Start-Ups

With Ushahidi's global innovation engine, Africa has joined the tech revolution

A Kenyan tech startup created a platform to map international crises and disaster relief; now it has made a product to redesign connectivity for the places that need it most.

 
Map
The Ushahidi platform is used to locate destruction and disaster relief after Typhoon Haiyan hit the Phil
 Image: Ushahidi
When David Kobia and Nathaniel Manning speak about their company and one another, it becomes obvious they are much more than colleagues. The pace of their words quicken with excitement; their smiles radiate through the phone. At times, they sound as if there isn't possibly enough time in life to discuss the multitude of brilliant innovators around the globe and their plans to better the world through technology. Something larger unites this group of self-starters: true and honest passion.

Crowdsourced mapping

It started in Kenya. Kobia and a few of his blogger and techie friends built a website to map violence and peace reports after a fallout following the 2008 Kenyan elections. People could submit the information through mobile devices or the web and use it to find violent areas of the country to avoid, places of refuge, and locations of resources such as medical equipment and water. They created it over a weekend, assuming it would be useful but that they would return to their day jobs.

Soon, there were more than 45,000 users in Kenya and growing ideas for other types of maps. The founders realized the true need for such a service and Ushahidi—which means "testimony" in Swahili—is now six years old, with almost 40 employees and scores of volunteers and community members all over the world. The maps have been made in more than 30 languages. 

"This team—the people I get to work with are the most inspiring," Manning, director of business operations, said. "It's this extended Ushahidi ecosystem that spans 10 time zones. It's pretty awesome that it's a Kenyan company hiring people all over the world, and it was a tech startup."

Ushahidi is an open source platform designed to democratize information, especially during crises in areas of the world that may have difficulty connecting and sharing stories. The company doesn't have a single mission or even a single service—it's a flexible, multi-dimensional platform through which users can build their own websites to serve their specific needs. It was built to increase transparency in storytelling and to become an innovation engine for people around the world.

The original Ushahidi platform has been used to map many things, including:

  • Water and refuge sources during Hurricane Sandy, the Haitian earthquake, and other natural disasters around the world
  • Sexual harassment incidents during the Arab Spring
  • Power outages in India
  • Gender-based violence in Pakistan
  • Prejudice and hate crimes in South America
  • Women's tech startups in Africa

The main Ushahidi site is for interactive mapping, data collection, and event timelines. Each map is an independent website. Ushahidi also provides technology consulting for clients such as Al-Jazeera, World Bank, and the United Nations. The non-profit company also created Crowdmap, a hosted version of the platform with centrally-located data, made for quick mapping with social media or the web when people need to get information out faster.

ushahidi .jpg
Ushahidi can be accessed through mobile devices. Users can upload information through social media or text messages.
 Image: Erik Hersman/Flickr

"If people build it, they also have a say in it," Kobia said. "And the fact that we built something people use in the West is a statement."

"People from Nairobi are much better suited to design things for their communities and come up with solutions than someone in Silicon Valley who is no doubt brilliantly smart, but they don't live with the problem." —Nathaniel Manning
Ushahidi has given Africans confidence. Kobia wishes he had the platform growing up; the morale boost for African developers and engineers has been tremendous, which is inspirational for the entire team. Manning calls it "collaborative development." Instead of creating products and hoping consumers like them, it's knowing the customer (or in their case, community member) and building something they can utilize.

"People from Nairobi are much better suited to design things for their communities and come up with solutions than someone in Silicon Valley who is no doubt brilliantly smart, but they don't live with the problem," Manning said.

Therein lies the challenge. So many people with innovative ideas don't have access to manufacturing or the ability to turn that into a company. But developed nations can assist—not by parhttp://tek.io/1eNio3jachute development, like dropping laptops into the hands of students or assessing communities and taking the information back home—but by giving developing nations the tools, technology, and access so their ideas can become reality.

SEE: Photos: Ushahidi's interactive crowdmaps and rugged router for remote connectivity

The BRCK

Ushahidi created a successful platform for users to create maps and share useful stories, but they realized a major obstacle in their plans to expand was reliable connectivity in the areas they wanted to reach. So they created BRCK.

Both Manning and Kobia said building the device—which is a product that helps connect people to their service as well as the internet in general—was them simply "scratching an itch." As a team of developers and programmers, it was frustrating to have spotty internet connectivity while traveling, especially in remote African locations. Almost all devices—dongles, routers, wifi devices—are made for developed nations. Ushahidi decided to change that.

"What Nest did for the thermostat, we are trying to do for the router," Manning said. "It's a very smart, internet of things-type tool."

BRCK 2.jpg
BRCK was made to withstand the rugged conditions of Africa.
 Image: Taylor Martyn

It has a battery strong enough to charge other devices, plenty of memory, and ethernet and SIM card ports. It's made for Africa, so it can withstand rugged conditions. BRCK uses cloud storage and is able to connect to sensors for monitoring purposes. It can withstand a blackout and charge with solar power or a car battery.

The BRCK Kickstarter campaign raised more than $175,000. The first round of products will be shipped to backers and several other organizations in the next few weeks, Manning said. Ushahidi developers are also working on BRCK cloud storage. They are targeting small businesses, schools, and hospitals—places where not having wifi is truly disruptive.

Hunting and camping enthusiasts around the U.S. ordered BRCK to stay connected. Africans ordered BRCK to become connected. Kobia softly chuckled at the irony. But Ushahidi is about empowerment in all its forms. Directly impacting people all over the world through its technology is extremely fulfilling for him every day.  

"It does make the world seem much smaller, and we can focus on the similarities between our different countries," he said.

The Ushahidi team knows there are brilliant minds everywhere, and the platform is used to empower passionate, creative innovators. Their underlying goal is to see more startup companies like this in the world.

Those goals fit quite well with the team's unofficial motto: If it works in Africa, it can work anywhere.

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About

Lyndsey Gilpin is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers sustainability, tech leadership, 3D printing, and social entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks.

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