Crisismapping: A Basic Introduction (Part II)
In the first blog post of this series we introduced the concept of crowdsourcing and shared some of its practical uses. Here we will continue our discussion with a focus on crisismapping and will introduce you to more of its building blocks as well as take a look at the Ushahidi platform, and explain what it has to offer and how it has evolved.
Perhaps one of the most prominent crowdsourcing tools to emerge in the last few years has been Crowdmapping–also called crisis-mapping. Crowdmapping refers to gathering information from witnesses on a specific issue or mining readily available information generated by users on social-media. Its uses have included the mapping of: the displacement of citizens during environmental crisis, governmental corruption, sexual harassment of women, and election monitoring or fraud among other things. This information is then communicated by participants to a map by sending a text message (SMS) through their cell phones, or a tweet; or by visiting the website where the map is hosted and inputting the information on a form there.
Crowdmapping is a compelling tool that visually illustrates the scope and spread of a certain phenomenon or a crisis, and is often followed by extending help to those in need or introducing the necessary policy measures or solutions.
Although crowdmapping is often compared to geographic information systems (GIS), it goes a step further than just visually presenting, analysing and managing data on a map to capturing a broader set of tasks that allow the filtering and categorizing of information. For example, if your map is tracking the sexual harassment of women, you can search by location or type of attack as well as extract any media or multimedia coverage during a certain period of time. Some open source mapping platforms allow collaborative updates of maps, meaning that community volunteers can interact with and update maps directly.
WHERE IT ALL BEGAN: USHAHIDI
Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, is the most popular open source crowdmapping platform. It is where the story of crisis-mapping began as an experiment by a group of bloggers during the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007. The aim was to “map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones”. At the time one of Kenya’s most famous bloggers, Ory Okolloh began blogging about the violence, which was not covered by the local media. She was soon overwhelmed with the information from her readers and suggested that a google map is set up so others can update it collaboratively. A group of other African bloggers and technologists read her request and decided to act up on it, leading to the creation of Ushahidi.
Ushahidi allowed even the least connected Kenyan citizens to send reports via SMS, after an SMS “shortcode” was created with the telecommunications company Safaricom. The map that was created helped Kenyans keep track of what was happening, report violence, request help and avoid dangerous areas. It was also used by relief agencies, such as the United Nations who were providing support to victims.
Since then the Ushahidi platform has been used by millions in over 100 countries around the globe, and most of its data is crowdsourced from the public using social media and SMS. Ushahidi is now an international organization that defines itself as one that, “build[s] tools for democratizing information, increasing transparency and lowering the barriers for individuals to share their stories.” As well as, “a disruptive organization that is willing to take risks in the pursuit of changing the traditional way that information flows”.
According to, Patrick Meier, a renowned crisis mapping expert, (who formerly served as Director of Crisis Mapping at Ushahidi) Ushahidi is worth a shot because, “The platform represents an important convergence of new technologies. SMS, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Flicker, smartphone apps, voicemail and email can all be combined with Ushahidi.”
Since it was formed Ushahidi has gone through several upgrades that include:
- opening up the platform to third party developers for customization;
- the creation of a smartphone app for Android, and iPhones;
- easier mapping of multimedia that includes the integration of photos and videos;
- in 2010 Ushahidi launched Crowdmap, which allows users to set up a Ushahidi map without having to install it on a separate server, hence making the process of setting up faster and simpler. Crowdmap also allows users to log in with their location and add relevant reports and information to a map.
- Swiftriver is a platform that Ushahidi built that, “enables the filtering and verification of real-time data from channels like Twitter, SMS, Email and RSS feeds.” It allows users to curate and analyze data in real time on specific topics.
- Following the 2013 attack on the Westgate mall. Ushahidi’s team released Ping a smartphone application that allows users to quickly notify family and friends that they are “OK”. It is open source, but so far works only on smart phones.
- Recently Ushahidi launched BRKC, which is a wireless battery and router that allows people to have internet access in the absence of electricity and/or a wireless internet connection. It is especially geared toward use in developing countries and remote locations.