Quick, Stop All Ushahidi Deployments in Egypt!

Has the world gone crazy? There are now at least five Ushahidi deployments in Egypt. Somebody stop this proliferation before things really gets out of control. This is ridiculous, who knows what could happen!

Oh how I long for the days of  expensive, proprietary software that prevented the widespread use of commercial platforms by the unwashed masses. Life was good back then, and simple. Only external organizations with millions of dollars of funding could monitor elections. Centralized, top-down hierarchical control was such a blessing. You’d think that those using Ushahidi in Egypt would at least make their deployments password protected. But no, they have the nerve to share their data publicly. The nerve.

Someone please force these groups to use one (and only one) platform and to use a password. In fact, people should be required to apply for permission to use an Ushahidi platform by completing a 10-page form, providing 5 references along with a financial statement for the past 3 years. They should also sign a binding contract that obliges them not to share any data publicly. The golden rule should be one platform per country per year. All this needs to be controlled. Seriously, don’t people understand the consequences of democratizing tools for trans-parency and accountability?

Just look at what’s happening in Eygpt. Ushahidi was never used in the country before the lead up to the country’s Parliamentary Elections. But now, because the platform is both free and open source, no fewer than 5 different groups have decided to add more transparency to the elections. How irresponsible is that? I mean, this is only going to give people more ideas on how to hold their government accountable in the future.

Indeed, there may end up being twice as many platforms during the Presidential Elections next year as a result. And then what? This will just make each platform weaker since the data will be split across platforms. (Down with open data!). Don’t people understand that they can’t just do whatever they want? (Down with more choices!). Doesn’t anyone care about our rules anymore? The masses need to listen to us and do as we say. Oh how I do miss the good old days. Sigh.

This careless proliferation of Ushahidi platforms in Egypt will only add more data (down with more data!), which means even more monitoring of the government’s actions during the elections (down with transparency!). The first Ushahidi platform that was launched already has 351 mapped reports and the other four platforms have already mapped a total of 461 reports. This is terrible. The additional data means that triangulating some reports may be possible, either manually or by using Swift River.

This needless proliferation also means that many more issues will be monitored. At least the first Ushahidi platform that was launched didn’t have a specific category on women. But the platform launched by the Independent Coalition for Election Observation includes a category on women. And that platform is only in Arabic! Don’t people understand that election monitoring is supposed to be for English-speaking outsiders, i.e., the West?

It gets worse. The Muslim Brotherhood is also using the platform to create more transparency around the elections. As the screenshot below reveals, they even have the audacity to monitor and map assaults on journalists, observers and human rights organizations. This is worse than blogging. But don’t get me started on blogs. The fact that anyone can blog is a travesty and an assault on everything we hold holly. The printing press? Don’t even go there.

Crisis Mapper Anahi Ayala Iacucci clearly disagrees with me in her blog post on this topic. She writes that the whole point of Ushahidi is “to make it available to everybody to be able to have their voices heard, to allow for sharing of information. If people have some doubts please read the Ushahidi website: ‘Ushahidi builds tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.'”

Again, has the world gone crazy? My ultimate nightmare, however, are APIs and RSS feeds. These allow data from different Ushahidi platforms to be easily shared. Just look at the screenshot below and you’ll understand my concerns. I was able to create one list of all reports simply by cutting and pasting the five website links into my Google Reader. This link will take you to a public website with one list of integrated reports from all five platforms updated in real-time. If you’d like to add this to your own Google Reader, use this Atom Feed.

And if this isn’t disturbing enough, people can actually subscribe to automated email alerts of incoming reports based on specific areas of interest. I also hear a rumor that each Ushahidi platform comes with a unique key and that swapping keys allows for the automatic sharing of data between two or more Ushahidi platforms. Networked Ushahidi platforms. The nerve. Maybe the Egyptian government will be able to crack down on these platforms and curb this proliferation of transparency. After all, the US government has already invested billions of dollars to keep this repressive regime in power.

8 responses to “Quick, Stop All Ushahidi Deployments in Egypt!

  1. Well, the answer of course is a sixth Ushahidi platform to aggregate all the others! Comic gold for a “Yo Dawg” meme; “Yo Dawg, I heard you liked Ushahidi, so I put an Ushahidi to monitor your Ushahidis”

    *Hat-tip to S. B. Gharbia for the idea.

  2. This is really exciting – chaotic, possibly inefficient, but ultimately exciting. This a par for the course with the law barrier to entry in activism today, due to powerful, easy, and low-cost tools. It means more experimentation, more failure too, and ultimately, who know?

  3. STOP HIM NOW! Thanks for the reminder about the dangers of democracy.

    Did you get a lawyer yet?

  4. Patrick! This is a long comment so bear with me…

    So I read this blog entry about a week ago and I watched the Egyptian elections with interest and (a little bit of) misplaced hope, but this hope has now been squashed and I am brooding about change. I do think about Ushahidi and elections quite a bit- you know I am a cynic but I would like to think, I am an optimistic one whose mind can be changed. I have been reading this book (Coca-Globalization- not seemingly about elections at all but bear with me) and it has got me thinking. Let me explain…

    It seems that there is a steady stream of elections for Ushahidi to show us (and more importantly you and your fellow Ushadhites) what it can do. I understand that it is a learning curve and it is constantly being changed and used in different ways- this is great. But I guess my frustration comes out of the fact that I think it is good at discrediting elections- showing up all the problems and frauds and manipulations of the process- but that it doesn’t offer much to make elections better and politics more engaging to people, especially young people who use these sorts of technology more often. Elections aren’t just about choosing, they are about getting people to ask their governments to court them and make relationships with them.

    Most elections in authoritarian countries like Egypt and Sudan don’t work because there is no space for people to express themselves BEFORE and DURING the election. People are scared and the opposition parties are usually pretty ineffective because they aren’t very strong. All the expression comes after the election when people are pissed off that they have been duped all over again. There is a tendency to appeal to media OUTSIDE the country’s, hoping that the UN or AU or whoever else will act as some kind of policeman and say no, Omar Bashir or no, Hosni Mubarak, you can’t do that! That is fine and all, but I think that it pisses off a lot of people who do not identify themselves as ‘global citizens’- the people who see the outside world as a threat to their sovereignty- a theme that a lot of authoritarian leaders try to play up.

    You can say that it is a promising sign that there were so many groups using Ushahidi in Egypt but you could also say that the fact that the majority of parties pulled out and that the Muslim Brotherhood did so badly despite their popularity- as signs that the election was a bit of a failure in terms of advancing democracy. The same can be said of the Sudanese election- is this a trend now- that elections end with everyone pulling out in order to discredit the whole process? That is not helping anyone.

    I am just wondering how this kind of communication technology can be used to create dialogue between the actively pissed off people and the other people- the people who are vulnerable to state propaganda about sovereignty- the people who are likely to side with their governments AGAINST the west but might actually have practical problems with the regime in question (no job, no health, no money to get married- but still you vote for the leading party- huh?). I told you before that I think Ushahdi must appear (and ideally be!) local and visible to people within the countries- it should be communication between people in-country. If it is perceived as “showing trouble to foreigners” I think it can have a negative effect and make people side more with the party in power. I think a lot of the time people in the West are so obsessed at making problems “visible” that they don’t see that visibility can sometimes create problems- making people defensive about their country’s flaws- as the Save Darfur coalition woefully neglects- Besides, I don’t think it is fair for the communication to be so one sided- who cares what an American thinks of what is happening in Sudan if people in Sudan can’t make up their own minds about their own problems and change politics themselves. I think at the moment, Ushahidi is being driven by anger and by a desire to discredit things to outsiders. In a way, that is part of the death of politics- it has nothing to do with local people and all to do with international organizations that make agreements with these authoritarian governments.

    Anyhow, to the whole point of this post. I am reading this book about Coca Cola in Papua New Guinea. Who knows why I started reading it, but it is helping me think a lot about communication in the market (the subject of my own thesis- communication about jobs in the labour market). It is all about how economic value has a lot to do with branding and logos- the “value-producing consumption work” that consumers do when they go into the market place. Advertising is all about aspiration, making people think about the rosy future and aspire, through consumption, to be better people living more glamorous lives. The trust and image that consumers hold about certain brands like Coca Cola make the physical product, the sugary concoction, valuable. It has little to do with taste. The book is great- I know I am always recommending random books so you don’t have to read it- to provide a summary- It is all about how Coca Cola communicates its messages to people all over the world- how it makes it both “global” and “universal”- everyone recognizes the brand and is therefore reminded of “home” when abroad- but also how it tries to make itself appear local and authentic in different settings. The key thing is that coca cola (and other corporations) are selling a positive image about the future and they are selling people identities that they can be proud of- Pepsi- the rebellious global teenager at home in Rio and New York alike- and Coca Cola- the social drink you share with all ages and all traditions. The book is really fascinating… It is all about making people associate themselves with a product and feel some kind of pride about that.

    I am just wondering if Ushahidi can learn from experiences of marketing agencies and advertising companies who have had experience working in countries that are in the process of “democratization”. Of course, this is a super cynical way of approaching the topic- what can we learn from those steely hearted executives that find new ways to sell a sugary unhealthy drink to as many people as possible- democracy as a kind of product… geeze, Laura- I know what you are thinking… but…

    I am noticing more and more how social media like facebook has turned friends and social networks into audiences and how people (especially in Los Angeles) brand themselves, displaying their acts of citizenship and social justice as a kind of press release to be applauded by friends and friends of friends. In LA, you also get the fashion- being seen in the right place- instead of it being seen by just the people in the place, you can now broadcast the fact that you were in a certain place to people who weren’t lucky enough to be there with you. We have all become minor celebrities in our own little acts of paparazzi. We all have audiences.

    When the election took place in Britain and US- I noticed how people posted “I voted in the election” on facebook—I thought this was cool- it was about making democratic acts popular and fashionable. When I watched the coverage of the recent elections, lots of the commentators said this is what got Obama elected (young people!) and that there was too little of this kind of thing in the last election. Why I am bringing it up here is that this kind of thing focuses on pride- I VOTED! I think that is why it works- it goes through peoples desire to be recognized (pride in a cynical way, recognition in a positive way). Pride, Patrick pride! And showing off to the people around you- not showing things to people thousands of miles away- it is a kind of horizontal communication, as opposed to an international communication.

    I am wondering how such a sentiment can be applied in countries with authoritarian regimes- how can we make people engage with the election before and during the election. How can we make the communication- horizontal- between people- instead of between countries? How can you make this a tool of pride, instead of just anger?

    In the coca cola book, it talked about marketing strategies where they got consumers to compete with photography competitions or videos- where people had to capture Coke being consumed in different settings. The company then used these photos and videos in their marketing. At the world cup in South Africa, they had the same strategy of getting people to make videos of themselves “celebrating around a flag”. It was hugely popular and eventually got quite annoying- if I ever hear that bloody jingle again, I swear I will kill the nearest Coca Cola vendor- but annoying is good from the point of view of marketing- it means people are buying in. Making consumers do all the hard work!

    I am wondering if this strategy would work in elections- getting people to communicate what they want from elections before the elections- getting people to vocalize what leaders can do for them – making this sort of communication fun to young people- fashionable and appealing to be shared horizontally. Making people take some kind of ownership over the process. I don’t know- I haven’t completely thought it through- but I just think that you need to make the Ushahidi election monitoring different somehow, otherwise it is just going to be about people venting- it is not going to change anything. You have to make it about pride and aspiration.

    I know that you believe the crowd-sourcing is a new kind of communication tool that changes the flow of information, but unless it makes communication truly horizontal- between people in the same country- then I don’t think it has a huge role to play in elections. Do you know what I mean?

    Sorry, this is sooo long. I shall get back to my own work now! I am just always thinking about that Sudanese election, about all the hope beforehand and how it changed nothing, how bloody depressing it was- I don’t want to believe that politics in such countries is all on an international level- Omar Bashir will stay in power unless the outside world does something to remove him- shouldn’t the emphasis be on change within? I just want to believe that other elections can be different and can allow young Sudanese people the same experience of feeling proud of themselves as voters. Please tell me how this could happen, Patrick?!

    Yalla Adios

    • Wow, Catwo, you definitely win the top prize for longer response to any blog post published on iRevolution!! Thanks a million for taking the time to share your thoughts and brainstorm these ideas, really valuable. I don’t know if I will manage to respond to all the excellent points you’ve brought up, so let me know if I miss anything that you think I should have addressed, ok?

      First, I’d say that Ushahidi is not just for elections, it could be used for civic engagement well before any elections and well after. So nothing prevents any organization from using the tool for local grassroots engagement. Second, the main group that used Ushahidi in the Egyptian elections actually *was* an Egyptian marketing company. Third, I’d totally agree with you re learning from marketing and branding experts. I repeatedly stress to those organizations wanting to use Ushahidi that media strategy is incredibly important. Fourth, 3 of the 5 Ushahidi maps used in Egypt were in Arabic, and thus clearly *not* for a Western audience. Fifth, it’s important to compare citizen-based election monitoring efforts with official monitoring efforts. In the case of Egypt, the latter didn’t exist because Mubarak didn’t allow it. So local monitoring initiatives became even more important. But more to the point, how exactly have international election observers made a difference in Burma for example, where they called the vote unfair. What did it change? Nothing. And not just in Burma, but if you look at the number of time that official bodies have called elections unfair, how did this change anything for the population. Rarely has this changed the situation. At least with citizen-based election monitoring, groups are connecting, getting trained, and the use of Ushahidi catalyzes a conversation that sometimes would not happen. Sixth, why expect that using any tool, Ushahidi or otherwise, will have the kind of national, macro level impact of actually changing the outcome of elections. When has something like this ever happened? The reason these groups have used Ushahidi is to try and create more accountability and transparency. The former may happen, but obviously accountability is not something that happens over night. I think it will be interesting to see what happens in the Sudan next month with Sudan Vote Monitor and also how Ushahidi gets used in Egypt for the presidential elections. In short, I’d say, patience. The Wright Brothers didn’t create the 747.

      And on that note, I must return to chapter 3 of my dissertation cause I really want to graduate next year!! But how about writing a new blog post on your blog, Catwo? I really enjoyed reading them!!

      Thanks again for sharing. I’ll be calling you next month to follow up since the second half of my dissertation now focuses on the use of Ushahidi in Egypt and the Sudan 🙂

  5. Pingback: Crisis Mapping Egypt: Collection of Protest Maps (Updated) | iRevolution

  6. Pingback: Traditional vs. Crowdsourced Election Monitoring: Which Has More Impact? | iRevolution

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