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Opensource reporting and development

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Nearly 200 people attended the Africa Gathering event in London today. The event included presentations and seminars aimed at highlighting and progressing issues related to IT, social networking and technology in Africa.

There isn’t often many success stories relating to technology and Africa, but the story of Ushahidi (meaning “testimony in Swahili”) is an example of one such initiative that has inspired others in developing countries throughout the world. It utilizes the power of the mobile phone and the internet to help spread eyewitness reports and news during crisis events.

Erik Hershman talks about the origin of the initiative in the video above.  The idea came about during the 2008 Kenyan elections as a means of crowdsourcing problems relating to the vote. He explains how a small team  prototyped and built, in three days, a system that allowed anyone with a mobile phone to report what was happening during the election. Reports of violence (such as that below) and intimidation were submitted to the site from all areas of the country, using various different communication mediums.

These user generated accounts were then mashed up using Google maps to display an interactive visualization and timeline of election incidents. Realising the power of the platform the team decided to make the project code opensource so that it could be used during other crises and elections throughout the world. The application has since been deployed in the Congo (DRC), by NGOs in east Africa and in Gaza.

Vote Report India

Vote Report India is based on the Ushahidi software and serves as an election monitoring platform for the current India elections. Users can contribute eyewitness accounts of election incidents through SMS, email, twitter or via the website. The platform then aggregates user content with news reports, blogs, tweets and an interactive map. The site relies on India’s civil society to monitor and report the election, rather than on international observers.

Ellen Miller notes how one of the inspirations for Vote Report India was Twitter Vote Report. It was used to document and report on problems during last years US presidential elections. This allowed users to submit election reports using Twitter, SMS, Telephone and smartphones, and was instrumental in creating a user driven narrative of election incidents.

Crowdsourced filters

Erik notes how the Ushahidi team are currently working on a crowdsourced filter mechanism to improve the veracity and accuracy of information reported through the platform. Incidents such as the Mumbai bombings demonstrated the difficulties in relying on first hand reports relayed through twitter and SMS. Determining the accuracy of these ‘first drafts of history’ is a difficult task, but the power of the crowd – especially on platforms such as twitter – usually weeds out any inaccurate reports fairly quickly. Nevertheless, during the first few hours of a crisis there is often so much information that it’s difficult for distanced observers to decide the veracity of different accounts. Because of this, a crowdsourced filter that’s based on factors including the trust level apportioned to the user submitting the information, has the potential to probabilistically determine those reports most likely to be accurate.

The interesting point is that this innovation is coming from Africa. The Ushahidi project was a runner up in the recent USAID Development 2.0 Challenge, which sought to highlight the power of mobile technologies to address global development problems. Many of the entries to the competition came from Africa, with the winning project an open source mobile phone based platform to transmit data from clinics to government and UNICEF databases.

Today’s Africa Gathering is judging its success as whether it leaves people ‘inspired, enthused and better connected.’ The opensource nature of Ushahidi, and the other USAID Development Challenge projects, means that many other countries can benefit from these innovative solutions created in developing countries. It also serves to exemplify how Africa can contribute back public service solutions, to help with crises throughout the world. Certainly the nature of these projects, and all those outlined at Africa Gathering, has left me inspired and enthused by how the continent is helping itself, and others, through opensource development.

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