Five years ago, a handful of bloggers invented a way to track – and hopefully prevent – bloody post-election violence that hit Kenya and claimed more than 1,100 lives.
The group of friends that set up Ushahidi — which means “to witness” in Kenya’s Swahili language — have seen their concept become a worldwide success, used in conflict and disaster zones, and again in Kenya ahead of March 4 polls.
Their non-profit software company, funded by several foundations, now employs 23 people and bears witness to a technology boom in what has traditionally been a rural East African country.
As tensions mount again with just over a month until Kenya’s presidential and parliamentary polls, the Ushahidi team are back in front of their screens.
Their invention is now one of the most popular crowdsourcing platforms in the world, taking input from large numbers of people, and so far its map-tracking concept has been used in more than 150 countries.
Most recently it has been used in Indonesia to track floods in Jakarta, to map the scale of rape in the Syrian conflict and to fight violence against women in Cambodia.
“Something which started as a collaborative project is now an actual institution, which is very gratifying,” said Juliana Rotich, 35, Ushahidi’s executive director, raising her voice above the sound of table football in the bar behind her.
“There are more than 38,000 maps in different countries… some of them are around crisis mapping, some of them are around election monitoring, and an emerging trend which we are really pleased to see, is corruption mapping.”
Ushahidi is based in one of Nairobi’s most fashionable buildings: the iHub, home to Internet technology projects and from where the Ngong Hills, immortalised by author Karen Blixen in “Out of Africa”, can be seen on fine days.
In late 2007 — when Kenya spiralled into bloody ethnic violence following the news that President Mwai Kibaki had won contested polls — the idea of collating Internet reports to track a political crisis was not new to Africa.
Tunisian blogger Sami Ben Gharbia had notably shown its possibilities.
But the Kenyan bloggers added the possibility of feeding data into their interactive map by text message, the cheapest and most widespread means of communication on the continent.
Initially, their initiative had just 300 contributions, compared with 300,000 when the same software was used in Nigeria’s presidential polls in April 2011.
“In five years, the most important development has been the penetration of mobile phones and Internet in Africa,” said Daudi Were, another Ushahidi co-founder.
“The rise of social network sites in particular has been spectacular in Kenya,” he added.
More than three-quarters of Kenyans — at least 30 million people — have a mobile phone, with almost one in every three Kenyans having Internet access.
Ushahidi is preparing to launch a fresh crowd sourcing project titled Uchaguzi (simulation.uchaguzi.co.ke) — “election” in Swahili — ahead of the March 4 polls, which will also take input from smartphones and social media.
On election night, the iHub will become the operations room to mobilise even more web users than the 200 who came for Kenya’s 2010 referendum on a new constitution.
The team will check data with local observers and associations on the ground, before feeding it into the platform.
At the time of the referendum, this alert system, linked to another network managed by the national electoral commission, made it possible to inform the police of several isolated incidents of violence.
On March 4, if necessary, Kenyan web users will also be able to mobilize a further 900 colleagues worldwide who regularly help out online with cartography in crisis situations.
The young men and women at Ushahidi say they are “quietly optimistic” that polls will be peaceful this time, admitting they were traumatised by the tribal violence five years ago — a world removed from their permanently connected cosmopolitan urban microcosm.
Juliana Rotich had come back to Kenya on holiday from Chicago where she was working as a data analyst. “It was tragic. It shattered our conception of Kenya as a non-tribal society,” she recalls.
“Technology can make more informed citizens. The question whether more informed citizens will vote in a more intelligent way is left to anthropologists,” jokes Daudi Were.