In Sunday’s New York Times, the Week in Review section featured an article about the open source software application known as Ushahidi. It asked the rather provocative and somewhat tongue-in-cheek question, “Could wiki technology find Osama bin Laden?”
Ushahidi — a free and open source software (FOSS) application developed in Kenya to support user-collected reports of election irregularities — has found a sudden following in the emergency management and disaster relief communities following its deployment in Haiti following the earthquake there. In a very short time after its deployment, relief agencies sharing information using Ushahidi had collected the single most authoritative single source of information on incidents, impacts, and internally-displaced persons in the disaster-ravaged country. And they had accomplished this despite the lack of pre-written common operating procedures and almost no prior information with which to populate geographic information system (GIS) databases.
The name of the application, taken from the Swahili language most closely translates to the English words “witness” or “testimony”, as in the first-person observations and reports of those in the best position to know what’s really happening. This, in-fact, is the single-most powerful premise underlying the application’s design and its successful deployment. In the early stages of an incident, the quantity of information is a bigger problem for responders than its quality. And those closest to the source of information are in the best position to generate both quantity and quality if properly enabled. As the incident expands, the ability to discover patterns and discern meaning from data points depends more on quantity than quality.
To many emergency managers and homeland security professionals, this seems somewhat counter-intuitive. We place great stock on authoritative sources and time-tested methods. Indeed, sources and methods are so highly prized we often hold their identity so close that we compromise our own understanding of the information they provide because we cannot or will not disclose it with others who could help us put it in its proper context.
The rather simple idea behind Ushahidi would be revolutionary enough if all it did was help diverse individuals and organization quickly aggregate, verify, and assess intelligence. But the application has spawned another important innovation that may be more important than what people can do with the software, and that has to do with how they use it.
During past disasters, the spontaneous mobilization of volunteers has proven problematic for those managing response and recovery operations. In the days after the Haiti earthquake, cadres of volunteers from the tech community mobilized in cities across the United States and around the world in what have become known as CrisisCamps. These ad hoc gatherings deploy Web 2.0 technologies en masse to aid humanitarian relief efforts. But unlike disaster tourists, these volunteers self-organize and stay well out of the way.
Using the power of networks and collaborative techniques carefully honed in their day jobs, these assemblies have proven the power of information technology to facilitate co-production both in the technological and socio-political senses. By breaking very large, complex problems into smaller, bite-sized chunks and processing them quickly — which computers do better than people — these camps have enabled people to do what they do best: manage ambiguity.
By leveraging the resources of a worldwide network of technical professionals, those responsible for response and recovery on the ground can focus their resources and energy on resolving goal, role, task, and value conflicts that impede their efforts to get help where it is needed most. By organizing and clarifying information, tools like Ushahidi and processes like the CrisisCamps enable decision-making and foster engagement. And successful transitions from response to recovery depend on both.
If responding creatively to constraints and exigencies, successfully negotiating competition for resources, and securing satisfactory commitments from resource owners and those in need are the keys to collaboration, tools like Ushahidi are demonstrating the power of crowdsourcing solutions to our most challenging and complex problems. Whether these technologies can help us apprehend Osama bin Laden remains to be seen. But I wouldn’t be surprised if they did.