Ushahidi – packing a powerful (and honest) punch


Erik Hersman from UshahidiWho hasn’t heard about Ushahidi? That was the first question posed by Erik Hersman at his tech4Africa presentation today. Astoundingly, about 30% of the crowd raised their hands. My first thought was sheer disbelief – They don’t know about ushahidi? Where have they been?

I raised my eyebrows at Steve Vosloo who said – perhaps they’re mostly commercial companies; that’s why they don’t know anything about this small nonprofit that packs a powerful punch.  The great thing is that after today’s session, a whole lot more people now know about Ushahidi – which, when you do learn more about it, is truly an incredible application.

Ushahidi defines itself as a small organization that dislikes hierarchy and being told what they can’t do, they question everything, embrace innovative thinking and take risks boldly. Their guiding values are openness, innovation, community.
When Ushahidi started, it went from concept to launch in a week. After the Kenyan elections on 27th December 2007, violence broke out in Kenyan communities unhappy about election results. A Kenyan blogger wrote “For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level, the truth of what happened will first have to come out”. And that began a creative process among friends and colleagues that saw the launch of Ushahidi on the 9th January 2008. The Ushahidi Platform allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline.

From their successes, Erik shared some of what they learned in the process of setting it up:

–          Keep focused (make ruthless, brutal decisions if you have to)

–          Release early

–          Doit yourself

–          Community = success (if you can’t harness the community you won’t have success)

–          Don’t wait for money, just do it

Erik hastened to add – remember that technology is only a tool. Some of Ushahidi’s biggest learning has  come from failures – and they are open and willing to share this learning. Often we learn more from other people’s mistakes than their achievements.

They learned that there’s a difference between building technology, and deploying technology.  Experience taught them that building the technology itself is only about 10% of the issue – the other 90% is about building the community and messaging around the technology.

From their failures, they learned the following lessons:

–          Own your failures

–          Listen

–          Fix your mistakes – and quickly

–          Think differently but stay true to the spirit of your organization or community.

Erik’s overarching message was to remember these three things:

Technology does help in overcoming inefficiencies, but it takes people to make it happen
More people need to ask the hard questions that challenge the status quo
Africans can build world class software and we should expect nothing less

Ushahidi – if you haven’t heard about it yet, check it out. And watch this space, this is just the beginning of what crowdsourcing information can do in Africa.

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