Just when I'm convinced the world is truly going to hell and a handbasket, all systems, countries and individuals flailing and failing, I find something that provides a little comfort - and hope. An article today in the NY Times provided one of those glimmers.
Ushahidi is an open-source platform developed in Kenya, originally built as a mapping tool to allow people to anonymously report violence occurring there after post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. Through mostly cellphones, user-generated reports of violence, rape and riots - as well as peace efforts - were plotted on a map, based on the location data provided by the informants. (The map above is from this effort.) Ushahidi, which means testimony in Swahili, was able to collect data at a faster rate than any reporter or election monitor and had about 45,000 pieces of 'testimony' supplied.
Since then, this platform - essentially a website mash-up of user-generated reports and Google maps - has been re-purposed and used to generate and plot crisis data through other disasters, both natural and political. In the aftermath of the Haiti earthquake, Ushahidi received thousands of SMS messages about people being trapped, providing information to emergency workers about where to search. Other projects include: Connection GeoMap which shares information about anti-trafficking activity globally; Vote Report India, a citizen-driven election monitoring of the 2009 Indian general elections; Atlanta Crime Maps which tracks crime in the Atlanta metro area; and recently in Washington, DC a site was built to map road blockages and locations of available snowplow equipment.
The power to collect and disseminate information provided through social media platforms is enormous, and a given at this point. And as of yet, still probably fairly untapped. In the political area, this past summer, we witnessed its power when Iranian protesters used Twitter as its primary means of sharing with the rest of the world what was really happening in their corner. Ushahidi really just takes the same concept and puts it in an organized structure, particular to an event. What started out as an ad-hoc project for one specific purpose is now transforming into an organization whose goal is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up their own way to collect and visualize information.
The individual threads of information shared on social media platforms paint a bigger picture for us all to read and see - whether it's trending data about the Oscars, Haiti or Health Care. And this platform isn't that different. I think I was just taken by the concept of people sharing information, participating in something that is bigger than themselves, for the greater good, a greater cause. And so today, after reading through the Sunday paper, instead of throwing my hands up in frustration, I thought - at least for a few minutes - maybe this upside down world of ours has some hope after all.