In the humanitarian world, Ushahidi.com is the pioneering open source platform and bears revolutionary potentials. The crowd-sourcing crisis mapping tool enables relevant information in real-time and activates the involvement of parties affected - the "wisdom of witnesses".
The idea was first born in the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. Mobilized in the blogosphere, a team of Kenyan activists launched the project. Ushahidi is based on a relatively simple system: it obtains its information from the people in the immediate vicinity of the event by SMS or e-mail. These reports will be reviewed and located in a map on the website. Additionally, registered subscribers receive an alert via SMS, if it an outbreak of violence occurred in their proximity - which enabled them to reach safety. Just the right communication channel in a country where the phone is the second most widely used means of communication (after the radio).
Ever since the successful implementation in the Kenyan turmoil, the open-source technology has been applied in many countries: pages reported the ethnic unrest in Congo, the election process in India, the earthquake in Haiti, and the consequences of the oil-spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
The biggest challenge remains to avoid passing on false information vis a vis the flood of emergency reports, which appear after such a disaster. If the information in real-time is the existential benefit of the service, it still runs the risk that the cost of unverified information cannabilizes its value. "The verification of information and disinformation are the challenges that we have to face," recognizes co-founder Ory Okolloh. A software called Swift River performs an automated analysis of all reports which concern the same event and the same place. The idea is to cross-relate, identify the quantity of reports on a single event and rank valid information and informants in a hierarchy. The vulnerability of this solution is that it doesn't work without the significant commitment of the informants. In this system, a single emergency notification, which is true and urgent, doesn't leverage the attention because it doesn't possess the critical mass.
"In the history of the use of Internet technology for humanitarian purposes Haiti was a milestone," said Daniel Stauffacher. He is director of the Geneva-based Foundation ICT4Peace, which explores the use of modern means of communication as a tool of crisis management. The ICT4Peace has just closed a contract with Ushahidi.com for financial support for the development of verification techniques.
The recent buzz about the "African gift to Silicon Valley" is also expressed in articles in the NZZ, the New York Times and the FAZ. Additionally, please find a brief interview with Daniel Stauffacher here and check out the interview with the "African geek-girl" Juliana Rotich in Focus Online.