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Digital activists find ways to help Kenya

One major concern in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed elections has been the possibility that the media is undercounting the dead and injured in incidents of election violence. In a blog post last week, Ory Okolloh suggested a project to document incidents of violence and place them on a web-based map.

The idea was quickly picked up by Kenyans in the country and in the diaspora, and over the weekend, Kenyan developer David Kobia put together the Ushahidi website, based on a design sketch from White African blogger Erik “Hash” Hersman and input from a wide range of Kenyan bloggers and activists.

Ushahidi is in its early stages – there aren’t many incidents yet reported on the map – but it’s a powerful and well-designed tool that will allow citizens to report on the tragic events currently unfolding in the country. The designers promise that SMS support, allowing people to enter reports from mobile phones, is coming soon. Ory, Daudi and others are working with Kenyan NGOs who are monitoring these events to ensure that their reports are included on the map and amplified to a domestic and global audience.

The rapid development of this application demonstrates a number of important points about the situation in Kenya, and about emergency situations in general:

– Kenyan bloggers are watching the situation in their country closely, and their combination of passion and technical skill means that we’re likely to see innovative uses of technology to document the unfolding situation and provide assistance to those in need.

– It’s still lots easier to create a web application quickly than an SMS application, even if the SMS application might be more appropriate. This is important for anyone concerned about applications for the developing world. While we all know that mobiles are the best platform (alongside radio) for reaching broad audiences, we need much better tools to build applications.

– When a crisis is unfolding, people want to find ways to help, and will build tools online to help. We saw this in the wake of the Boxing Day tsunami, where activists in South Asia and around the world started a series of relief efforts around the SEA-EAT blog. We saw it again during Katrina, where teams around the world worked to create Peoplefinder, a database designed to help family members and friends find each other. And we’re seeing it in Kenya.

Andrius Kulikauskas, a Lithuanian activist, has been asking his online community what they can do to help people in Kenya. They’ve begun a service that raises money via PayPal and transfers it to people in Kenya via mobile phone credit transfer services, like Mama Mike’s, and via M-PESA. They’re vetting recipients based on a simple reputation mechanism – they’re asking friends in Kenya to recommend people in need.

It’s a good example of the ways in which Kenya is a technology leader – the nation has alternative remittance systems and mobile cash systems that lead the world. It will be interesting – once the dust has settled – to see how these systems helped people in Kenya cope with the current unrest, and whether projects like Andrius’s are a model for providing relief directly to familites.

15 thoughts on “Digital activists find ways to help Kenya”

  1. What a brilliant idea. Ive spoken to relatives in Western Kenya (where there are few international reporters) and violence was continuing when in Nairobi it was slowing down. The obvious problem here is that those privy to acts of violence may not have net access.

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  3. Ethan, it’s been something else to see how quickly the Kenyan blogging and tech community has coalesced around the idea to “do something” instead of just talk about it.

    We’re working on the mobile component for Ushahidi. Right now there is an SMS option, but we want to improve on it. Technology wise, we’re thinking of ways to bring in Flickr and YouTube feeds into the site.

    Daudi and Ory continue to work with the NGO council in Kenya. Getting those relationships in place will be the real test of how used this tool will be. Those NGOs have broad reach and capabilities – we hope our tool will be useful to them.

    Lastly, we’re trying to figure out ways that people can help. So far, we’ve put in a “how you can help” page with a program that MamaMikes.com is running with the Kenyan Red Cross. We hope to add more organizations and ways to help in the near future.

    Thanks for the coverage.

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  7. Ethan, Thank you for noting our efforts. We’ve focused our efforts with Pyramid of Peace http://www.pyramidofpeace.net recently on helping Kenyans engage those in other tribes. Kenyans are organizing a Peace Caravan. I’m wondering where to focus next our resources. Thank you to Clark Boyd, Technology Correspondent of The World, for his report on the use of phone credits as currency http://www.theworld.org/wma.php?id=0116083 and to all who responded! Andrius

  8. Ethan,

    For your information, David Kobia (the one who help to develop Ushahidi) is the creator of Mashada.com and its forum is promoting violence, tribal clashes and hate speeches… Mashada is one of the place where people will kill you with words. This forum has no moderator and David is doing nothing to moderate the place.

    Just as an example, see

    “You useless dirty minded kikuyu demon, don’t you realise you are toying with very dangerous issues here? You are mad and deserve HELL. You will rot in hell and save the country such maddness,. You are rotten and filthy minded….you are so frustrated and hopeless. Go hang your stupid self somewhere very far from Kenya you demon from the heart of hell!!!!

    Kuma mayo! Bloody Kikuyu idiot”

    And this !! Not sure Mr Obama will like this…


    “We have barricaded their only route to their rural homes. In Nairobi we have engaged the Mungiki, they will either pay us in order for us not to kill them, or we will kill them….

    This is what awaits every misguided jaluo and kalenjin:

    [picture of men in blood]”

    How can a man develop a useful website such as Ushahidi and in the same time promote violence and clashes in Mashada.

    By the way, David, are you safe in Alabama ?
    Please moderate your websites as the US law stipulate it or close Mashada.com !!

  9. Bongostyle, I think you’re making a mistake in blaming some of the speech taking place on Mashada on David. The man made a tool – people are now choosing to use it for good for for ill. The solution isn’t to close the tool – it’s to use it better, closing off the threads when they get too extreme. I think you’re fair to ask David to moderate his board more closely, but I think you’re making a mistake in implicitly calling him someone who’s promoting extremism. That’s not who he is and not what he’s doing.

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