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Message your way out of a crisis

Mobile phones are increasingly being used as tools for humanitarians Keishamaza Rukikaire/IRIN
Help for people facing humanitarian catastrophe could be a text message or mouse click away, thanks to software that has proved vital in humanitarian disasters such as the Haiti earthquake.

"Ushahidi" is Swahili for testimony and also the name of a website originally developed to map reports of violence and peace efforts following Kenya's 2008 election.

"During the [Kenyan] post-election violence, a few concerned civilians came up with a platform for ordinary citizens to share what they were witnessing," said Rebecca Wanjiku, a volunteer with Ushahidi. "The platform worked by crowd-sourcing information sent mainly via SMS [short message service], and was able to give people who wished to help an understanding of where the violence was happening."

The Ushahidi platform has been used to map xenophobic attacks in South Africa in 2008, monitor elections in Burundi, India, Mexico and Sudan, to warn drivers about snow-covered roads and map clean-up efforts during a blizzard in Washington DC in February, and most recently, to monitor the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The latest version of the software, known as Mogadishu, allows anyone to gather data sent via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. The goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.

"We developed the platform more fully after the Kenyan situation because we didn't want other people caught in similar situations to start from scratch, like we did," Wanjiku said.

She noted that verification of information could sometimes be a problem, but said on-the-ground NGOs and Twitter had both been used to validate information. Ushahidi has also created SwiftRiver, a programme that aims to verify and filter user-generated information.

Partnership

According to Erik Hersman, director of operations, strong partnerships are vital for the platform to work properly.

"In Haiti, we were able to partner with the two largest mobile phone companies to send SMSs to all their subscribers, giving them the short code to which they should send information about their whereabouts," he said.

According to Hersman, one of the main bottlenecks is the unwillingness of some partners to share information that could prove useful to other organizations or individuals working in an emergency.

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"Ushahidi - by putting all the information out there for everyone to see - is changing the way information is handled, and some organizations are suspicious of this openness and continue to hoard very useful data," he said.

Beyond crises

Many organizations are beginning to see the value of Ushahidi outside sudden onset emergencies; in Kenya, it is being used to track wildlife, and in the Philippines by citizens to monitor the mobile phone companies.

In 2009, a campaign called "Stop Stock-outs" used Ushahidi to check the availability of 10 essential medicines in local health centres - in five days, campaign participants reported more than 250 stock-outs in Kenya, Malawi, Uganda and Zambia.

Regional NGOs are also considering using the platform for ongoing humanitarian campaigns.

"It would be a very useful way to track the situations in areas like Somalia and Darfur which journalists can't readily access, but where mobile phone use is widespread," said Alun McDonald, regional spokesman for Oxfam GB, told IRIN. The NGO recently provided financial assistance to election monitoring in Burundi. "We could use it to track the movement of illegal arms, violence against women, and collect all sorts of other useful information."

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