Ory Okolloh, the founder and executive director of Ushahidi, which crowdmapped the post-election violence in Kenya. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images.
Three Kenyans – Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta, Francis Kirimi Muthaura and Mohammed Hussein Ali – are appearing at the international criminal court in The Hague charged with crimes against humanity, after being exposed by youth using the web and mobile phones.
The three Kenyans are accused of contributing to an estimated 1,300 deaths in violence following the 2007 presidential election when they were deputy prime minister, head of the civil service and police commissioner respectively.
Violence erupted when the incumbent Mwai Kibaki was declared the winner in the face of charges of vote rigging from supporters of his challenger, Raila Odinga. It soon spread across ethnic lines in often remote parts of the country far away from the reach of national or international media.
An answer to this was the Ushahidi crowdmap – the crowd in this case being Kenyans across the country texting reports of violence from their mobile phones or supplying information via email. Ushahidi means witness in Swahili: the reports were added to an online map and within days all those individual witnesses had together compiled a more complete picture of the violence than any one organization.
One of Ushahidi’s founders, Ory Okolloh, a lawyer, explained in an interview last year that Ushahidi started out as “an ad hoc group of technologists and bloggers hammering out software in a couple of days, trying to figure out a way to gather more and better information about the post-election violence”.
The January 2008 blogpost in which Okolloh asked for “any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps” said recording the truth of what was happening right at that moment would help the later process of reconciliation.
When Ushahidi was born after two sleep-deprived days of coding, Okolloh blogged:
“We believe that the number of deaths being reported by the government, police, and media is grossly under reported. We also don’t think we have a true picture of what is really going on – reports that all have us have heard from family and friends in affected areas suggests that things are much worse than what we have heard in the media.
“We also (in my idealist world) hope that we can begin to put names and faces to the people who have lost their lives in this mess.
Although put together hastily, it worked. A key feature was that it could accept text messages from mobile phones. But the team running Ushahidi was vital too: to guard against false reports a blogger was enlisted to attempt to verify the facts with aid agencies and other sources on the ground.
This wasn’t the first example of the idea known as crowdsourcing: that the aggregate of individual efforts could be more than the sum of its parts.
Before Ushahidi came Wikipedia, though founder Jimmy Wales dislikes the word crowdmap and calls it a “vile, vile way of looking at that world”. One of Ushahidi’s eye-catching predecessors tracked the price of milk, Budweiser and iceberg lettuce in New York grocers. But it was Ushahidi’s use in a fast-moving crisis situation, mapping what journalists call hard news, provided inspiration to many others.