Open Source for Humanitarian Action

Brandon Keim | Stanford Social Innovation Review | December 1, 2012

Ushahidi develops free software that allows volunteers to map humanitarian crises from their mobile phones.

In the days following the Jan. 10, 2010, earthquake in Haiti, chaos prevailed. Transportation was limited, if not impossible. Lines of communication were broken. A few radio stations continued to broadcast, but the disaster’s scale was overwhelming. Only one form of mass communication remained relatively intact: cellular phones. Even before the disaster, there had been only 108,000 landbased telephone lines in the country, compared with 3.5 million mobile phones. After the earthquake, mobile communications, particularly text messages, were one of the few means by which people could report their needs and location. Around those calls for help coalesced a community of techno-humanitarian volunteers using computer software that helped turn text messages into a real-time online disaster map, usable by rescue workers and aid organizations.

Foremost among the volunteer groups was Ushahidi, an organization founded two years earlier by four tech-savvy activists frustrated by a lack of mainstream Kenyan media coverage of the country’s postelection violence. But while Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) and its mapping platform had been used elsewhere, Haiti marked their big-stage debut. Within days of the Haiti earthquake, the platform was customized and a text message hotline set up. Hundreds of volunteers from around the world processed texted reports of trapped people, medical emergencies, and requests for aid, feeding the reports into a map that rescue workers could use. A total of 1,500 reports were gathered and mapped in the first two weeks, and more than 3,500 created altogether.

Since that time, some 17,000 maps have been made, some with the help of Ushahidi’s personnel and volunteer community, but most by people unconnected with the organization. The maps have chronicled everything from political violence in Africa to calamitous weather in New York and neighborhood news in Sydney. In principle, the potential uses are almost infinite. “When we originally drew up our first mind maps of the different stakeholders, we figured that some organizations and journalists and NGOs might use it. We couldn’t have envisioned what would happen today,” says Ushahidi co-founder Juliana Rotich...