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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Tag: emergency

Ushahidi in the Congo (DRC)

When we pushed the first version of Ushahidi live in Kenya, I was trying to juggle that as I spoke at a conference in New York. Today, we’re deploying the new Ushahidi Engine (v0.1) into the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), and I’m in Rhode Island speaking at another conference. I’m starting to see a pattern emerge…

Reporting Incidents from the Congo

The DRC deployment can be found at http://DRC.ushahidi.com, and the mobile number to send SMS reports to is +243992592111.

Ushahidi Deployed to the Congo (DRC)

Note: This is the alpha software for Ushahidi. If you find any problems, please submit them to bugs.ushahidi.com.

How you can help

Get the word out. Let people know the mobile number (+243992592111) and website (drc.ushahidi.com). Help get word to the Congolese on the ground in the DRC of this tool, that’s who needs to know about it.

Things are serious in the Congo… They are bad, very bad. As Sean Jacobs states:

“Since August this year at least 250,000 people have been left homeless in Eastern Congo in the latest outbreak of a civil war described here as between government troups and a rebel group claiming to protect ethnic Tutsis. At least 2 million people are refugees from that war which dates back to 1996.”

It’s a difficult situation, with a swirling mixture of militia and armed forces, compounded by particularly brutal and confusing activities. External military forces, years of displacement and a misinformation mar the landscape.

A new Ushahidi, a new test

To be quite honest, we’re a little nervous, just as we were the first time. The new engine still has a few bugs, and there are some process flow issues that we’re still trying to get figured out. This time we’re backed up by a group of competent developers who are working to get things straightened out. Want to help us make it better? It’s an open community, and we’re looking for your input.

We are VERY interested in hearing from you on how we can make the system better. If you have ideas, thoughts, comments – tell us. Leave them in the comments here, on the Ushahidi blog, or on the Ushahidi contact form.

This is a test of the system, albeit a very difficult one, but it will affect the way the software is changed, modified and upgraded in the next version. What we get right here, we can make work for you in your area when you need it.

How SMS messages route through Ushahidi

This simplified graphic was created to show how SMS messaging moves through the Ushahidi system – it’s a 2-way communication cycle.

SMS Reporting Through Ushahidi, originally uploaded by whiteafrican.
  1. An SMS gets sent to a local number
  2. It passes through FrontlineSMS
  3. This syncs with Ushahidi
  4. The message shows up on Ushahidi
  5. Admins can decide to send a message back to the original sender

We use FrontlineSMS so that we can provide local numbers in areas where the larger SMS gateways don’t operate. For instance, if you were to try to run this in Zambia, you’d probably get a UK phone number if you went through Clickatell. However, we do use Clickatell for the messages that we route back to the original sender due to cost savings. They also have a very nice, easy to use API.

Mobile Phones in Crisis & Disaster Situations

This morning I had the honor of putting on a workshop at MobileActive ’08 with Robert Kirkpatrick, of InSTEDD, and Christopher Fabian, of UNICEF. Both of them are doing some amazing work in the field of disaster and crisis response, using all different types of technology, but specifically what people carry in their pockets all over the world: the mobile phone.

InSTEDD, UNICEF and Ushahidi at MobileActive '08

InSTEDD has a number of ongoing projects, generally thinking about ways to use technology to help organizations collaborate better in some of the harshest disaster environments in the world. You’ll find their tech guys everywhere, from Cambodia to hurricane Ike. Their Mesh4x and SMS GeoChat technology is incredibly important, and I foresee it being used in many applications in the future.

the UNICEF BeeUNICEF has two interesting skunkworks-like projects (among many more) that they talked about today. The Bee, which allows communication, connectivity and data access in field conditions where such technologies are often difficult or impossible to use (video of the old version of the Bee). Christopher also talked about RapidSMS, an SMS and voice data gathering tool that is currently being used in Northern Uganda.

Takeaways: Free, Open Source, Customizable

It was interesting to hear each of us talk about our projects and how we each have an immense amount of respect for what each of the other groups is doing. Ushahidi’s focus is on gathering distributed data from civilians for visualization, InSTEDD is focused on collaboration, and UNICEF is trying to figure out how that works within groups and communities.

One consistent message is this: every crisis situation differs, so we need to build tools that are open and free for anyone to access. It’s a little like all of us creating different Lego pieces that go into the Lego box for everyone else to use.

Ushahidi needs to figure out how to incorporate both RapidSMS and SMS GeoChat. UNICEF’s Bee needs to get Mesh4x embedded in their device – which has both open source hardware and software. There are other tools, like Sahana, that we need to learn how to incorporate into our systems as well – or at the least make possible to interface between when people need that specific mix of tools in their particular situation.

Lastly, but probably most importantly, we all see that developing within the context of the areas of the world where these disaster or crisis situations are happening is vital. UNICEF has developers in a couple different African countries. InSTEDD’s devs are training local devs in all of the countries that they go to. Ushahidi has 85% of our dev team in Africa. It’s a trend, and a good one – making sure that the people build the tools using the devices and limitations in which they will be used.

Look for big things stemming from this meet up soon.

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