Ushahidi, the White African, and the Power Tools for Community Organizations

Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada, sharing with ACORN International Kenya Organziers
Judy Duncan, ACORN Canada, sharing with ACORN International Kenya Organziers

Nairobi We met the future, and it is us!

Ok, calm down, it’s not that easy, and it will take awhile to get there, but my Paladin Partner, Drummond Pike, the ACORN Kenya staff, Sammy and David, ACORN Canada’s Judy Duncan, and me sat down with Erik Hersman (@whiteafrican) of Ushadhidi, an amazing tech nonprofit company, at their iHub project in Nairobi for what turned out to be a 90 minute speed meeting brainstorm: candidate for top meeting of the year! Let me give you a better look through the window, so you can follow my enthusiasm for the possibilities here.

First on Erik. Lifelong Kenyan from missionary parents who knew the meaning the of words commitment spending 20 years learning a tribal language, developing alphabet, translating a bible, and so on…thank god the rest of us have an easier lift! He’s also a full-on, one man band for the Nairobi tech community as the pride of not just Africa, but in some areas world beaters. Sitting in the less than one year old space for iHub, we were surrounded by computers and folks banging away who were a small subset of the 3000 vetted members of iHub who prove their chops to an advisory crew of techies and then are winnowed down to a batch of 250 that gets on going free access to the space, the fiber optic internet connections, and, you get the idea.

Drummond Pike and ACORN Kenya organizers looking at the "matatu" bus map on the iHub wall
Drummond Pike and ACORN Kenya organizers looking at the "matatu" bus map on the iHub wall

But, Ushahidi is the real deal and, bear with the techno-peasant here, is at the top of the line in having figured out how to use “crowd sourcing” to map all manner of trouble from violence after the last Kenyan election originally to a tool that has now been useful in lots of election monitoring, disaster recovery, rescue, and response from Haiti to now Japan, and any number of other things where the open source software is accessed, downloaded, and put the street. The “crowd sourcing” is the key because it focuses on folks sending in sms text messages on their cellular phones to central repositories,which then plug it in the map creating information, transparency, and, potentially, a latent capacity for accountability as well.

Wrap your mind around that much and you start to get it. Take the tool (which with Erik turns out to mean every daunting problem is “easy” to fix!), the increasing ubiquity, even in the slums, of cell phones, and the decreasing costs of text messages, and add what ACORN International has in all of our countries, people in the streets with feet on the ground plus the ability to do something about in terms of not just taking names, but taking action, and you have a potential to totally change the game! You can get around the bureaucracy, document the issues, and pin them on the map to specific departments and right down to the desk of the responsible bureaucrat (“it would be easy!”). You can leapfrog over corruption and political alliances to document what is happening and therefore confront what is supposed to have happened or should have happened.

In organizing and political theory the role of “voice” and “agency” are critical. In the slums voice is silenced. One can easily see how the combination of these tools and membership organization, create a voice that could no longer be ignored. With the organization such irrefutable information is not power, but with organization, you have the ability to achieve collective action, and that’s agency, baby!

ACORN International organizers with matatu map and iHub wall
ACORN International organizers with matatu map and iHub wall

With Erik we didn’t have to explain ACORN International’s Remittance Justice Campaign. He got it and was there. Before long we were talking about how to create a tool that would link all of our members around the world with mobile phones and SMS messages to document the rates from both directions and how our members could find out in real time on a weekly if not daily basis the cheapest rates. We can’t create the nebulous theoretical “competition” that the World Bank, banks, and MTOs talk about as the only “solution” to predatory pricing, but by driving traffic of real folks who remit to the cheapest sources, we start to create an immigrants “money” market where price and fair dealing is the determining factor not the rest of the babble and bull. As Erik said, “it would be easy” to create the tool. Within minutes he was talking about convening a “hack-a-thon” to rough out a tool for us over a wild weekend. Hey, team, Tuskers on us!

The applications for such tools in our hands are endless, and go way past the slums into everything from documenting neighborhood issues, tenant complaints, police response, election monitoring, and, well don’t get me started, but in the developed world this would really be easy, too.

Get this tool in our hand, and it’s not as simple as our suddenly having a hammer and every problem is a nail, but we’ve got something more in our hands than a hope and prayer.


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