Learning about Ushahidi

I am enjoying the experience of working for Ushahidi these days. My previous knowledge about crowdsourcing and Ushahidi was mostly limited to the research papers and articles. However, with this internship I am sure that I will be able to develop a more practical perspective towards the real time operational issues within the Ushahidi platform. As I dive deeper into the internship related work and my research on the success factors of a crowdsourcing initiative I am sure that exciting days are yet to come.

Within a few days of my internship I have gathered some valuable insights and perspective on Ushahidi. I thought of writing them down in order to help individuals or organizations interested in learning about Ushahidi.

1. What does Ushahidi do?

Ushahidi is a platform with multiple applications. It can either be used as a tool for gathering information or organizing action related to crisis response. For example – Ushahidi was used as an action oriented tool in Haiti and it was used as tool to gather information in Sudan. In fact, Ushahidi might also be extended to be used as a media tool in Egypt where the implementers wish to add audio files to the platform.

2. Who can contribute data to Ushahidi?

The information gathered from Ushahidi might sometimes be from a group of chosen reporters, or from anyone in the crowd. For example – the Haiti implementation allowed anyone in need of help to SMS whereas the Ushahidi implementation in Guinea will gather information from on-ground reporters. Technically, the Haiti implementation and Guinea implementation can be referred to as a case of unbounded crowdsourcing and bounded crowdsourcing respectively.

3. How to ensure crowd participation?

It is extremely important to create awareness and an element of trust between the members of the ‘crowd’ for the Ushahidi instance to ensure sufficient ‘crowd participation’. The most commonly used media tool (radio or television) must be chosen to increase the visibility of the initiative within the public. The support of the government or a local organization enhances trust.

4. Is Ushahidi susceptible to ‘information vandalism’?

Patrick used ‘wag the dog analogy’ to explain how difficult it is to manipulate the crowdsourced information. But I still felt the information vandalism was possible and this fact troubled me. I asked Anahi the same question and she gave me a new perspective to look at the issue. In her opinion, we must bear in mind that crowdsourcing just like any other tool can be used to accomplish bad intentions e.g. a knife can be used for cutting a piece of steak for eating or it can be used for killing people. Similarly, crowdsourcing provides opportunities to solve social issues and at the same time is susceptible to ‘information vandalism’ by authoritative regimes. However, it is extremely challenging to manipulate the information as crowdsourcing gathers information from a variety of sources (mobile phone, twitter, youtube, blogs, facebook etc) and it is in most of the cases self correcting. Hence, a person attempting to manipulate information will need to hire a big group of people to accomplish his goal – an unlikely scenario. However, the pessimist in me still asks the question that someone might still be willing to do it. Has it ever been done before? If yes, what were the repercussions?

5. How does the extent of crowd participation vary with time?

The extent of crowd participation over time remains an issue of prime interest to me. Anahi mentioned that the extent of crowd participation is mostly expected to follow the bell curve. I do understand that it is an overly simplified (and generalized) illustration of the nature of crowd participation. Therefore, I wonder – Is the nature of crowd participation dependent on the application of the crowdsourcing initiative viz. election monitoring, disaster management, citizen journalism etc.? If yes, how? It is one of the most important insights I have gathered till I have been working with Ushahidi. I believe the knowledge about the nature of extent of crowd participation over time might help the implementers to prepare themselves better for handling information. Also, the ‘bell curve’ phenomenon fits in well with the crowdsourcing critical success factor model. As per the model the ‘success of the initiative’ brings in more participation till the peripheral factors are aligning the motives of the crowd with the long term objectives of the crowdsourcing initiative. Hence, the peak of the ‘bell curve’ maybe visualized as the point till the peripheral factors are aligning the motives and leading to an increase in participation. However, after the peak is reached the participation declines possibly due to some modification in one or more of the peripheral factors.

All these viewpoints are fascinating. I look forward to further discussions with Patrick, Anahi and other Ushahidi team members to gather more insights. I feel lucky to be a part of the Ushahidi team over the summers. And I do hope that I am able to add value to Ushahidi during my internship.


About Ankit Sharma

Born in Kashmir, Alumni of London School of Economics, Currently working for the Royal Bank of Scotland, Living in London with absolute passion and hope in the user of Information Technology to solve social problems.
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