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A Social Good Data Platform Transforming Global COVID Response Through Citizen Engagement

Published 06-22-21

Submitted by Cisco Systems, Inc.

Angela Oduor Lungati

When you think about the global response to COVID, do data platforms come to mind? If you’re like many of us – probably not. But for countless people around the world, Ushahidi’s open source data platform has been a lifeline to valuable resources – and a powerful tool allowing them to document what’s happening in their communities.

Based in Nairobi, Kenya, Ushahidi is a global technology nonprofit organization and a Cisco partner. Their user-friendly, open source data platform enables citizens, communities, and social service organizations to respond to crises and document inequalities. Using text messages and a smart software, the platform utilizes user-generated reports to gather and map data of all kinds (eyewitness accounts, institutional numbers, photos, and more) – allowing everyday people and community organizations to visualize and tell their stories in real time.

Born out of a deep need for social change, the platform was developed in 2008 to map reports of post-election violence in Kenya to draw attention to the injustice – and was aptly named Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili.

Map of Kenya with COVID tracker

“For us, the main goal is making sure that people around the world have the tech resources they need to fight for social justice,” says Angela Oduor Lungati, executive director of Ushahidi. “Using the concept of crowdsourcing, our open source platform enables “activist mapping” – the combination of social activism, citizen journalism, and geographic information.”

Adoption of the platform has been widespread and global. It has been used in nearly every disaster over the last 13 years and for a wide array of projects, ranging from mapping tree density in schools to raising awareness about violence against women and children. To date, it has been translated into 37 different languages and used in more than 160 countries – from the United States and Paraguay to Kenya and Thailand.

Cisco has supported Ushahidi with cash grants from the very beginning, starting the first year of their operations in 2009, as part of the critical human needs investment portfolio. When the pandemic hit, we provided an additional cash grant of $100,000 to help them invest more resources in their platform to meet the overwhelming demands from organizations using it for COVID response.

Map of South America with COVID tracker

A Platform Well-Positioned to Help

Throughout the pandemic Ushahidi has been in demand. The tech nonprofit has seen a substantial growth during COVID, adding over 1,800 deployments in more than 130 countries. The reason: their platform is helping fill in critical information gaps many governments and healthcare organizations don’t have the bandwidth to collect, and it’s providing a lifeline to vulnerable communities in lockdown who are unable to access information and critical resources in traditional ways.

“Local communities sprang into action, seeking our open technology platform to collect data, leveraging collective intelligence to provide insights into the pervasiveness of COVID-19,” says Angela. “They were able to create visibility into where to access critical resources and services, fill in informational gaps for official response, and hold governments accountable for any shortcomings in responding to the pandemic.”

Below are just a few examples of how Ushahidi’s open source platform has been used during the pandemic:

  • Frena La Curva (or “Break The Curve”): Based in Spain, this project helped people cope with the COVID crisis and lockdown by providing valuable online and mapping resources and information about public services. The project spurred a movement in the Hispanic community in Europe and Latin America, driving the emergence of 23 different instances based on their model. 
  • Kenya COVID-19 Tracker: Named “Map Kibera,” this instance of Ushahidi’s database is being used to document the crisis and create a geospatial map showing what is happening and where in Kenya – for anyone to use. It has been a valuable tool for the Kenyan government in allocating resources for its responses, such as the best locations to install handwashing stations.
  • Coron Amazon Observatory: This project is surveying local initiatives and documenting the socio-environmental impact of COVID-19 within the cities, villages, indigenous lands, and other areas in the Brazilian Amazon. A collaborative map available to everyone, the platform links first-hand information (stories, witness accounts, press releases, fundraising campaigns, food collections, etc.) to specific locations on the map, which then can be previewed when clicked on.

Recently, Ushahidi has seen a shift in how its platform is being used. Deployments are moving away from crisis response to documenting inequalities and injustices exacerbated by the pandemic, for example vaccine inequity, human rights violations, and governments limited capacity to adequately respond to and support citizens..

“We believe that Ushahidi’s work will be even more critical moving forward, because coming out of this crisis will require collective action and responsibility. We need to continue to provide the general public with adequate avenues for inclusion and engagement in response and recovery efforts – and Ushahidi is committed to helping make that happen,” says Angela.

To learn more about Ushahidi, visit www.ushahidi.com.

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