(Originally written and posted at www.wikinomics.com)
As I write this blog, a potentially violent crisis is emerging in Madagascar, as the military ceded control of the African country to opposition leader Andry Rajoelina today. Just two hour ago, the US Department of State ordered all non-emergency workers out of the country amidst fears that previous protests from January, where over 100 people were killed, could be re-sparked.
In the initial round of protests on January 26th, when traditional media reports were unavailable to and from many regions, social media played an important role in information relays. Now, crisis reporting is made even more transparent with an open platform developed by Ushahidi. Ushahidi (meaning “testimony” in Swahili) was first developed to report on violence during the 2008 Kenyan election, using a collaborative base of citizen journalists to map crisis information and gather insights. The platform has also been in used in Gaza and Congo.
Here, you can see the Madagascar-specific site, where citizens can check the Google Maps mashup to learn where crises are occurring (and have occurred previously). They can also view a listing of all reports, submit their own (via internet or mobile) and receive SMS alerts on their mobiles about any developments in their locality.
The functionality and ability of citizens to text-in and receive updates (with a proper verification process) can go a long way to reduce harm in crises. Also, in many of the developing regions where such crises are most prevalent, the mobile is an ideal channel for this information. At the end of 2007, there were 280 million mobile subscribers in Africa, representing a 30% penetration rate. In Congo, for instance, there are only 10 000 fixed-line telephones, but over 1 million mobiles. If you want to read on about mobile penetration in Africa, check out this article that appeared in The Guardian in January.
In a study by the Harvard Humanitarian Initiaitve on last year’s post-election violence in Kenya, Ushahidi’s data was compared to the information released by bloggers and traditional media. Not only is Ushahidi able to get infomation out quicker, but in many cases, it helped with reporting information that was “off the grid”. Whereas bloggers and news media often focus on the same areas and echo one another, Ushidi allowed coverage of a much broader area. Here’s a more in-depth blog from last October that covers this and other findings in more detail.
Twitter, microblogging and citizen journalists may be excellent tools for crisis reporting. But to take it a step further, platforms like Ushahidi, which can properly aggregate the information and feed it back to those who need it, greatly improves the potential for rapid aid deployment and optimal use of response resources.