier for people to tell stories. But I also think it's important for us not to underestimate the influential role we play.” When she spoke at this year's Guardian Activate conference, Ushahidi launched a drive for a sustainable future. Picking up awards and the money that goes with them is fine for now, the group know. But when the novelty vanishes, it's a certainty that the disasters won't do the same. And that's why it matters.

“Everybody thinks we have money but we don't,” Okolloh laughs. “We're still largely supported by foundations and it will take years before we wean ourselves off that, but the aim is that we become sustainable. When you think of tools like Google or Facebook, I wonder what it's like for your creation to become a verb. That is what I dream about.” (You can see video from the Activate conference now at guardian.co.uk/activate. On the same site, the Guardian is raising funds for Ushahidi so that it can continue to build life—saving crowdsourcing tools.) — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2010

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