Ushahidi means “testimony” in Swahili. It is also the name given to a platform initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the 2007/8 post-election fallout. The volunteer team behind Ushahidi developed a tool for Kenyans to report and map incidents of violence that they saw via text, email or the web. Within a week Ushahidi had gone from idea to live deployment. The platform now serves as a prototype and a lesson for what can be done by combining crisis information from citizen generated reports, media and NGOs and mashing that data up with geographical mapping tools.
The team behind Ushahidi became an organization that created a free and open source mapping and content management system which can be used by organizations worldwide in similar crisis-related situations. The main goal of the organization is to create a system that facilitates early warning systems and helps in data visualization for response and recovery.
The Ushahidi platform has been used to monitor elections in India, Mexico, Lebanon and Afghanistan. It has been deployed in the DR Congo to track unrest, Zambia to monitor medicine stocks and the Philippines to track mobile phone companies. In South Africa, the Ushahidi platform, along with the Twitter hashtag #GotPetrol, was used to map the Gauteng fuel shortage in July last year. Ushahidi also partnered with humanitarian organisations in Haiti shortly after the 2010 earthquake, and the platform was used to co-ordinate relief efforts because aid workers had a clear, up-to-date picture of the worst-affected areas. A key component of Ushahidi is the ability to use mobile phones as a primary means of both sending crisis incidents and receiving updates. The internet can be difficult to access or completely unavailable in some parts of the world, so the platform was created with the mobile phone as a foundational element.
The crowd-sourcing model has proven so successful that the UN Development Programme is exploring ways to use it in conflict prevention. MXit, developed in Stellenbosch, South Africa, has gone toe-to-toe with other social networking applications and come out tops on the continent, with in excess of 10 million active users, and has crossed over from mobile phones to running as an app on smartphones in multiple countries. Bongo Hive, a Zambian tech hub, used the Ushahidi platform to create a crowd-sourced map of tech hubs on the continent. In the three months of the map’s existence, it has recorded 50 tech hubs across the continent.
The growth of social media is now forcing media organizations to change their approach to publishing. When Ushahidi was first used in Kenya, most people tuned in the platform to have news, while radio and television broadcasts were always late on the story. It is worse still for the printed media, with its long lag between writing, printing and distribution. Social media platforms are becoming a source of news in themselves, bringing new challenges to the industry. African media houses have now rushed to come up with written guidelines to manage use of social media in their newsrooms. “They help in exactly the same way as other media guidelines like the code of ethics where journalists know the limitations of collecting the information… what you might say that may cause libel; we have just extended the same thing as way of guidelines into the social media,” Nation Media Group’s, Africa’s largest media company, Chief Executive Officer Linus Gitahi says.
The overall principle is that journalists using social networking sites as a source of news should apply the same journalistic tests as they would to any other method of newsgathering. A tweet is no more reliable as a source of news than a phone tip-off to the newsroom; a blog is no more reliable than an overheard conversation. Social media guidelines are crucial to maintaining a media house’s reputation.
Some radio stations allow their journalists to simultaneously publish on social media what they report in live broadcast. For instance, journalists at Capital FM, in Nairobi, are free to engage friends on social media networks while at the same time relaying news as it breaks. “You can freely engage your personal friends on your Facebook profile but we encourage our reporters to retain a more ‘professional’ outlook on Twitter since it’s a requirement that they identify themselves as Capital FM news staff on this platform,” editorial director Michael Mumo says. Critics view social media guidelines for journalists as a way of muzzling them. In reality, all media houses have policies to avoid publication or broadcasting of news that cannot be quoted elsewhere.
Social media carry also a big danger for the media industry. Once the news is out, it is difficult to redress it. Hence the duty of copy editors to double check any source. Also, the speed at which social media platform divulge news is detrimental to the quality of the news itself. When information is broadcast raw, there is no time for analysis and contextualization. The public might have the impression that information is nor freer and faster, in reality what they receive is only a list of events, that are not understandable without proper reference to other events and people’s experiences.