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TED2009

Erik Hersman: Reporting crisis via texting

February 6, 2009

At TEDU 2009, Erik Hersman presents the remarkable story of Ushahidi, a GoogleMap mashup that allowed Kenyans to report and track violence via cell phone texts following the 2008 elections, and has evolved to continue saving lives in other countries.

Erik Hersman - Technologist
Erik Hersman harnesses Africa’s boundless spirit of innovation by creating platforms to improve daily lives both inside and outside the continent. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
So I'm here to tell you a story of success from Africa.
00:12
A year and a half ago,
00:16
four of the five people who are full time members
00:19
at Ushahidi,
00:21
which means "testimony" in Swahili,
00:23
were TED Fellows.
00:26
A year ago in Kenya we had post-election violence.
00:28
And in that time we prototyped and built,
00:31
in about three days, a system that would allow
00:34
anybody with a mobile phone
00:36
to send in information and reports on what was happening around them.
00:38
We took what we knew about Africa,
00:41
the default device,
00:43
the mobile phone, as our common denominator,
00:45
and went from there.
00:47
We got reports like this.
00:49
This is just a couple of them from January 17th, last year.
00:56
And our system was rudimentary. It was very basic.
01:02
It was a mash-up that used data that we collected from people,
01:05
and we put it on our map.
01:08
But then we decided we needed to do something more.
01:10
We needed to take what we had built
01:12
and create a platform out of it so that it could be used elsewhere in the world.
01:14
And so there is a team of developers
01:17
from all over Africa, who are part of this team now --
01:20
from Ghana, from Malawi, from Kenya.
01:23
There is even some from the U.S.
01:25
We're building for smartphones, so that it can be used in the developed world,
01:29
as well as the developing world.
01:32
We are realizing that this is true.
01:34
If it works in Africa then it will work anywhere.
01:36
And so we build for it in Africa first
01:38
and then we move to the edges.
01:41
It's now been deployed in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
01:43
It's being used by NGOs all over East Africa,
01:46
small NGOs doing their own little projects.
01:49
Just this last month it was deployed by
01:52
Al Jazeera in Gaza.
01:54
But that's actually not what I'm here to talk about.
01:57
I'm here to talk about the next big thing,
01:59
because what we're finding out is that
02:01
we have this capacity to report
02:03
eyewitness accounts of what's going on in real time.
02:05
We're seeing this in events like Mumbai recently,
02:09
where it's so much easier to report now
02:12
than it is to consume it.
02:14
There is so much information; what do you do?
02:16
This is the Twitter reports for over three days
02:18
just covering Mumbai.
02:21
How do you decide what is important?
02:23
What is the veracity level of what you're looking at?
02:25
So what we find is that there is this
02:28
great deal of wasted crisis information
02:30
because there is just too much information for us to
02:32
actually do anything with right now.
02:35
And what we're actually really concerned with
02:38
is this first three hours.
02:40
What we are looking at is the first three hours.
02:42
How do we deal with that information that is coming in?
02:44
You can't understand what is actually happening.
02:47
On the ground and around the world
02:49
people are still curious,
02:51
and trying to figure out what is going on. But they don't know.
02:53
So what we built of course, Ushahidi,
02:56
is crowdsourcing this information.
02:59
You see this with Twitter, too. You get this information overload.
03:01
So you've got a lot of information. That's great.
03:04
But now what?
03:06
So we think that there is something interesting we can do here.
03:08
And we have a small team who is working on this.
03:11
We think that we can actually create
03:13
a crowdsourced filter.
03:15
Take the crowd and apply them to the information.
03:17
And by rating it and by rating
03:20
the different people who submit information,
03:22
we can get refined results
03:24
and weighted results.
03:26
So that we have a better understanding
03:28
of the probability of something being true or not.
03:30
This is the kind of innovation that is,
03:32
quite frankly -- it's interesting that it's coming from Africa.
03:35
It's coming from places that you wouldn't expect.
03:37
From young, smart developers.
03:40
And it's a community around it that has decided to build this.
03:42
So, thank you very much.
03:45
And we are very happy to be part of the TED family.
03:47
(Applause)
03:49

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Erik Hersman - Technologist
Erik Hersman harnesses Africa’s boundless spirit of innovation by creating platforms to improve daily lives both inside and outside the continent.

Why you should listen

Hersman is the CEO of BRCK, a rugged, self-powered, mobile Wi-Fi device that connects people and things to the Internet in areas of the world with poor infrastructure. He leads a number of web and mobile projects through organizations including iHub, a Nairobi community center that’s an epicenter for Kenya’s booming tech industry. The mobile app Ushahidi, which he co-developed, allows users to share breaking news through text messaging and continues to revolutionize and empower journalists, watchdog groups and everyday people around the world.

The original video is available on TED.com
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