Following the 2007 Kenyan presidential election, violence erupted in the streets. To help stop it, a few tech-savvy journalists created a website — later an app — that allowed citizens to report and map incidents in real time via email and text messages. That was the beginning of Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili.

Since then, Ushahidi’s open-source, cloud-based toolkit has expanded. Individuals and civil society groups around the world have used Ushahidi to map natural disasters, epidemics and civil unrest and to advance a wide variety of social, political and environmental causes.

The Ushahidi free software platform was used during the 2010 Russian wildfires to create a map connecting volunteers with people in danger. It enabled quick setup of the Christchurch Recovery Map after a 2011 earthquake in New Zealand. Crowdsourced crisis mapping during the 2010 Haitian earthquake and the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami relied on Ushahidi tools, as did the map of the Syrian conflict that helped relief agencies to deliver vital aid to those affected by the civil war and ISIL’s brutality.

The original Ushahidi website evolved into a free, open-source software platform that streamlines information collection. Data from text messaging, email, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr are used to plot interactive maps. Ushahidi does not accept government funding; it relies on philanthropic grants and income from custom software clients.

The Kenyan nonprofit developed other tools besides the Ushahidi platform:

  • Crowdmap facilitates collaborative mapmaking, geolocated and in real time.
  • CrisisNET helps identify and consolidate the most important crowdsourced information during a crisis.
  • Ping, a “check-in tool for emergencies,” is an email and text-messaging alert-and-response system that helps determine if people are safe.
  • Watertracker was developed to monitor the functioning of wells in far-flung parts of Afghanistan using the Ushahidi platform.
  • SwiftRiver quickly filters masses of real-time information from citizens, analyzes it and tracks trends. (Ushahidi no longer supports SwiftRiver, but the code is open-sourced and publicly available on GitHub so others may continue its development.)
The versatile BRCK Wi-Fi router developed by Ushahidi for off-the-grid use (Courtesy of Ushahidi)

In 2013, Ushahidi pioneered BRCK, a Wi-Fi router that can support as many as 20 devices wherever there is Internet connectivity. It can become a 3G or 4G modem with data settings, can be monitored remotely, can text alerts when it loses power, and is programmable.

Ushahidi inspires other innovators. The Nairobi Innovation Hub, or iHub, is a spinoff of Ushahidi. It incubates new tech ideas in Africa by providing entrepreneurs, designers, programmers and researchers with community lab space. It also attracts investors to promising tech systems. It has incubated 150 startups as of 2014.

Does your neighborhood need a faster way to communicate on an issue? Download the free software to build a real-time interactive information map and filter data streams, or check out other Ushahidi innovations.