By Anand Giridharadas
CAMBRIDGE, MASSACHUSETTS — Could wiki technology find Osama bin Laden?
Imagine if anyone in the rugged far reaches of Pakistan or Afghanistan could send an anonymous text message to the authorities suggesting where to look. Each location could be plotted on a map. The dots would be scattered widely, perhaps, with promising leads indistinguishable from rubbish. But on a given day, a surge of dots might point to the same village, in what could not be coincidence. Troops would be ordered in.
This kind of everyone-as-informant mapping is shaking up the world these days, bringing the Wikipedia revolution to the work of humanitarians and soldiers who parachute into foreign places with little good information.
One force behind this upheaval is a small Kenyan-born organization called Ushahidi, which has become a hero of the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes and which may have something larger to tell us about the future of humanitarianism, innovation and the nature of what we label as truth.
After Kenya’s disputed election in 2007, violence erupted. A prominent Kenyan lawyer and blogger, Ory Okolloh, who was based in South Africa but had returned to Kenya to vote and observe the election, received threats about her work and decided to return to South Africa. She posted online the idea of an Internet mapping tool to allow people anonymously to report violence and other misdeeds. Some technology whizzes saw her post and built the Ushahidi Web platform over a long weekend.
The site collected user-generated reports of riots, stranded refugees, rapes and deaths. It collected more testimony — which is what ushahidi means in Swahili — with greater rapidity than any journalist or election monitor could. Ushahidi had found a quintessentially 21st-century way of bearing witness.
When the Haitian earthquake struck, Ushahidi went again into action. An emergency texting number, 4636, was advertised over the country’s radio waves. Ushahidi received thousands of text messages reporting the location of trapped bodies. The messages were translated by a diffuse army of Haitian-Americans in the United States and each was plotted on a “crisis map.”
Ushahidi volunteers at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Medford, Massachusetts, ran a situation room from which they instant-messaged with the U.S. Coast Guard in Haiti, telling them where to search for lives. When the Chilean earthquake struck, Ushahidi redeployed again.
A mind-boggling number of things could go wrong with this model. People could lie, get the address wrong, exaggerate the severity of their situation. But as data points aggregate, crisis maps reveal underlying patterns of relevance. How many kilometers inland did the hurricane kill? Are the rapes broadly dispersed or concentrated near military barracks?
Ushahidi suggests a new paradigm in humanitarian work. The old paradigm was one-to-many: foreign journalists and aid workers jet in, report on calamity and dispense aid with whatever data they can get.
The new paradigm is many-to-many-to-many: the victims are re-imagined as agents who supply on-the-ground data; a self-organizing mob of global volunteers translates the text messages and helps to orchestrate relief; journalists and aid workers use this information to target the most pressing problems.
But Ushahidi also represents a new frontier of innovation. Silicon Valley has long been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its ecosystem of universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less rather than on selling you new and improved stuff. And so bright people from Nairobi and New Delhi and Nanjing can today take their place at the leading edge of industries from cellphones to banking to car making.
Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system accessible by cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture capitalists backing it, it had to use open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for their own projects.
Ushahidi remixes can be found all over the Internet. They have been used in India to monitor elections; in Africa to report medicine shortages; in the Middle East to collect reports of wartime violence; and in Washington, where The Washington Post built an Ushahidi-powered site called “Snowmageddon” to map road blockages and the location of available plows.
Think about that. The capital of the sole superpower is deluged with snow, and to whom does its local newspaper turn? Kenya.
“What we’re showing with Ushahidi,” said Patrick Meier, a graduate student at the Fletcher School who directs Ushahidi’s crisis-mapping operation, “is that some of the most cutting-edge software development and innovative thinking in the tech space can actually come from places like Nairobi, and be used by volunteers at a university in Boston to be saving lives in Haiti, and then go on to use it in Chile.”
With every new application, Ushahidi alters the notion of how you bear witness in tragedy. For a very long time, this was done first by journalists in real time, next by victim-writers like Anne Frank and, finally, by historians when the dust settles. But in this instantaneous, virtualizing age, that kind of testimony confronts a new variety: a testimony of aggregate, average, good-enough truths.
“We’re moving beyond the idea that information is completely true or completely false,” Mr. Meier asserted.
Using a new technology called Swift River, Ushahidi plans to give testimonials “veracity scores.” If a lone person reports violence in Tehran, the veracity score would be low. But if dozens send in photographs of violence from the same place and same time, from cameras of various resolutions, the original account’s score would climb.
The argument against user-generated “facts” is that they lack the authority and authenticity that professional truth gatherers provide.
But in coming years will the triangulated crisis map be regarded as the new first draft of history?
They say that history is written by the victors. But now, before the victors win, there is a fresh chance to scream out, with a text message that will not vanish. What we would know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, between Germans and Jews — and indeed would it have happened at all — if each of them had had a chance to declare and be heard saying: “I was here, and this is what happened to me”?