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Crisis Tool for Activists Simplified

By Joshua Brustein in The NYT

Software that has been hailed as a powerful tool in response to crisis has become accessible for low-tech activists. Ushahidi, a technology which allows users to create maps from data drawn from messages from cellphones, news reports and the Web, is now available through a Web-based application called Crowdmap.

Ushahidi was built in the violent aftermath of the 2007 Kenyan elections, after a group of developers responded to a call for a platform that would allow people to post accounts of violence anonymously. (The name means testimony in Swahili.) The platform plots reports it receives on a map, drawing attention to individual accounts and giving an overall sense of the situation.

The platform has been used to track damage from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and to map election irregularities in Sudan. Perhaps its most notable moment followed January’s earthquake in Haiti. There, a number was established where people could send text messages with information about trapped earthquake victims. The calls were plotted on a map, which was then monitored by volunteers in the United States. The volunteers then relayed information about those in need of help to rescue workers on the ground.

The organization now supports its 11-person staff primarily through funding from the Omidyar Network, the foundation of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.

Ushahidi’s open-source software has always been available free, but it was not designed to be installed by those without technical skills. The idea behind Crowdmap was to create a simple way for anyone to start their own projects.

“It’s not that an average computer user couldn’t do it, but it’s intimidating,” said Brian Herbert, a developer with Ushahidi who worked directly on the Crowdmap project. “It’s not just, ‘double-click this icon to install.’ ”

Crowdmap, by contrast, is a Web interface that provides immediate gratification to would-be crisis mappers, hundreds of whom had signed up within the first 24 hours. A new user can begin building maps within minutes, after establishing a “deployment” through a process that is about as involved as creating a blog on WordPress.

Mr. Herbert said that he expected many of these projects to branch away from the group’s current uses of natural disasters and troubled elections. But he could not say what, exactly, these projects would be.

“That’s the exciting thing,” he said. “We don’t really know what people are doing with it.”

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