Why you should care

Because Juliana Rotich’s tech take on managing crises through crowdsourced maps is the smartest thing anyone’s ever thought to do with a text message.

When all it takes is a few clicks to pull satellite imagery of almost any square foot of space on the planet, it can be easy to imagine that the world as we know it is completely and thoroughly mapped, charted out to an extent never dreamed of by the storied cartographers of ages past.

But what if maps of the known world began not from a gaze high above but from many points of view, looking from the bottom up?

This is where Juliana Rotich comes in. Born in Kenya in 1977, Rotich had already made a name for herself as a prolific blogger and Web pioneer when she co-founded the crowdsourced mapping platform Ushahidi in 2008. Their aim was nothing less than converting the flow of information into localized action and change.

Stitching together reports from SMS, email and messaging might open up an entirely new view of events as they unfolded.

Juliana speaking with blue wall behind her and the word TED

Juliana Rotich speaking at a Ted Talk

Living in Africa is “to be on the edge metaphorically and quite literally when you think about connectivity before 2008,” Rotich said in her TEDGlobal talk last June. As with earlier waves of global technological change, the digital revolution was neither televised nor evenly distributed around the world. And it was the barriers to connectivity in Africa that created a moment for Rotich. It all came to a head during a media blackout in 2008, when Kenya was riven with post-election violence.

The situation on the ground was changing quickly, and people had few resources to turn to for reliable information. Rotich and her collaborators David Kobia and Erik Hersman asked themselves, “What if you could just get unmediated information from the affected areas themselves, in nearly real time?” Stitching together reports from SMS, email and messaging might open up an entirely new view of events as they unfolded.

Lifted from the Swahili word for testimony or witness, Ushahidi is a nonprofit, open-source software platform that collates information into visual displays, otherwise known as maps. In post-earthquake Haiti, Ushahidi collected and mapped information so survivors could let the world know where they were and what they needed. This was a watershed moment for the company, after which their platform began to be adopted all around the world.

Increased connectivity to the Internet across the continent has helped spur trickle-up innovation to address social problems.

— Juliana Rotich

It was used for disaster support during the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, during the oil spill in New Orleans, and for noncrisis uses such as tracking commodity prices in Afghanistan; monitoring elections; and finding public works of art, crime and even burgers. And with the able assistance of Google, the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation, Cisco, Mozilla and a half-dozen more, Ushahidi’s maps are all reported by real boots, shoes and sandals on the ground.

”In my generation,” Rotich told eTalks, ”I have seen how African people have interacted with mobile phones, computers and how increased connectivity to the Internet across the continent has helped spur trickle-up innovation to address social problems.” Indeed, Ushahidi seems like the ideal tool for this context. With seven in 10 people in Africa carrying cellphones, the continent was well-poised to relay information from all over the map via simple messaging technology.

More than 44,000 publicly sourced maps have been created so far, by contributors from over 159 countries – Ushahidi has jumped feet-first into being an integral part of a pan-African early alert system. Key to its quick spread has been how accessible it is: Contributors can send in reports from basic phones using SMS messages, upload photos or videos from smartphones, or submit reports online, all of which gets pulled together by the software to paint a rich, detailed picture of places and events; in turn, that information guide rescues and community action.

As Ushahidi’s executive director and program manager, Rotich continues developing the platform as well as tackling the next ambitious project: keeping the Internet on. Uneven access to electricity across Africa makes connectivity subject to unpredictable, and annoying, blackouts — the World Bank estimates that African manufacturers have to endure about 56 days of power outages a year.

And since Rotich was not so much a fan of waiting for someone else to solve the problem, she did it: by co-developing the BRCK, a backup device for continued Internet access. The result of a successful Kickstarter campaign, BRCK grew out of another Ushahidi brainchild: iHub, a technology co-working space that’s the cornerstone of Kenya’s growing ”Silicon Savannah” reputation. So, an information collection hub, mapping, an innovation incubator and a way to keep it all up and running? Nice.

“Africa is a perfect hotbed for disruptive technologies now,” said Robert Clyne, a cultural anthropologist from Yale, currently in country in Ghana. ”Plus there are probably more cellphones here than toilets by, I imagine, a factor of 10 to 1. Even if they charge them with hand gyros.”

Rotich and team stay committed to creating nimble responses in times of need, as in their work during the al-Shabaab terrorist attack at the Westgate Mall in Nairobi last September. In addition to mapping blood donation centers, they rushed out Ping, a tool for people inside the crisis to contact small groups of folks on the outside and simply say “I’m OK,” pulling some small amount of victory out of what may have been viewed as a dark defeat.

Which is why it’s no surprise to read Rotich telling tech blogger Anil Dash, “I am guided each day by these three questions: What are you fixing? What are you making? Who are you helping?” As we bounce calls off of Rotich and through her press office, following her on planes from Davos, onto trains into East Africa and into places with scant cell reception for follow-on questions, a few things are increasingly clear: Her advancing solutions for making the world a more completely mapped place may also make it a much more comfortable one, even in the face of great discomfort.

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