On Display: Crowdsourcing with Ushahidi – the social and political relevance of the interactive web


Via Crowdsourcing the internet supports the management of crises and of democratic procedures (cf. list of projects). People experiencing natural disasters like the 2010 earthquake in Haiti or, recently, the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, report their personal record, e.g. via SMS, to a website, where these are grouped and visualized in a map. Now, aid organisations get to know precisely, where their help is needed most, where they can find victims, what basic materials are lacking (water, food, fuel, …) etc. On the other hand, the people themselves can find shelter and help. Another possible examples is the “Atlanta crime map” serving people and city authorities alike. Crowdsourcing can also empower citizens in the protection of democracy by enforcing transparency, accountability and efficient electoral service delivery. The participation of the masses is crucial for its success.


The above mentioned interactive maps are realised with the Ushahidi-software. Ushahidi is a non-profit company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. The platform was developed as a tool to easily crowdsource information using multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web. The company is an example for the potential of web developers at the so-called periphery in Africa, it started in Kenya and the Ushahidi-App for the Android-Marketplace e.g. was developed by a developer in Ghana.

Examples from East Africa

“Ushahidi”, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was a website that was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the elections in 2007. The roots are in the collaboration of Kenyan citizen journalists during a time of crisis. The original website was used to map incidents of violence throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. The incidents were grouped in classes like Riots,  Deaths,  Property Damage,  Government Forces,  Civilians,  Looting,  Rape and Peace Efforts. Together with local Kenyan NGO’s each incident was verified. The website had 45,000 users in Kenya (it is not active anymore).

In 2010 Kenya voted on a proposed new constitution and Ushahidi in partnership with local political networks was deploying an election monitoring system called Uchaguzi (“election” in Swahili). Uchaguzi provided web and mobile-based channels for citizens and civil society to report on electoral offences such as intimidation, hate speech, vote-buying, polling clerk bias, voting mis-information etc.  The reports were then sent to the electoral authorities or security personnel for action.

The Site “Tracking the Eastern Congo Conflict”  monitors the renewed conflict in the Eastern part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo since autumn 2008. Beside the reported incidents official and mainstream news about this political conflict can be found (like new from the European Media Monitor) on the website.

Beside Ushahidi

There are many more initiatives which can be subsumed as “Gov 2.0“. The most prominent is Wikileaks, others like CrisisCommons gain momentum. They show the potential of participatory governance and of moving cities and communities towards a more sustainable future.

Another recent example for innovative solutions coming from Africa is JamiiX. It is a messaging management system developed by the Cape Town-based Reconstructed Living Labs (RLabs) team, originally to help them counsel drug addicts on the Cape flats. JamiiX was developed to more effectively manage multiple conversations from different Social Media and Instant Messaging platforms. It allows eight counsellors to have 300 IM conversations in one hour, massively increasing their ability to assist those who need help. In 2010 it was released for third-party use . The name comes from a combination of the Swahili word for social, “jamii”, and eXchange, to mean social exchange.

The interactive web supports humanitarian and democratic activities in a very useful way. This is one way how the masses can help to make things a little better.

On Display: Indigenous Knowledge Systems & Intellectual Property Rights

Indigenous Knowledge Systems are increasingly seen as positive ways for problem solving.  Traditional livestock practices, traditional leather processing or traditional healing practices fit to the local environment and might have a positive impact on development or at least in the struggle for survival. Especially indigenous knowledge in traditional agricultural systems can be used for poverty and hunger eradication.

Traditional knowledge is closely related to intellectual property systems. How to preserve, protect and equitably make use of this indigenous knowledge are highly disputed questions. These address areas as diverse as food and agriculture, the environment, notably the conservation of biological diversity, health, including traditional medicines, human rights and indigenous issues and aspects of trade and economic development. In short: who profits from selling traditional medicine or from traditional performances?

Traditional cultural expressions (or “expressions of folklore”) include music, art, designs, names, signs and symbols, performances, architectural forms, handicrafts and narratives. They are integral to the cultural and social identities of indigenous and local communities, they embody know-how and skills, and they transmit core values and beliefs.

Under the questions “What are they? Who owns them? What kinds of intellectual property protection should they have? What challenges do they present to librarians?” IFLA (e.g. in Durban 2007) dealt with these problems. For libraries questions very different from those we face in handling published materials are raised. It is about preservation of context, cultural sovereignty and respect. This led e.g. to an ethical code for digitization of indigenous material.

Some of the more general problems are the following:

  • Traditional Cultural Expressions are group-related, orally transmitted and are changing constantly, therefore they cannot be ascribed to one individual author and his intellectual property which then might be protected.
  • If there shall be a similar protection to copyright: Who controls the traditional knowledge of the group, how speaks for the whole group, who belongs to the group, how long shall protection last? How about inspiration and cultural adaptation? Should intellectual property protection be limited in duration or perpetual? How about benefit sharing? In South Africa the ministry of economics wants to push tourism and create new jobs in this area. How about the relation between state and group revenue (crown copyright)?

Further information:

=> For a thorough introduction see Wend Wendland’s paper „Intellectual Property and Traditional Cultural Expressions/Expression of Folklore“.

=> For several years now WIPO has been investigating what kinds of protection should be given to folklore and other “traditional cultural expressions”; see their “Key Resources“.

=> The IFLA “Committee on Copyright and other Legal Matters” (CLM) has also dealt with these problems; compare their publications.

=> The most recent literature on the topic you can find on ilissAfrica.