A new software application called Ushahidi exemplifies the possibilities of widely dispersed participation and input. Started in Kenya, its name is Swahili for “testimony.” It came about in response to the troubled Kenyan election of 2007. A post from a reporter trying to track violence led to a volunteer network of technology experts creating the platform in a matter of days. It uses cellphone reports to map information from people who call in. In Kenya, the information was related to violent events in the aftermath of the election. The system was able to gather more information faster than the traditional sources of news reporters or election monitors.
Ushahidi was subsequently used in the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile to find people trapped by the quake and help direct rescuers to the right locations. It has also been applied to monitoring elections in India and pinpointing roadblocks after the blizzard in D.C.
Sourced from an unlikely place well outside the usual technology bubbles, Ushahidi has no patent protection and remains open source, so it can be adapted to future situations. Designed to work on cellphone technology that is widely distributed, it can be deployed in parts of the world that do not have standard internet access. This fast-moving, practical application that saved lives suggests the power that new networks, both technical and social, will bring to bear on improving the quality of life around the world.