Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Activist Mapping Presentation at Where 2.0

I had the honor of closing O’Reilly’s Where 2.0 Conference today, where I gave a talk on “Activist Mapping” and some history on our Ushahidi project in Kenya. A couple people have asked me to make the slides available, so I’ve embedded the presentation below.

I’m not sure how useful those images are without the context of me speaking to them. Since I generally type out my notes, I’ve added those below after the “more” button. The notes are not verbatim what I said, but will give you a general indication of what I talked about.

More after the jump! (warning, this is long as it’s a 20 minute talk)

This is my transcript for the talk, follow along as you can…

Where 2.0 Talk on Mapping and Digital Activism

I’m here to talk to you about real-world usage of your work. Specifically, in the world of causes and issues, where (usually) unpaid civilians use your tools to further their causes: Activists.

My name is Erik Hersman. A short intro on me that will help you understand some of my personal history and motivations will give you some context before you hear about what I did a little later in this talk. I grew up as the son of linguistic missionaries in Sudan and Kenya, only moving back to the US to go to college. I write two blogs, White African is my personal blog where I like to talk about high-tech mobile, web and PC issues pertaining to Africa. AfriGaget is a group blog that I started a couple years ago that focuses on low-tech ingenuity in Africa.

First off, since I’m the last speaker, and since I’m one of those tech guys on the far end of the spectrum that Jesse Robbins talked about earlier, I want to cover some of the really cool things that I saw here that could be hacked/simplified and used in crisis, disaster, and relief scenarios.

Things I’m excited about!
Geotate – imagine this kind of device used by bloggers/reporters in a hot zone
AfricaMap open source project by Harvard
Bug Labs device
DIY Drones – think what you could do with cheap UAVs in a post-disaster scenario.

The tools you create, and the work you do to map the world digitally, are incredibly useful. The world is only now beginning to wake up to the power of the digital, social and living map.

Okay, on to my real talk!

The Ushahidi Story (Summarized)
So, the reason I’m here is due to the fact that I stood up and did something during a time that I wish had never happened. Some of you might be aware that in January of this year in Kenya there was a disputed election where the incumbent (President Mwai Kibaki) claimed a win. There were some gross irregularities, and the opposition (Raila Odinga) refused to accept the questionable results.

What started out as a political fracas quickly devolved down ethnic lines where Raila’s supporters displaced and killed many of Kibaki’s tribe (Kikuyu), while the same happened in Kibaki’s area and the ethnic groups around that area (Luo, Luhya, Kalenjin).

Government forces and civilians battled it out in the urban slums and rural Kenya. It was crazy, somewhat unexpected, and few were ready to report what was happening. Speaking of reporting, as soon as Kibaki swore himself in to a second term, he simultaneously created a media blackout. The only way to get news now was via non-traditional news sources, like blogs. Internally, though there was only old TV and radio show reruns, though rumors and messages were still flying via SMS.

In the midst of it were a couple members of what would soon become the Ushahidi team. Juliana was upcountry and used her blog, Twitter and Flickr to get news out. Ory was in Nairobi, and her blog quickly became the focal point for the international Kenyan diaspora as they tried to get information about what was happening back home. Ory was hearing stories and reports that were not being told outside of Kenya, and many not being reported at all. On one blog post she said,

[Quote slide by Ory]

When I read that, I quickly contacted my Kenyan tech friends.

Our goals were to:

  1. Create a way for ordinary Kenyans to report in what they saw
  2. Create an archive of news and reports
  3. Visualize what’s happening on a macro level, and then drill into the details

Building Ushahidi

  • Detailed geospatial data is hard to come by in Africa
  • How much should be web-based in a mobile phone culture?
  • Mobile phones – getting a full report in 140 characters is not easy
  • What data points do we need?

[Ushahidi Calendar]

A loose affiliation of Kenyan technologists and bloggers banded together to create this tool, with the initial goal of aggregating citizen and news reports of violence in real time. 4 days later we had Ushahidi.

It was a way for everyday Kenyans to report in incidences of violence via SMS, email or the web. It was very simple, but it worked, and that was what was important. The Kenyan diaspora, especially the blogging community, rallied around this cause and made people take notice. It ended up being a community action that led to whatever success Ushahidi had.

[Main page] – Demo the site live

[Report detail page]

[Timeline feature]

Let me give you just a few examples from an active day on Ushahidi during the crisis. On January 17th the following things happened:

“Protesters gathered in groups and attempted to walk into the town centre; police fired live shots and tear gas canisters to disperse them. Three protesters were seriously injured and one shot dead.”

“Police battled youths who set fire to roadblocks; the police shot indiscriminately, “targeting anyone on sight”; one man was shot in the stomach as he stood in front of his house.”

“A 13-year old boy was laid to rest next to his uncle´s house; the burial was attended by hundreds of residents who wailed and lit up bonfires.”

What we realized was that we were receiving a lot of information, but we didn’t have a way to track what happened afterwards. We heard anecdotally about how the information was used for good, but we had no way of knowing all of the time.

Lessons Learned

  • The importance of mapping accuracy
  • Data poisoning – what happens when your antagonist starts using it?
  • Verification and authentication are difficult
  • Clarify why it was created and make sure that is inescapably obvious
  • Create a feedback loop back to end users
  • Know why you built it. Is it for advocacy, security, monitoring or information gathering? (we did it for information gathering at Ushahidi)

An Enemy Around Every Corner (Really?)
Thoughts on this issue evolved out of discussions I had with a gentleman in meeting we both attended about tools for digital activists. Ushahidi was still fresh, and up until that point we had been so focused on just getting the site up and getting the word out about the project that we hadn’t thought about things such as security of our information, how it could be used by “bad guys”, or how we could verify all reports.

Map Accuracy
– How do you deal with this in a relatively unmapped regions?
– How important is accuracy when raising awareness vs using that data for human rights violations?

– Is the source trusted?
– Data poisoning

What we learned after development was that data sources and accuracy are very important. What you do with your data, the verification process, and how accurate the data is represented on the map all play a huge role in credibility. More so, how that tool is used by friendly and non-friendly organizations has large repercussions for both the tool and the people you are trying to help.

What’s next
Ushahidi ended up being a prototype that we’ve learned a lot from, and which opened the door for us to learn what organizations and everyday people are looking for when trying to share their data in a map-based setting during a crisis. We were approached, about creating an easy tool that can be used in early warning or conflict mapping scenarios by the public. We think we’ve learned a thing or two about that, but still have a long way to go on it.

We finally incorporated Ushahidi as a US-based non-profit last month. We have some initial funders, which will allow us to create a simple, useful and powerful tool for activists and NGOs around the world. It’s an Open Source project, with over a dozen international developer volunteers so far. If you’d like to know more about this, talk to me afterwards.

On Activism
Activism is a funny thing, because what you care enough to be active about might seem mundane, stupid or even like enemy actions. It covers the gamut – political, societal, land rights, environmental, etc…

It also turns out that activism is very subjective. Your idea of who an activist is and what they do can span the spectrum.

– Bra burning women of the 1960’s (fact or fiction?)
– Anonymous (vs Scientology)
– G-8 protesters
– Support Your Local Brewery!
– Minutemen on the US border (for & against)

As seen in the last example, there’s always an “enemy”, due to the fact that on the other side of an activist’s issue is another person. For better or for worse, they’re the antagonist.

Activists are just a cross section of society, so they’re not always technologically proficient. If you ask yourself later why ever single example I show you of activist mapping is using Google Maps or Google Earth, I can tell you that it’s most likely due to the simplicity of just getting something to work quickly.

Examples of activists using maps around the world:
I’d like to end by giving you a speed-run through other examples of maps being used in creative ways around the world by activists. You can find much more on their individual websites, and I will have the whole presentation available for download on my blog (white african) and it should be available on the Where 2.0 site after the conference as well.

A few points to end with.

  1. Mapping for human rights violations vs mapping for activists are different things. Activist are not the authority.
  2. What can you do? How can your skills be used to impact issues that are important to you?

Finally, a digitally connected world not only grants us a front row seat to the rest of the world, but also the power to influence events and create change in a way that was impossible just a few short decades ago. So that events that may occur thousands of miles away are in fact – quite literally – in our digital backyard. Which makes it a lot harder to just sit back and watch.

1 Comment

  1. Great, enlightening and informative presentation, Erik. Wish I’d been there to see it (and get that beer you owe me). ;o)

    The notes do – as you say – give better context on the slides. One thing that springs to mind on ‘activists are everyday people’ is how often many people don’t actually see themselves, or label themselves, as activists. During a spell doing street canvassing with Greenpeace in the UK a few years ago, I was struck by the negative connotations people associated with the word.

    Many people put their memberships and associations on their CV’s, but very few would want to say they were an ‘activist’. TV images of G8 rioting has put pay to that…

    Keep up the great work, and fantastic news about the 501(c)3.


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