Net Effect: Neighborhood Watch
By Elizabeth Dickinson
Published in: Foreign Policy, January/February 2009
“For years, creating an effective means of alerting the world to brewing conflicts has been the dream of humanitarians.
When a rush of violence broke out last January after Kenya’s presidential election, many wondered why it was so unexpected. Electoral rigging set off the attacks, but surely tensions simmered before. Could Kenya have seen the outburst coming and perhaps done something to prevent it?
Prediction, at least, was possible—and Web-based nonprofit Ushahidi (Swahili for “testimony”) did just that. Funded by grants and individual donations, Ushahidi had already developed software that allowed any mobile-phone user in Kenya to report incidents of community tension. “[T]here were a lot of rumors going around way before the violence,” says Ushahidi’s founder, Ory Okolloh.
Okolloh’s group operates one of a growing number of conflict early warning systems that are springing up online. They work because they are simple and fast. An Ushahidi user, for example, sends details of turmoil by text or posts directly to ushahidi.com. Once a local NGO verifies the account, the incident gets entered into the Ushahidi database and plotted on a map, tagged with a description of the event and with space for pictures and video. In Kenya, reports of violence were texted back to local leaders, who could mediate community conflict. International observers could monitor the reports, too.
For years, creating an effective means of alerting the world to brewing conflicts has been the dream of humanitarians. The African Union has been intent on creating its own system since the early 1990s. But none of the ideas was Internet-based. As the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies put it, Web-based approaches “would have been patently inappropriate for an organization that only recently achieved a moderate level of external e-mail connectivity.”
With Ushahidi, information is available within minutes, and Okolloh says censorship isn’t a problem because governments “are more interested in what’s in newspapers than what’s online.” Kenya was the first testing ground, and now Ushahidi is jumping into other conflict countries as well. As of November, the group was already receiving an average of four reports a day from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. This growing breadth could make Ushahidi something like the Wikipedia of conflicts, wrote Harvard researchers Joshua Goldstein and Juliana Rotich in a recent paper. “They are tools that allow cooperation on a massive scale.” Ushahidi hopes to become a history worth contributing to. “