Thursday, November 18, 2010

Crowdsourcing and aid

Ushahidi ("testimony" in Swahili) is a website that maps reports about particular events submitted online or by cellphone. It was first developed in 2008 to map violent incidents in Kenya after disputed elections. Since then it's been used to monitor a wide variety of issues: elections in Togo and Mozambique, but also bicycling risks in Los Angeles and the cleanup of "Snowmageddon" in Washington, DC last year.

Looking through these various examples illustrates both the promise and the challenges of this approach. The two election applications got too few hits to be particularly useful, whereas plenty of people contributed information to the LA and DC set-ups. To work well, Ushahidi requires a well-connected (by internet or mobile phone) target population, with the will and desire to provide useful information, and a receiving organization that can filter the incoming information to weed out false or misleading inputs.

This suggests that, while Ushahidi can play an invaluable role in bringing together information providers and information recipients more cheaply and efficiently, the key challenge to making Ushahidi work is not the platform itself, but rather the people on either end. And that, of course, is not new. Still, Ushahidi has been hailed as portending a revolution in the management of humanitarian and development assistance by several observers.

For example, the intriguing new book Macrowikinomics, by Tapscott and Williams, opens with a story about Ushahidi's value in the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake. The authors argue that "the wiki world revolutionizes the work of humanitarians, journalists, and soldiers who provide aid and assistance in some of the most unforgiving circumstances available." (quotation from an online source; I have not yet seen the book.) It is, however, perhaps better to say that it "could revolutionize the work," if only people can be found who are willing to dedicate large amounts of time to it. And there's the rub.

Tom Slee has a thoughtful and much longer blog post on the issue here, with some valuable quotations from a range of experts in IT and development. His conclusion: "the closer you look at examples of Internet-based collaboration, the more they look like a new medium for realizing old (and often admirable) commitments. There is no paradigmatic shift separating Oxfam and Ushahidi."

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