Saturday, 5 May 2012

Ushahidi

One of the most interesting mapping tools that I have seen in the last couple of years is that developed by the non-profit company Ushahidi. The name means "testimony" in Swahili, and the origin of Ushahidi comes from the website they developed to help monitor reports of violence in the aftermath of the Kenyan elections in 2008. The core idea was that anyone could submit a report to the site via internet or a mobile phone and this would then be mapped, together with some assessment of its reliability.

From this beginning they have put together an open source software platform which allows anyone to set up their own crowdmap, a map based around participation and contributions from anyone who takes an interest in the issue. Reports can be submitted as text, images or video.



The key components of the crowdmap are:
  • an easy and accessible means of facilitating the submission of reports (via the web, SMS, twitter)
  • the possibility to include news feeds showing the latest relevant information from the media
  • a timeline so that the frequency and geographical distribution of events can be viewed over a selected time period 
  • customisable categorisation of reports so that the information displayed on the map can be managed  
  • a choice of map backgrounds 
Given the origins of Ushahidi it's not surprising that many of the uses of the platform are related to social themes such as monitoring of elections, natural disasters and other topics where an on the ground presence can provide unique sources of information that will not be matched by much of the media reporting. However, it is possible to use the software for any case where the mapping of something benefits from aggregating and locating information from different sources over a period of time.

Many examples of different uses can be found on the Ushahidi site itself. Here are a couple of interesting examples from the country where I live, Spain. The first one shows how the platform can be used for social activism, with a map of actions by the campaign to stop house owners from losing their homes as a result of the economic crisis. The second example comes from a former work colleague of mine and fellow open source enthusiast, Javier Sánchez. He has developed a map to show events and activities organised by non-governmental organisations.

The software can be freely downloaded here, but there is also an alternative for those who want to use it but don't have the means to host their own installation of Ushahidi. The company has set up a site called Crowdmap where anyone can create their own Ushahidi-based map. I'm going to use the Crowdmap option as the basis for a short series of posts on how to create and configure a map using Ushahidi's technology.

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