A web-based reporting tool is allowing Africans caught up in political unrest to report incidents of killing, violence and displacement.
The website is called Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili and was first developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout.
Ushahidi is now being used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to report on the war that has torn the country apart for the last 15 years.
Its goal is to create a simple way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.
The site is a free open-source mash-up which can be run by anybody, anywhere in the world to to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualise it on a map or timeline.
Democratic Republic of Congo
“This is a tool specifically made for the ordinary person,” said Erik Hersman, the creator of Ushahidi.
“Anybody who uses this free open-source tool can download it and run it off your own servers.
“It allows you to use Google Maps, Microsoft Maps, Yahoo Maps or Open Street Map.
“In the DRC, we are using some NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to help with that data gathering and the main focus for us is to get ordinary people’s stories up,” he added.
Users can report an incident by filling in a very simple form with a description of what happened, when it took place and put it in a category.
The incident data is colour coded on the website into categories for things such as riots, looting, illness and sexual assault.
When you click on one of the categories it will identify on a map of DR Congo where these incidents are happening.
Audio, video and images can also be uploaded but identifying yourself is optional as fears for people’s safety is top priority.
Currently there is a cluster of these spots around DR Congo’s eastern border.
“Goma in the DRC has been an area that has had a lot of action over the last couple of weeks,” said Mr Hersman.
“You’ll see that most of the data and stories we have are coming from that area.
“We are already starting to see news being spread out, so you’ll see a few dots further away now.
“When you click on the coloured dots, you get news reports in French and in English, which are compiled by non-governmental organisations and aid groups.
“Right now a lot of them are from different NGOs, people out in the field in the eastern Congo.”
With web access being limited in much of rural Africa, people can also post incidents to the website using text messages sent from their mobile phones.
Lyn Lusi is the founder and programme manager of an NGO called HEAL Africa and has been involved in putting the Ushahidi project into action on the ground.
“It started off with quite a lot of information because the violence was all around Goma,” she said.
“The fighting has moved up north to a very rural area where cell phone network coverage is very sporadic and where people are extremely poor.
“The violence has gone into a dark hole of information, we are just coming into the technological age in Congo,” she added.
Although technology can limit information getting out in some areas, she feels that everything must be done to raise awareness of the conflict in DR Congo.
“If we can regularly bring in information from the conflict zones, information about human rights abuses and community action to rebuild peace, then we will keep this problem on the front burner,” she said.
“We have set up a network with two telephones that will always be in the hands of people who can pick up SMS messages sent by people from their mobile phones
“They will have access to the internet – even if it is sporadic, as we want to be able to get this information to the Ushahidi website,” she added.
Reports that are posted on the website are verified by local NGOs and are also given a credibility rating.
“It is also very important that this information should be verified because this is also an information war,” said Ms Lusi.
“On the night of the shooting in Goma, SMS messages went around saying that the UN has given orders to the national army to put down their arms and that the town is now effectively in the hands of the [rebel] CNDP,” she said.
That turned out to be false information and caused a number of demoralised troops to run away.
People posting information on the website and passing it on via text messages are putting themselves at risk, although they do not have to identify themselves when doing so.
“We have to be very careful to conceal identity, it is a big risk,” said Ms Lusi.
“But if you can’t get the information out, then you cannot call for help either.
“People want the international community to be aware of what’s going on have it on the political agenda.
“The information must get out if we are ever going to reach a solution,” she added.
Credit: Alka Marwaha