A few years ago, the NY Times word of the year was Logistics. Ushahidi is logistics, in the sense that data visualization allows for people to know what is going on where. The other side of Ushahidi is the crowd-sourcing of information, with a good filtering system to prioritize and sort data. Developed in Africa, it works well with a minimum amount of infrastructure, and can be set up pretty quickly – and then manage a whole country’s worth of data on election violence, medicine distribution … whatever you want to set up. Even more clever is the alerting feature – where you can set up an alert for if any event in your category selection occurs within 20km of your designated spot.
The Ushahidi project Alive in Afghanistan provides a platform for citizen and professional journalism and tracking of several categories of data related to the continuing unrest in the country. On the front page, you can see a map overlaid with markers for incidents ranging from election irregularities to NATO troop activity. By relying on crowdsourced information, submitted by SMS, there can be a lot of data put down—far more than could be delivered by a professional new service.
Crowdsourcing generally provides pretty good information, either by way of ‘digital Maoism’ (which is how Wikipedia works) or regression to the mean, which is how the Peanut Gallery is often staggeringly accurate in terms of guessing the weight of the dressed ox (the original example). Crowdsourcing can also be dangerous in terms of being subject to hijacking, which would be a real threat in Afghanistan: the Taliban or Al-Qaeda could put a pin down for “What Went Well” and have it lead to a truck bomb or other unpleasant surprise. So the system has a trust selection system, so once you know someone is reputable, you can ‘trust’ them more than just someone who sends an SMS in.
By providing news and pushing updates to people through SMS, Alive in Afghanistan provides up to date and detailed information, potentially much faster than any new service. In a high-threat environment, this is an essential service, and the information feed can also be tapped by traditional media outlets, like CNN and Al-Jazeera to see where things are happening.
Another Ushahidi system is Stop Stock-Outs. Stop Stock-Outs uses crowdsourcing to make sure pharmacies in central Africa have adequate supplies of essential medicines (as defined by the WHO, 1977). Without robust infrastructure, both transit links and telecommunications, it is often difficult to maintain adequate supplies of pharmaceuticals, especially those in high demand in rural areas. Stop Stock-Outs allows for simplified tracking of pharmaceutical stocks, using the Ushahidi infrastructure to allow for real time reporting. This system addresses a critical public health problem for these countries—both in terms of providing medications such as antibiotics and antimalarials, which are time sensitive, and also antiretrovirals where not being able to take medications on time can foster resistance and potentially reduce their effectiveness in combatting HIV/AIDS.
Additionally, stock-outs undermine confidence in the public health infrastructure, reducing the effectiveness of the health infrastructure and rolling back the fight against infectious and chronic disease.