Ushahidi Research Seminar 11.11.11

Posted on November 14, 2011

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On 11 November Ushahidi and iHub Research presented research projects that are currently underway, talked about the role of research at Ushahidi and the iHub, and extended an invitation to the research community to participate in a discussion about how we might collaborate in the future. Read more about the speakers on the Ushahidi Blog

I attended as one of the speakers and presented my research – briefly discussing the background of the study, experiences, challenges and next steps. Below is my notes from the presentation and you can also watch the slides from my presentation here

Fieldwork on Ushahidi Deplyments: Maria Grabowski Kjær, M.Sc. Student in Social Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen

The gist of my original curiosity was, how an online platform like Ushahidi creates new ways and premises for people to communicate, organize and mobilize in situations of crisis and political conflicts? I see Ushahidi as an example of a global development in technology that really has gained momentum in recent years. Because of this, I believe that the premises for social activism have changed radically.

To make that idea more tangible I formed this Problem Statement:

(…) how the users of Ushahidi communicate, organize and mobilize as a network online, and how this type of ‘Cyberactivism’ propagates to people on the ground?

This question may look good on paper, but in real life I found it unrealistic for me to investigate: The people that I wished to talk to seemed almost impossible to track down. I knew beforehand that it would be a challenge, because the Ushahidi software is open-source and the users on the ground mostly report anonymously.

I soon realized though that it would take too much time to even try, so I quickly decided to change focus to the ‘deployers’ instead of the users – meaning people that either have founded a deployment or people that are part of a core deployment group. So for now the Problem Statement sounds:

  1. How do ‘deployers’ use Ushahidi in a situation of crisis or conflict
  2. What are the motivations and hopes behind, and which feelings of agency and change arise?
I still hang on to my original research questions:

  1. Why do they use Ushahidi?
  2. What do they feel they get out of it?
  3. Does it change anything for them?
  4. How do they describe the connection between communication online and experiences/actions offline on the ground?
  5. What are their experiences, challenges and successes?

Now change happens over time and is therefor difficult to measure in the short research time that I have, so instead I am dealing with the feelings of change that people experience.

My fieldwork location is mainly online, but I have also visited two offline locations, Cairo and Nairobi, to make face-to-face and qualitative interviews. I chose these locations because there is a bunch of interesting cases here.

Here are some quotes from my interviews that will show both critical, positive and pragmatic views on Ushahidi.

(Cairo, July-August 2011)
  1. “Ushahidi is for action in crisis, but difficult to use for long term strategies”
  2. “You throw some dots on a map, some are taken further, some are not (…) It’s not like it is vibrating in social interaction”
  3. “people found the project interesting because it gave them a little dignity”
  4. “by a click people are changing something”
  5. “doing something instead of complaining”

The first two quotes critique Ushahidi to be too short sighted; people share information and then what? It seems that some deployments never go further than that. The last three quotes do not claim that Ushahidi changes anything, but at least they found some dignity in it, and the feeling of doing something was satisfying.

I believe that there are at least two levels to consider in these quotes: The micro level that describes the personal satisfaction of contributing to something, and the macro level that questions where the actual social change is.

Let’s take some more quotes from my Nairobi interviews:

(Nairobi, October-November 2011)
  1. “local understanding is crucial”
  2. “Need a more critical mass”
  3. “the challenge is to end the circle, so that the information is actually used for something”
  4. “we’ve had positive responses, because people can act”
  5. “I’ve seen it everyday, but without being able to do anything about it (…) it’s very satisfying”

The first three are similar to the critical Cairo quotes. They express the need for more participation and more critical participation to take it further, and to give a valid picture of  a given situation. The last two quotes again describe how this empowering feeling of doing something means a lot for them. I will look further into this dynamics between this personal level and the social/societal level.

Online Fieldwork

To get a sense of the environment and the culture of the Ushahidi deployments – just as in traditional anthropology – I will follow the deployments online. I wish to get an understanding of the huge networks of people and sites that work around each deployment. I will…

  • Monitor deployment websites
  • Monitor Twitter and Facebook interaction related to the website.
  • Follow key ‘deployers’ in their online activities
  • Analyze statistics on patterns and traffic
  • More?

Timeline

  • July-November 2011 / Fieldwork in Cairo & Nairobi
  • January 2012 / Field Report incl. a Best Practice for Ushahidi
  • February-June 2012 / Analyzing data + Online monitoring + Monthly blogs on Findings + Case Studies
  • August 2012-March 2013 / Turning the whole thing into an beautiful audio montage! (=Master Thesis)

So there’s a lot of work ahead of me, but I look forward to share results with you when I reach that point.