Stigmergic self-organization and the improvisation of Ushahidi

Here are some excerpts from Janet’s fascinating paper.

In late 2007 in Kenya, US educated Kenyan journalist Ory Okolloh had become one of the main sources of information about the election and the violence that broke out soon after. Because of the government‟s ban on live reporting and censorship of the mainstream media, Okolloh solicited information about incidents of violence from ordinary people in the form of comments posted on her personal blog. The mainstream media was not reporting on the violence because of the government ban, and Okolloh was quickly overwhelmed by the numbers of emails and messages that she received. In order to focus on the “immediate need to get the information out”, in early January Okolloh posted a request on her blog for help to develop a website where people could post anonymously online or via mobile phone text messages, the most accessible type of communications technology in Kenya. Within a day the Ushahidi („testimony‟ in Swahili) domain was registered and the website went live within less than a week. Built by 15-20 mainly Kenyan volunteers using open source software, the project was funded entirely by donations. Immediately, over 250 people began using the site to share information, even including radio stations. The process of report verification was simple. If the reporter could be identified, they were contacted for verification; if anonymous, a certain volume of similar reports was considered verification. Within weeks hundreds of incidents of violence had been documented in detail that would have otherwise gone unreported, and the website received hundred of thousands of site visits from around the world, sparking increased global media attention.

Following the events in Kenya, Humanity United, a non-profit organization dedicated to ending modern slavery and mass atrocities, offered to fund redevelopment of Ushahidi as a broadly available platform for collecting and visualizing information. In late 2008 the alpha version was released and tested in the Democratic Republic of Congo, among other places. The beta version, utilizing FrontlineSMS, free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone or modem into a central communications hub, was released in 2009. The Frontline SMS software can be used on a single laptop computer without the need for the internet, allowing users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones. Since its original release in 2005, it has been widely adopted in the grassroots non-profit community and nominated for several awards [Banks]. Today, Ushahidi defines itself as “a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping” [], and the development of Ushahidi has continued. Presently, there are three free downloads available: the Ushahidi platform, the Crowdmap application, and the SwiftRiver application. In 2008, Ory Okollah said, “We anticipate that the platform will revolutionize how many organizations handle their data and also democratize how information is collected and shared in crisis situations” and characterized the Ushahidi development strategy as: “pushing the boundaries of Rapid Prototype Model, Crowdsourcing, Visualization, Mapping, and Mobile Phone Platforms.”

A study of the evolution of the Ushahidi software presents strong evidence of cognitive stigmergy at two levels. The first level is the development of the Ushahidi platform, both initially and through the creation of the enhancements. The development of the software using a Rapid Prototype model and crowdsourcing on widely available mobile phone platforms follows examples of some FLOSS development teams that have been shown to use cognitive stigmergy as a tool to organize and coordinate work. The utilization of the software by end users as volunteers and contributors also demonstrates the role of cognitive stigmergy at the level of group action. The occurrences of crowdsourcing demonstrate cognitive stigmergy. The reasons for the great success of Ushahidi lie precisely in its raison d‟etre: it was conceived as a way for people to give testimony to the world about a great crisis that was occurring. Ushahidi was meant to empower, to give voice, and was specifically designed to do so for all. Heylighen points out that the inexpensive cost of information via the internet is a major force for the increase in all forms of information, easy access to it and voluntary creation and sharing of forms of it. The combination of easy access, low cost, and a compelling social concern lead to powerful motivations for many to participate. The use of the Rapid Prototype Model meant that the functionality could be delivered while there was still an urgent need for it, before the crisis could pass and life returned to normal and that urgency was forgotten. The use of Visualization and Mapping was crucial. Human cognitive stigmergy is based on people perceiving changes in their environment and responding to them. Visual images and information are more meaningful even when the place is not known, even more powerful when it is. Testimony has more power when it is visualized. The dependence on Crowdsourcing as a resource for development, support and the generation of information is an obvious example of stigmergic self-organization. As a way to maximize participation and crowdsourcing, the use of Mobile Phone Platforms via FrontlineSMS is a clear success: “In Africa, cellphone penetration – the number of phones as a percentage of the population – is still the lowest in the world, but it is growing quickly. In 2010, an estimated 41 per cent of the population on the continent had cellphones, compared with 76 per cent globally. That’s double what it was in 2005”. Worldwide, it is estimated that there are five billion mobile phones in use as of 2010, and for many users, these are the only access they have to computing or telecommunications capability.