Humanitarian organizations at the Internews meetings today made it clear that information during crises is as important as water, food and medicine. There is now a clear consensus on this in the humanitarian community.
This is why I have strongly encouraged Ushahidi developers (as recently as this past weekend) to include a subscription feature that allows crisis-affected communities to subscribe to SMS alerts. In other words, we are not only crowdsourcing crisis information we are also crowdfeeding crisis information.
I set off several flags when I mentioned this during the Internews meeting since crowdsourcing typically raises concerns about data validation or lack thereof. Participants at the meeting began painting scenarios whereby militias in the DRC would submit false reports to Ushahidi in order to scare villagers (who would receive the alert by SMS) and have them flee in their direction where they would ambush them.
Here’s why I think humanitarian organizations may in part be wrong.
First of all, militias do not need Ushahidi to scare or ambush at-risk communities. In fact, using a platform like Ushahidi would be tactically inefficient and would require more coordinating on their part.
Second, local communities are rarely dependent on a single source of information. They have their own trusted social and kinship networks, which they can draw on to validate information. There are local community radios and some of these allow listeners to call in or text in with information and/or questions. Ushahidi doesn’t exist in an information vacuum. We need to understand information communication as an ecosystem.
Third, Ushahidi makes it clear that the information is crowdsourced and hence not automatically validated. Beneficiaries are not dumb; they can perfectly well understand that SMS alerts are simply alerts and not confirmed reports. I must admit that the conversation that ensued at the meeting reminded me of Peter Uvin’s “Aiding Violence” in which he lays bare our “infantilizing” attitude towards “our beneficiaries.”
Fourth, many of the humanitarian organizations participating in today’s meetings work directly with beneficiaries in conflict zones. Shouldn’t they take an interest in the crowdsourced information and take advantage of being in the field to validate said information?
Fifth, all the humanitarian organizations present during today’s meetings embraced the need for two-way, community-generated information and social media. Yet these same organizations fold there arms and revert to a one-way communication mindset when the issue of crowdsourcing comes up. They forget that they too can generate information in response to rumors and thus counter-act misinformation as soon as it spreads. If the US Embassy can do this in Madagascar using Twitter, why can’t humanitarian organizations do the equivalent?
Sixth, Ushahidi-Kenya and Ushahidi-DRC were the first deployments of Ushahidi. The model that Ushahidi has since adopted involves humanitarian organizations like UNICEF in Zimbabwe or Carolina for Kibera in Nairobi, and international media groups like Al-Jazeera in Gaza, to use the free, open-source platform for their own projects. In other words, Ushahidi deployments are localized and the crowdsourcing is limited to trusted members of those organizations, or journalists in the case of Al-Jazeera.