I just participated in a panel on “Communicating Human Rights Information Through Technology” at the HURIDOCS conference in Geneva and presented Ushahidi as an alternative model. My fellow panelists included Florence Devouard, Chair of the Wikimedia Foundation, Sam Gregory from Witness.org, Lars Bromley from AAAS and Dan Brickley, a researcher, advocate and developer of Semantic Web technologies.
Out of the hundred-or-so participants in the plenary, only a handful, five-or-so, had heard of the Kenyan initiative. So this was a great opportunity to share the Ushahidi story with a diverse coalition of committed human rights workers. There were at least 40 countries or territories represented, ranging from Armenia and Ecuador to Palestine and Zimbabwe.
Since I’ve blogged about Ushahidi extensively already, I will only add a few observations here (see Slideshare for the slides). My presentation followed Florence’s talk on the latest developments at Wikipedia and I really hope to get more of her thoughts on applying lessons learned to the Ushahidi project. Both projects entail crowdsourcing and data validation processes.
“Nobody Knows Everything, but Everyone Knows Something.” I borrowed this line from Florence’s talk to explain the rationale behind Ushahidi. Applied to human rights reporting, “nobody knows about every human rights violation taking place, but everyone may know of some incidents.” The latter is the local knowledge that Ushahidi seeks to render more visible by taking a crowdsourcing approach.
Recognizing the powerful convergence of communication technologies and information ecosystems is key to Ushahidi’s platform. Various deployments of Ushahidi have allowed individuals to report human rights violations online, by SMS and/or via Twitter. Unlike the majority of human rights monitoring platforms, Ushahidi seeks to “close the feedback loop” by allowing individuals to subscribe to alerts in their cities. As we know only too well, monitoring human rights violations is not equivalent to preventing them.
Given the importance of data validation vis-a-vis human rights reporting, I outlined Ushahidi’s approach and introduced the Swift River initiative which uses crowdsourcing to filter crisis information reported via Twitter, Ushahidi, Flickr, YouTube, local mobile and web social networks. When Ushahidi published their first blog post on Swift River, I commented that Wikipedia was most likely the best at crowdsourcing the filter.
This explains why I’m eager to learn more from Florence regarding her experience with Wikipedia. She mentioned that one new way they track online vandalism of Wikipedia entries is by detecting “sudden changes” in the flow of edits by anonymous users. Edits of this nature must be validated by a third party before being officially published—a new rule being considered by Wikipedia.
One other point worth noting, and which I’ve blogged about before, is that Wikipedia continues to be used for real-time reporting of unfolding crises. We saw this during the London bombings back in 2005 and more recently with the Mumbai attacks. The pages were being edited at least a hundred times a day and as far as I know were as accurate as mainstream media reports and more up-to-date.
The point is, if Wikipedia can serve as a platform for accurate, real-time reporting of political crises, then so should Ushahidi. The challenge is to get enough contributors to Ushahidi to constitute “the crowd” and sufficient alerts to constitute a river. The power here is in the numbers. Perhaps in time the Ushahidi platform may become more like a public sphere where different perspectives on alerts might be exchanged. In other words, we may see a shift away from data “deconfliction” which is reductionist.
The Questions and Answers session was productive and lively. Concerns about data validation and the security of those reporting in repressive environments were raised. The point to keep in mind is that Ushahidi does not exist in a vacuum, which is why I showed HHI’s Google Earth Layer of Kenya’s post-election violence. To be sure, Ushahidi does not replace but rather complements traditional sources of reporting like the national media or alternative sources like citizen journalism. Think of a collage as opposed to a painting.
Human rights incidents mapped on the Ushahidi platform may not be fully validated, but the purpose of Ushahidi is not to provide information on human rights violations that meet ICC standards. The point is to document instances of violations so they (1) can be investigated by interested parties, and (2) serve as potential early warnings for communities caught in conflict. In terms of the security of those engaged in reporting alerts using the Ushahidi platform, the team is adding a feature that allows users to report anonymously.
As expected, there were also concerns about “bad guys” gaming the Ushahidi platform. This is a tricky point to respond to because (1) to the best of my knowledge this hasn’t happened; (2) I’m not sure what the “bad guys” would stand to gain tactically and strategically; (3) Ushahidi has a fraction of the audience—and hence political influence—that television and radio stations have; (4) I doubt “bad guys” are immune to the digital “fog of war“; (5) the point of Swift River is to make gaming difficult by filtering it out.
In any event, it would behoove Ushahidi to consider potential scenarios in which the platform could be used to promote disinformation and violence. At this point, however, I’m really not convinced that “bad guys” will see the Ushahidi platform as a useful tool to further their own ends.