'Ushahidi' Technology Saves Lives in Haiti and Chile

By Jessica Ramirez

In 2008, Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh was covering the post-election violence in Kenya when she blogged, "Any techies out there willing to do a mash up of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?" Within days, two such techies wrote software code for an open-source, Web-based platform that would come to be known as Ushahidi. The name—Swahili for testimony—more or less describes how the platform has been used in places like Gaza, Afghanistan, Haiti, and now Chile.

The Ushahidi program provides a way for volunteers to collect information from sources like text messages, blog posts, videos, phone calls, and pictures, which are then mapped in near real time. It can be used to plot everything from disasters to wars. And unlike older forms of crisis-mapping software, Ushahidi is advanced enough to paint an accurate portrait of events while remaining incredibly user friendly and easy to build on.

The end result is a crisis map that provides humanitarian actors on the ground an overview of the situation. Even in a country like Haiti, where technology is sketchy at best, Ushahidi has been pretty incredible, saving countless lives. Ushahidi-Haiti was set up two hours after the Jan. 12 earthquake by volunteers based at Tufts University. Soon after, a short code (4636) was created for incoming text messages and spread via local and national radio stations. Witnesses could text information about what they were seeing or experiencing. If the message was actionable, e.g.: "there are people trapped in a building located on Border and Smith," then a volunteer would map the GPS coordinates and provide the information to rescue teams on the ground. Often the text messages were in Creole, but Ushahidi worked with some 10,000 Haitian-American volunteers across the United States who translated every text message within 10 minutes. Carol Waters, Ushahidi-Haiti's director of communications and partnerships, says that many of those messages were simply, "I'm buried under the ruble, but I'm still alive." By day 25 of the earthquake aftermath, Ushahidi-Haiti had mapped about 2,500 reports. In a recent e-mail, a member of the Marine Corps who worked on the Haiti rescue effort wrote, "I cannot overemphasize to you what the work of the Ushahidi/Haiti has provided. It is saving lives every day ... You are making the biggest difference of anything I have seen out there in the open source world."

While Haiti marked the first time this open-source platform technology has been used this extensively to inform rescue teams and save lives, it also provided a base of knowledge to respond to the earthquake in Chile. In that case, more than 60 volunteers from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs mapped more than 100 reports on Ushahidi-Chile within 48 hours of the quake. So far, they've plotted critical needs like medical locations, grocery stores, and water- and food-distribution sites. The lessons they learned in Haiti made it possible to do a week's worth of work in days, says Waters. At this rate, Ushahidi will do in Chile what it did in Haiti: make sense of a disastrous situation—only faster.