Ushahidi was born from the efforts of a team of Kenyan programmers, journalists, and lawyers who wanted to find a way to quickly share information about the violence around them during Kenya’s 2007-08 election. Although they were both niche practices in peacebuilding, Ushahidi sparked a global interest in crowdsourcing and mapping violence, changing how communities tell their stories to the world.
Ushahidi had predecessors, such as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Crisis in Darfur mapping initiative. Using high-definition satellite imagery donated by the U.S. National Geospatial Intelligence Agency, the project plotted data contributed from reporters in Darfur, illustrating the local effects of violence. But Crisis in Darfur depended on a central collection process using U.S. government assets; it had an effect in that it changed U.S. policy toward the conflict, but had very little relevance in localized peacebuilding since the change agent was the U.S. government.
Ushahidi sparked a global interest in crowdsourcing and mapping violence, changing how communities tell their stories to the world.
In contrast, Ushahidi was an international game-changer because its map was accessible to the general public and democratized data collection by drawing on crowdsourced text messages and social media to populate the map in near-real time. Citizens could report on their personal experiences of violence and see the experiences of their neighbors displayed publicly online. News reporters could view reports from local actors in real time, a volume of valuable information they otherwise could not have gathered on foot or by phone. Donor agencies took notice of how citizens could use common commercial communication technologies to share data that was then visualized on a map, easily read and viewed publicly. It is certainly not a foolproof system; conflict entrepreneurs could take advantage of such a platform by providing false information, hacking, or directing violence against people who are sharing information. Indeed, risk awareness and management is important in any digital peacebuilding process.
A similar platform, Sisi Ni Amani uses text messaging as part of its ongoing peacebuilding work in Kenya. The significance of the platform is not its use of mobile phones, but rather that it started with established peacebuilding practices and then used mobile phones to enhance this work. The Sentinel Project is also doing work in Kenya with mobile phones, using text messaging to intervene in rumor propagation that has ignited conflict in the Tana Delta region. The Sentinel Project focuses on the notion that violence is an outcome of perceived risk in a rumor-filled environment. Using text messaging to inform trusted local leaders of the veracity of a rumor can help prevent false information from spreading and sparking violence.
The use of ICTs in peacebuilding is growing and increasingly rich with potential, but in verifying their effectiveness, it is important not to seek direct connections between technology and peace. Instead, we should look for good peacebuilding practices and assess how technology is being used to amplify the effectiveness of those programs. We can start from understanding how and why people use different technologies and information; this information will tell us a lot about how local actors can integrate ICTs into community peacebuilding processes. Fundamentally, we have to focus on technology as a tool for improving the reach or scope of a peacebuilding project, instead of trying to shape peacebuilding around a technology.
Kenya has been at the forefront of using technology for peacebuilding. Ushahidi was developed in Kenya, and media coverage of it spurred interest from donors to further initiatives around peace and technology. Another aspect that has contributed to the growth of peace technology in Kenya is its relatively large ICT sector, which includes telecommunications and start-up technology firms, all supported by government technology investment and regulatory policy. Kenya’s ICT sector is owed, in part, to its unique strategic positioning in East Africa. Not every country has the investment and regulatory environment that Kenya has, and these differences can affect the way that peacebuilders use technology locally.
We should look for good peacebuilding practices and assess how technology is being used to amplify the effectiveness of those programs.
Ultimately, ICTs are commercial products, and the ways people use them are as much a function of regulatory rules as of personal preferences. For peacebuilders, this means that legal as well as social context affects how ICTs operate to help build peace.
If we make the problematic assumption that technology creates peace, then technology will always fall short. Instead, we need to understand how technology enables the social and political processes of peacebuilding, increasing the opportunities to bring people together in dialogue and cooperation.
(Feature Photo Credit: UUSC4ALL via Flickr)