Blog Action Day: Thoughts on Ushahidi and Hope

Posted on October 15, 2012


This blogpost is dedicated to activists using the Ushahidi platform. With this blogpost I wish to open up for an alternative view on successful deployments. It is written as a contribution to Blog Action Day 2012: “The Power of We”


In the fall of 2011, I was in Cairo, Egypt and Nairobi, Kenya to investigate how local activist groups use an online platform called Ushahidi. Ushahidi is a tool that makes it possible for people to report in real time, for example via their mobile phones, what they experience and witness. People’s reports are then made ​​visual as dots on an interactive geographic map.

The platform was created during violent episodes in Kenya following the presidential election in 2007, and has since been used during natural disasters, as election monitoring and for advocacy. I focus on projects driven by interest groups or informal groups that wish to create social change.

Dots on a Map

Ushahidi is an open source software that can be downloaded and used for free by anyone, but it isn’t all projects that are successful (success as in: documented accomplishment of a goal). Some projects remain well-intentioned ideas, and reports end up as nothing more than dots on a map.

At first I was frustrated with the ‘waste’ of good projects that didn’t seem to change anything, but then I realized that it was the feeling of having changed some thing rather than documented change that mattered to many of my interviewees. In some projects the very purpose was doing something and hoping for change. As hope may create drive and resourcefulness, the feeling of change may also.

Giving Hope

I talked to my interviewees about the motivation behind and hope for their projects, and the responses sounded: “A contribution to peace”, “doing something positive”, “a way to have a little dignity”, “curiosity, hope, anger”.

Most of my interviewees are private persons that have taken the matters into their own hands, and it seems that the Ushahidi platform made the step from idea to action less intimidating for them. More interviewees talked about situations of helplessness, where they had used Ushahidi as a way of:

“doing something instead of complaining (…) doing actions of meaning, giving hope.”

A Hippie Song?

To some this post might seem like a fluffy hippie song about hope. Nevertheless, it is based on the words of my interviewees. Of course I’d wish that all their efforts would result in actual change on a broader level, but if this is not feasible, then let’s recognize the empowering feeling it did create.

“By a click people change something,”

a young man from Cairo explained to me last summer. At that point I thought ‘but how?’, but in this post I’ll put that question on hold. Those clicks may not have changed something we can measure today, but it may have changed something for those who clicked. It may have given them hope.

Ushahidi – [oo-shah-hee-dee] Ushahidi is a non-profit company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. The company uses the concept of ‘crowdsourcing’ to initiate social activism, serving as an initial model for what has been coined ‘activist mapping’ (the combination of social activism, citizen journalism and geospatial information) and ‘crisis mapping’. The Ushahidi company offers software that facilitates the submission of reports by local observers using their mobile phones or the Internet, while concurrently creating an online archive of events. Ushahidi is Swahili for testimony.