Social Networking, Mobile Phones, and Crisis Communication
November 28, 2008 11:12 PM   Subscribe

Can social networking be used to effect positive social change? Ushahidi (meaning "testimony" in Swahili) is one such project that harnesses mobile technology to empower local citizens to report on crucial and crisis situations in their area.

Started as a mashup of user-generated reports and Google Maps on the post-election crisis in Kenya, it has now been deployed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and South Africa.

They are currently working together with other organisations, such as Kiwanja, which uses mobile technology to assist NGO communications and outreach, mobile programming education, and gorilla conservation. Currently they're collaborating on prototyping the "ultimate activist tool".

MobileActive is a dedicated blog that tracks such technology in international development and advocates for the use of mobile technology in crisis situations and disaster relief.

(This post is a collaboration between divabat and infini.)
posted by divabat (19 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite
dont forget the twitter vote report. live mini blogging of elections cuts down on fraud and voter suppression.

not as dire as crisis management but still essential.
posted by Glibpaxman at 11:37 PM on November 28, 2008 [4 favorites]

fyi, email

Thanks for getting this conversation started. I only wish we had Ushahidi up and going in India prior to the disaster that unfolded just this week...

Basically, Ushahidi is a free and open source tool that was developed just this year for crisis scenarios like we saw in India. It was born out of the post-election violence in Kenya. Being open source means that you, or anyone really, can take the code and set it up on your own servers to gather distributed data via mobile, web or email. There is a whole administrative backend where you can approve and verify reports, and then see those reports live on the front end on a map and timeline. You can see it in action as we just deployed to the DR Congo (

Also, since it's open source, you can customize it and create additional code or tweak the current code. We only ask that you pass that code back into the code repository so that future users will be able to benefit from your team's work.


Erik Hersman
Crowdsourcing Crisis Information
posted by infini at 12:37 AM on November 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

wow This is awesome! What a brilliant, meaningful idea. Great post divabat and infini, nice collaboration.

Frankly, I credit grassroots internet communication for the election of Obama. Talk about crisis relief!

It definitely prevented that nutjob, Palin, from being crowned President Wannabe in some nightmare version of American Idol, the Supposed (rigged) Election.

People's communication online allows the ordinary person a role in the knowledge and making of history. Something the commercial media has long messed up as they seek their corporate and often corrupt, money-grubbing, politically suspect agenda.

These last several days during the terrorists' attack in Mumbai the TweetGrid for #mumbai was astonishing as a people's resource in every aspect: from getting needed blood to local hospitals to help save the lives of hundreds of people wounded by the blasts and shootings, conveying telephone numbers, gathering info/intel, to connecting to blogs with the lists of the wounded and dead, gathering photographs/live onlineTV screengrabs in various Flickr accounts, as a sort of database central, a real time hive-mind.

TweetGrid info.

The online grassroots, global communication going on now, allowing transparency, truth-telling, iwitness reportage is shaping history. It's helping to cut through all kinds of bs, camouflage, malicious secrecy. It's a self-regulating, democratic system. It was fascinating to watch it unfold during the crisis in Mumbai.

There was an ebb and flow of noise to signal ratio with links to blogs and journalists who kept up with the tweets by writing thoughtful, wise, informed pieces or creating mature oases of information gathering, like Mumbai Help.

Exciting times in terms of constructive activism.
posted by nickyskye at 1:03 AM on November 29, 2008

From Thursday midday GMT: Mumbai attacks: citizen journalism round-up A quick view of the blogosphere's reactions following the terrorist attacks in India.
This is definitely changing the way crisis are reported. 24 hr rolling TV news goes into repeat after repeat often with slightly misleading backdrops behind the anchor. TV then tries to become infotainment often in a very crass way. TV and Radio are only as good as their people on the ground and recruited talking heads - quasiexperts. Collaborative sites are as good as the thousands of contributions it receives but there is the danger that they can be "gamed" by interested parties.
posted by adamvasco at 1:30 AM on November 29, 2008

there is the danger that they can be "gamed" by interested parties

Corporations have been gaming crises as infotainment for a long time. There is no non-subjective reporting, is there?

I really like this thoughtful article by Shefaly Yogendra.

"As Mumbai saw an unprecedented instance of what can only be described as ‘distributed terrorism’, Twitter sprung into action. Twelve hours later, Twitter users all over the world were saying they found Twitter updates more reliable, timely and clear."

She talks about a number of points in regard to the tweeting a crisis:

"Distributed system
Scalable system
Self-organising system
Self-regulating system
Feeder system"

What happens with tweets is that people can micro-blog their opinions or report their experiences and also link to blogs or journalists' sites where the information is digested intelligently.
posted by nickyskye at 1:49 AM on November 29, 2008

am I wrong but twitter can only be accessed by the web browser, internet type access and not mobile phones outside of US and Canada? what happens when there are 3 billion plus mobile phone users and growing, out in the developing world?
posted by infini at 2:12 AM on November 29, 2008

I generally hate twitter because too much of it is people telling me the smallest details of their lives just so I'll pay attention to their otherwise meaningless lives. But I do respect twitter when it saves lives.
posted by twoleftfeet at 3:56 AM on November 29, 2008

Great post - thanks infini and divabat.
posted by YouRebelScum at 4:14 AM on November 29, 2008

Can social networking be used to effect positive social change?

Can anything else?
posted by DU at 4:29 AM on November 29, 2008

There is an upcoming Summit in New York to Bring Together Global Youth Groups, Tech Experts to Find Best Ways to Use Digital Media to Promote Freedom and Justice, Counter Violence, Extremism and Oppression. Organised by Howcast.
posted by adamvasco at 4:33 AM on November 29, 2008

ha, follow the money...
posted by billybobtoo at 5:37 AM on November 29, 2008

Ushahidi looks like a great project. From the dev docs, it uses the Kohana PHP MVC web stack, FrontlineSMS for handling SMS, and they are already working on mobile applications for the iPhone and Android SDK. Developers can see a list of 'help-wanted' things at this page.

I'm curious about the feature set at the admin end of things, are any screenshots and such available somewhere (couldn't find any at the site)?

There was some idle thinking among my circle of friends at the time of the July 2006 blasts in Bombay/Mumbai, around creating a similar distributed platform, to allow volunteers from different regions to help people contact friends/relatives in the affected areas. Ushahidi looks like a much more comprehensive approach to crisis information/management.

Following the discussion in the recent Mumbai attacks thread, I'd be glad to help with deploying/supporting the platform in India. I am not located in India right now, but I have contacts (in Bangalore) who can probably help. infini/divabat/the cydonian: include me in offline discussions, I'll try to be useful!
posted by stumbling at 7:10 AM on November 29, 2008

infini, FWIW I can send tweets just fine from the Netherlands by text messaging a number in the UK. I believe there's a number in India as well, and Twitter has promised more local numbers in the future.

They don't send me updated to my phone for free anymore from the UK number (I use TwitMobile for that), but I can send tweets myself just fine.

Not sure what that means for, say, a sub-Saharan African country however.
posted by goodnewsfortheinsane at 7:39 AM on November 29, 2008

IF your phone allows for mobile browsing you can access Twitter just fine.
posted by divabat at 9:15 AM on November 29, 2008

It has an unfortunate name, but twitter kept me easily informed on the whereabouts and status of scores of friends and family during the most recent hurricane evacuation.

the twitter application on facebook kept other people knowing what I knew as well.
posted by eustatic at 1:44 PM on November 29, 2008

posted by cal71 at 2:58 PM on November 29, 2008

IF your phone allows for mobile browsing you can access Twitter just fine.
posted by divabat

that's the biggest challenge, in both sub saharan africa as well as india. If you want to provide access to the widest range of people then it has to be something that can be used by the most basic level phones, like the Nokia 1100 for example, otherwise you're reaching an extremely small subset of the population, economically, socially, educationnally etc
posted by infini at 10:52 PM on November 29, 2008

infini: My ancient Nokia phone could access the Internet - almost all plans in Malaysia had WAP or 3G access built in (in Australia you have to pay extra). I don't think that'd be too much of a problem.
posted by divabat at 1:55 AM on November 30, 2008

India doesn't have any 3G yet, and while they're planning for it, there's no guarantee when it will come

imho, where there are great disparities of income and greater proportion of hte population who maybe rural or away from the usually centralized infrastructure, a service that would be intended to empower people should have as low barriers to entry as possible. but that's just me, on my soapbox
posted by infini at 9:09 PM on November 30, 2008

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