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July 15, 2010, 1 p.m.

Ushahidi in 3G: How media outlets could extend the mapping platform beyond crisis communications

Since its launch in early 2008, the crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in Burundi, to track violence in Pakistan, to coordinate aid in Haiti. Its platform has been downloaded nearly 4,000 times; its mobile platform, more than 3,700.

It’s now been six months since Haiti’s earthquake; and Patrick Meier, Ushahidi’s director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships, was on hand to discuss his work at Harvard’s Berkman Center earlier this week as part of the center’s regular luncheon series. (Archived here, by the way, are some of our favorite videos from past luncheons.) A point Meier stressed during his talk — and a point also stressed by Ory Okolloh, Ushahidi’s co-founder and the site’s executive director, when she and I had a conversation recently — is that, despite its most common framing, Ushahidi is not actually a crisis-mapping platform. That’s one way it can be used, certainly — and the way it’s thus far been used to greatest, and most publicized, effect — but the core logic of crowdsourced mapping can be scaled in ways that extend far beyond the urgency of tragedy.

So, after his talk, I asked Meier about the ways media outlets, in particular, can use the Ushahidi platform for newsgathering purposes; his response is in the video above and the transcript below. (The video’s background noise, if you’re curious, is a group of Berkman smarties chatting in a conference room.)

Absolutely. Sure. I mean, one example of a deployment that’s already taken place is with Al Jazeera in Gaza. What I really liked about that is, first of all, the context was that they were the only media organization that were allowed to go into Gaza and report information on what was happening. And their journalists were basically texting and tweeting live to the Ushahidi map, and providing that kind of information. So it was really interesting how Al Jazeera as a media group was directing its audience to a map as the first stop to consume media information, and then from there going to other sources.

What was also really interesting is that they did both bounded and unbounded crowdsourcing — which is sort of my own terms, so maybe I should explain. “Unbounded crowdsourcing” is what we are familiar with: the idea of opening up a platform to the world, and letting the world contribute. “Bounded crowdsourcing” is when you have a specific network of individuals who are doing the reporting. So it’s a known, trusted network of individuals.

So what they did is they had their own journalists on the ground, who were texting and tweeting live to the map, but they also opened it up to other residents — people in Gaza — to also submit information. And that combination, I thought, was really, really interesting. Because what you can then start doing is, even though you don’t necessarily know whether the crowd is trustworthy, or individuals in the crowd are trustworthy — if some of these individuals start also reporting the same event that the journalists are reporting, then you know they might actually be more trustworthy. And so it creates this kind of digital trace, or like a shadow of history, if you want, that allows you to start identifying which individuals in the crowd may actually be trustworthy. And you can sort of assign them a higher credibility score. So I’d love to see that happen again.

And I think another way to do this — I’ve got another couple quick ideas — one is with smartphone apps. What would be really neat is if a company like CNN would use a Ushahidi smartphone app, like maybe the “Ushahidi citizen journalist smartphone app.” And what you do — let’s say you have it on your iPhone — when you download and open your smartphone app, you basically get prompted a question — “Do you allow CNN to know where you are at any given time?” — and you go, “Yes.” And that allows basically CNN to have access to maybe 10,000 people in New York City, and know their location. So that when something like the water landing on the Hudson River happens, you’ll know that maybe, “Oh, you have seven volunteer citizen journalists who are just around the corner.” And you can send them, automatically, a note on their smartphone saying, “If you don’t mind peeping around the corner and taking a quick picture, we’d love for you to do that.”

And I think there’s an interest in doing that. We already see this rise in citizen journalism — people being interested in contributing information, creating information, the whole user-generated revolution — so I think that could be a way for a media group to harness the crowd to be the reporters and to provide that kind of information in real time. So I’d love to see, you know, maybe something like that work.

And maybe with some of the more investigative journalist-type media groups to leverage, again, this crowdsourcing idea to get evidence on a particular case. Maybe it’s environmental pollution, it’s chemical issues. Instead of — or not instead of, but in addition to — having your reporters spend two, three months doing the interviews in whatever state, going from door to door and getting more and more evidence, maybe a media group like ProPublica could set up a platform and say, “This is a big issue in the state of California. If you’ve got any evidence about this particular material, creating health problems, take a picture, submit it on the Ushahidi platform.” And then you can start people saying, “Oh, I had that problem, too, I had that problem, too.” And you create a lobbying, a movement.

POSTED     July 15, 2010, 1 p.m.
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