Think You Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again

Ushahidi is the name of both the organization (Ushahidi Inc) and the platform. This understandably leads to some confusion. So let me elaborate on both.

Ushahidi the platform is a piece of software, not a methodology. The Ushahidi platform allows users to map information of interest to them. I like to think of it as democratizing map making in the style of neogeography. How users choose to collect the information they map is where methodology comes in. Users themselves select which methodology they want to use, such as representative sampling, crowdsourcing, etc. In other words, Ushahidi is not exclusively a platform for crowdsourcing. Nor is Ushahidi restricted to mapping crisis information. A wide range of events can be mapped using the platform. Non-events can also be mapped, such as football stadiums, etc.

The platform versus methodology distinction is significant. Why? Because new users often don’t realize that they themselves need to think through which methodology they should use to collect information. Furthermore, once they’ve chosen the methodology, they need to set up the appropriate tools to collect information using that methodology, and then collect.

For example, if a user wants to collect election data using representative sampling, they will need to ensure that they select a sample of polling stations that are likely to be representative of the overall population in terms of voting behavior. They will then need to decide whether they want to use SMS, email, phone calls, etc., to relay that information. Next, they’ll want to hire trusted monitors and train them on what and how to report. But none of this has anything to do with Ushahidi the platform.

Here’s an analogy: Microsoft Word won’t tell me what methodology to use if I want to write a paper on the future of technology. That is up to me, the author, to decide. If I don’t have any training in research methods and design, then I need to get up to speed independently. MS Word won’t provide me with insights on research methods. MS Word is just the platform. Coming back to Ushahidi, if an organization does not have adequate expertise, staff, capacity, time and resources to deploy Ushahidi, that is not the fault of the platform.

In many ways, the use of Ushahidi will only be as good as the organization or persons using the tool.

Ushahidi is only 10% of the solution (graphic by Chris Blow)

As my colleague Ory aptly cautioned: “Don’t get too jazzed up about Ushahidi. It is only 10% of the solution.” The other 90% is up to the organization using the platform. If they don’t have their act together, the Ushahidi platform won’t change that. If they do and successfully deploy the Ushahidi platform, then at least 90% of the credit goes to them.

Ushahidi the organization is a non-profit tech company. The group is not a humanitarian organization. We do not take the lead in deployments. In the case of Haiti, I launched the Ushahidi platform at The Fletcher School (where I am a PhD student) and where graduate students (not Ushahidi employees) created a “live” map of the disaster for several weeks. The Ushahidi tech team provided invaluable technical support around the clock during those weeks. It was thus a partnership led by The Fletcher Team.

We do not have a comparative advantage in deploying platforms and our core mission is to continue developing the Ushahidi platform. On occasion, we partner on select projects but do not take the lead on these projects. Why do we partner at all? Because we are required to diversify our business model as part of the grant we received from the Omidyar Network. And I think that’s a good idea.

Patrick Philippe Meier

10 responses to “Think You Know What Ushahidi Is? Think Again

  1. Glad to hear Omidyar is still operating.

    wishing you all the best

  2. Yes! I think this is a much-needed line of reasoning around the platform, because it helps clarify 1. who will do the work and 2. how much work there really is to do.

    While I am deeply enthusiastic about the possibility of broader participation in information management (eg with Swift River) I have recently realized that the concept of crowdsourcing is deeply problematic as a design starter.

    Crowdsourcing is a *product* of small-scale team-centered design, not an *input* for design work.

    That is, projects which are predicated on mass participation often fall right into the trap of “of you build it they will come,” missing what is stable and successful in more traditional forms of community-centered activism. It reminds me of so many Silicon Valley CEOs who think that their projects will be huge “Facebook killers,” simply because they have a long list of features. The real value is in tools that serve numerous small teams — the Fletcher Team being the best example I’ve ever seen. — working with many other passionate teams.

    I’m giving a presentation about this tonight in SF, as it happens:

    In my estimation, Ushahidi works because it is serving dozens of small teams, in diverse circumstances. The crowdsourcing aspect of it — the fact that anyone can submit — is secondary to the work of these core members. Openness is nothing if you can’t get the work done.

    So designers who are blinded by the bright lights of “thousands of users!” will miss the world-changing power of the smaller, committed team, and their hollow systems will not be worthy of the crowd’s attention.

    I’m really looking forward to talking more about these issues with you, Patrick!

  3. I agree completely, but from an outreach perspective be careful how you trumpet the ‘just a tool’ mantra. Ushahidi is interesting in a way that WordPress, for example, is not: its a group of civic spirited individuals who are deeply tied to the use of technology for the public good.

    However, indeed the Blow diagram is right on. We are deploying Ushahidi in Kibera ( and it doesn’t become interesting unless the local community gets excited about putting it to use for a specific aim. Same with Map Kibera and all other open data projects in marginalized communities.

    Good post, bud!

  4. Indeed a valuable clarification that also points out the importance of not relying only on the technology itself to do the work for you!


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