Somalia has been steadily slipping from global media attention over the past few months. The large scale crisis is no longer making headline news, which means that advocacy and lobbying groups are finding it increasingly difficult to place pressure on policymakers and humanitarian organizations to scale their intervention in the Horn of Africa. I recently discussed this issue with Al-jazeera’s Social Media Team whilst in Doha and pitched a project to them which has just gone live this hour.
The joint project combines the efforts of multiple partners including Al-Jazeera, Ushahidi, Souktel, Crowdflower, the African Diaspora Institute and the wider Somali Diaspora. The basis of my pitch to Al-jazeera was to let ordinary Somalis speak for themselves by using SMS to crowdsource their opinions on the unfolding crisis. My colleagues at Al-jazeera liked the idea and their editorial team proposed the following question:
Al Jazeera wants to know: how has the conflict of the last few months affected your life? Please include the name of your hometown in your response. Thank you!
So I reached out to my good friend Jacob Korenblum at Souktel. He and I had been discussing different ways we might combine our respective technologies to help in Somalia. Souktel has been working in Somalia and providing various SMS based solutions to several organizations. Jacob had previously mentioned that his team had a 50,000+ member SMS subscriber list. This proved to be key. Earlier this week, the Souktel team sent out the above question in Somali to about 5,000 of their subscribers. An effort was made to try and select geographically disbursed areas.
We’ve since received well over 2,000 text message replies and counting. In order to translate and geolocate these messages, I got in touch my colleagues Vaughn Hester and Lukas Biewald at Crowdflower in San Francisco. Crowdflower uses micro-tasking solutions to process and structure data flows. They were very keen to help and thanks to their support my Ushahidi colleagues Rob Baker and Linda Kamau were able to customize this Crowdflower plugin to translate, categorize and geo-locate incoming text messages:
They also wrote additional software so that text messages from Souktel could be automatically forwarded to the Crowdflower plugin which would then automatically push the processed SMS’s to a live Ushahidi map hosted by Al-jazeera. While the software development was moving forward, I connected with colleagues from the Somali American Student Association who expressed an interest in supporting this project. Thanks to them and other members of the Somali Diaspora, hundreds of Somali voices were translated and shared on Al-jazeera’s public Ushahidi map of Somalia within days. But we still need lots of help. So if you speak Somali and English, then simply follow this link.
I wanted this project to serve as a two-way conversation, however, not just a one-way information flow from Somalia to the world. Every report that gets mapped on an Ushahidi platform is linked to public discussion forum where readers can respond and share their views on said report. So I suggested that Al-jazeera invite their viewers/readers to comment on the text messages directly. The next step will be for Al-jazeera’s editorial team to select some of the most compelling and interesting comments and to text these back to the senders of the original text messages in Somalia. This two-way flow of information can be iterated and scaled given that the technologies and workflows are already in place.
In sum, the purpose of this project is to catalyze global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then this project invites Somalis speak to the world themselves. The project highlights these voices on a live, public map for the world to bear witness and engage in a global conversation with people of Somalia, a conversation in which Somalis and the Diaspora are themselves at the centerfold. It is my sincere hope that advocacy and lobby group will be able to leverage the content generated by this project to redouble their efforts in response to the escalating crisis in Somalia.
I very much hope to see this type of approach used again in Somalia and elsewhere. It is fully inline with the motivations that inspired the launch of the first Ushahidi platform almost 4 years ago today: collective witnessing. Indeed, I am often reminded of what my friend Anand Giridharadas of the New York Times wrote last year vis-a-vis Ushahidi. To paraphrase:
They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time:
“I was here, and this is what happened to me”?
Use #SomaliaSpeaks to witness the project on Twitter.
I want to specifically thank the following individuals who put an incredible amount of time and effort (most pro bono) to make this project happen: Robert Baker, Linda Kamau, Michael Moszczynski, Katie Highet, Jacob Korenblum, Vaughn Hester, Mohammed Dini, Hamza Haadoow, Andrew Jawitz and of course the excellent Al Jazeera team in Doha. Thank you all for going above and beyond to make this happen.