NSL Blog

Ushahidi: a story of non-linear innovation

January 21, 2013

As described in No Straight Lines – what we face in a complex challenging world is a design challenge. Here is a story of how without spending any money a group of highly motivated people came together from around the world with multiple-design skills and capability, to create what has become the cutting edge in crisis management, and a new radical design of NGO. This organisation is called Ushahidi.

Kenya provides a recent and inspiring example of getting stuff done when you have no money and no resources, by being able to describe a real problem and then being literate and knowledgeable enough to conceive the possibility of creating an entirely new means to meet the needs of the problem. That problem at hand was not a small matter, it was the escalating violence ensuing from a bitterly contested election. In 2008, Kenyan citizen journalists and activists were actively using Web 2.0 tools and applications such as wikis, blogs, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and SMS messages to organise and share news and information about the recent post-election crisis, chronicling violence, sharing crisis photos and raising funds to help the needy. However, the information was not being harnessed and aggregated as a singular source of information, making effective on-the-ground coordination difficult.

Kenyan blogger Ory Okolloh posted on her blog asking for volunteers to create a new service that would be able to document post-election violence and destruction. Her premise was that gathering crisis information from people on the ground would provide invaluable knowledge and information into events happening in near real-time. That would aid rapid reaction to events, and also could be used for a possible future reconciliation process. The service was designed and built by a group of volunteer developers and designers, hailing primarily from Africa; however, it also attracted people from other parts of the world including the Netherlands and the US. Rapidly, a tool was developed by combining (mashing up) open source software, mobile geo location data, Google maps, text messaging and information gathered from other data sources. It was called ‘Ushahidi’. In Swahili it means testimony, and became the tool for people who, witnessing acts of violence in Kenya, could report the incidents. This information would then be displayed via a platform using Google maps in which all the information could be viewed.

Ushahidi have made their platform freely available for anyone to use. To collect and visualise information in crisis scenarios or when the gathering of information in real-time can play a crucial role in the outcome of fast-moving events. Ushahidi has been deployed in Haiti, Chile, Japan and is used now as an election monitoring system as well. That is their gift to the world, as Lewis Hyde might observe. The open source platform is adaptable, allowing for plug-ins and extensions; it is therefore flexible enough to accommodate different needs. Ushahidi has been used extensively since then, but again if we look under the hood of Ushahidi and reflect on its capability and its success, what can we learn?

The New York Times:

Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation. Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff. Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

Ushahidi remixes have been used in India to monitor elections; in Africa to report medicine shortages; in the Middle East to collect reports of wartime violence; and in Washington, D.C., where the Washington Post partnered to build a site to map road blockages and the location of available snowplows and blowers.

Ushahidi asks us to rethink how we view the process of innovation and organisation. Theirs was a non-linear response in every sense of the word where high levels of motivation and a blend of skill sets realised Ushahidi as a platform that circumvented all obstacles to its success. From an organisational perspective, we can see that participatory cultures, open source and collaborative tools, combined with communication networks, enable a coalition of the willing to form and work together.

Why is Ushahidi relevant to how we can better understand innovation?

  1. Literacy of  Open Innovation – enabled by Open Source and Open API’s of different platforms – ability to build on the work of others – modify and create
  2. Human-OS – motivation of human beings to respond and engage with a cause
  3. Rough consensus running code – constant iterative improvement
  4. Blended reality – Online and offline
  5. Read / write platform
  6. New organisational capability
  7. Constraint of design fuels innovation
  8. Data

So a question those charged with innovation is – could we be able to create such breakthrough innovation within our existing culture? No Straight Lines has developed a breakthrough innovation programme – more information here


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