Covering the DRC – challenges for Ushahidi

Courtesy UNHCR
Courtesy UNHCR

It’s been a little over three weeks since we went live with the Ushahidi DRC page.   As we mentioned, we went live with software that was still very much in alpha so there were a lot of kinks to be worked out from the technology side including integrating the mobile function, incorporating multiple news feeds, and building in translation capabilities.    This was a good learning process for us about what changes still need to be incorporated into a platform and also helped learn about potential difficulties when deploying in a crisis situation that is unfolding and where we lack familiarity.

What we did not anticipate is just how hard it has been for Ushahidi to “take” locally.   We had foreseen and tried to account for some of the challenges e.g.

  • Lack of good local internet connectivity (which is why we pushed hard to get the mobile component ready)
  • Lack of an Ushahidi point person on the ground…since this was a rare instance in which we were going to manage the deployment itself…at least initially (which is why we have tried to partner with groups such as Heal Africa)
  • French being the lingua franca in the area (which is why we are working on translation and why we recruited volunteers to help translate reports
  • Difficulty raising awareness about Ushahidi to the local population and encouraging them to use it (we have again tried to do PR wherever we could – local bloggers, local orgs, international NGOs, local radio etc.)

Despite these efforts (which were much more structured and actively undertaken in comparison to when we launched in Kenya) and the great coverage the Ushahidi DRC page has received in the press, we are not seeing the volume of reports we anticipated, especially given the fact that most of the people who are affected by the crisis or who having been concerned/watching the situation closely  have complained about the minimal coverage the conflict in the DRC has been receiving.  While we did not have an unrealistic expectation about us getting thousands of reports given the challenges above, we certainly expected more than we have received so far.  So I have been racking my brain trying to figure out what we could be doing better and why exactly the DRC has been a hard nut to crack, not just because I’d like to see the tool working better for the people affected by the crisis but also because it could provide useful lessons for us in the future.

Here’s what I’ve come up with so far that I think has been useful to learn not just for us but for more importantlyothers interested in the applying the concept of crowdsourcing for early conflict warning and for crisis situations given the distributed model that we will apply when Ushahidi is released to the public (i.e. we will rarely handle our own deployments) :

AWARENESS RAISING

  • As Ethan recently pointed out,  it helps to have a relatively active and connected blogging community to raise local awareness about the tool (Mumbai, Kenya being good examples).  Local bloggers definitely help raise the profile of social media tools.   Now DRC is interesting because it does have a comparitively small, but active blogging community comprised of both locals and expats – we have tried to reach out to both and even encourage the bloggers to share their reports on Ushahidi but so far no takers – not sure what gives.
  • We need to crack the translation issues and also get plugged in to a wider network geographically & linguistically.
  • The tool needs to remain simple and functional as much as possible – more bells and whistles not only slow the platform down but might make it tricky to adapt in a situation where there are few resources on the ground.
  • We need to be clear about what Ushahidi is and is not e.g. in Eastern DRC the question we often get when we try to approach local organizations  / contacts is what direct benefit will a person get from reporting.

ISSUES SPECIFIC TO CRISIS SITUATIONS

  • As one person closely involved in assisting people affected by the crisis in DRC pointed out to me, in a crisis situation most people are on the run – they don’t have time to file reports etc.   In a place like Eastern DRC that is compounded by things like electricity cuts so phones can’t be charged; difficulties having the resources to buy credit so the SMS functionality doesn’t really help them (and unlike in Kenya there is no MamaMikes option for donating credit…we are trying to get Zain interested in this); people are not used to a culture of free press and people asking for their opinion; and most importantly there is a huge lack of trust and concerns about whether someone will get targeted for reporting.   We have tried to emphasize the reports need not focus on individuals i.e. they can be generic like “help is needed because of cholera outbreak in Rutshuru” and can be anonymous.
  • Fatigue among the locals in an ongoing conflict like DRC – Ushahidi becomes just another organization that is looking for information, reports, etc where past experience has shown that sharing this information with the media, NGOs, UN Missions and so on has not really changed things for them.
  • Given all the challenges I’ve referred to, what we had really hoped would work out is that we would either get local bloggers to take over running and administering the page (with our help) or a bunch of local organizations to be the primary “owners” of the site given their familiarity/expertise/tons of info. etc.   This hasn’t quite happened I suspect for a combination of reasons – the benefits of information sharing might not be clear especially to sharing with a “non-insider”; there is no time to “do one more thing” that doesn’t seem to directly address the people’s needs;
  • There is a distinct desire to silo information among humantarian organizations who should be the natural users of Ushahidi – we had this problem in Kenya as well.   Again I’m not sure why when the benefits of bringing more attention to a crisis and helping direct help to where it’s needed the most should be obvious – maybe there are competition issues, or it comes down to whoever sits with the information can raise the most money…in any event it’s a huge problem.  Even worse when such organizations purpotedly speak for the people who are affected by a crisis – how do we bring them on board or get around them if necessary?  [And along with that you can add the general reluctance to embrace innovation].

These are just some of my musings, hope to hear from the wider community out there on how we can tackle some of these challenges.

15 Responses to “Covering the DRC – challenges for Ushahidi”

  1. Hi Ory, I am the token pessimist at the Web2.0 party, but I hope that you’ll take my comments in the constructive spirit that they’re meant. I think Ushahidi is a good idea with a lot of potential, and I’d like to see it develop that potential. However the problems that you’re facing have nothing to do with the technology, but with the model. I find it difficult to believe that you could not anticipate how difficult it would be to Ushahidi to insert itself into a completely new situation, especially one as difficult as DR Congo. Even organisations which have been on the ground for decades struggle to stay on top of the rapidly shifting situation. The good news is that DR Congo is probably about as difficult as it gets in terms of deployment.

    The key to the problems you have faced in DR Congo is the question that I am still trying to answer: what exactly is Ushahidi offering to people on the ground? It’s not enough to argue that it is offering them a way to make reports about activity on the ground if nothing happens with those reports. The Ushahidi website states that your goal “is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up their own way to collect and visualize information” – but I am struggling to work out what anybody is supposed to do with that information. You say you’d “like to see the tool working better for the people affected by the crisis” – but how will it work for them?

    You say “in Eastern DRC the question we often get when we try to approach local organizations / contacts is what direct benefit will a person get from reporting”, so you’ve already run into this question. Everything that you list under “Issues specific to crisis situations” – well, if you’d asked I could have listed those off the top of my head. We’ve had exactly the same problems everywhere else and we’ll continue to have them. I don’t want to see Ushahidi re-invent the wheel, but in order to avoid that you must must must answer that core question. Where’s the added value for the individual that you want to send a message to Ushahidi?

    There are a host of other questions that then follow from that, but I’ll save those for another time. Good luck!

  2. Mark Folashade

    Paul, if I’m not mistaken Patrick answers “Where’s the added value for the individual that you want to send a message to Ushahidi?” question towards the bottom of his blog post. Or at least, what it could be.

  3. I’m just not certain where the added value is. If I’m individual at risk, surely what I want is authoritative information – not the same sort of information I get from my neighbours, amplified. Building up the sort of trust that would make Ushahidi be seen as a reliable source would take a long time, and probably wouldn’t be possible during an emergency itself. I’m still thinking it all through.

  4. Paul, thanks for your comments. Great food for thought. As far as your last comment – I agree that the trust wouldn’t likely happen in a crisis itself…more likely if it is being used in an ongoing situation that has a risk of blowing up. Also you might not want the same info as what you can get from your neighbour, but if the information is being used e.g. to direct help more efficiently to you – there could be some value add there. Also envision a situation where your neighbour might be as clueless as you as to where the closest nutrition feeding center is, or where roadblocks are (in Kenya figuring out travel routes to avoid being targeted based on ethnicity was important during the worst of the violence) – that could be value add.

    Also keep in mind that our model will in the future rarely involve us deploying Ushahidi ourselves as in DRC but will involve organizations more connected to the local situation deploying Ushahidi…again not a complete solution but it should help close the gap/information loop.

  5. @Mark – Thanks for reading my post carefully.

    @Paul – I don’t believe the comment “what I want is authoritative information” is always applicable (or even possible) in situations of conflict. We, as Westerners, may want authoritative information because that’s what we’re used to in the West. And even then, the authorities can’t be everywhere all the time monitoring everything, let alone the mainstream media. Hence the value of crowdsourcing.

    If I found myself in a conflict zone, I would want as much information as possible on the security situation but would need to recognize the trade off between volume and reliability. I would want to know about a rumor even if I could not authenticate it’s validity. Why? Because at least I could take precautionary measures in case the rumor turns out to be true. The point here is to improve an individual’s situational awareness so that s/he can make more informed decisions about their security environment. Waiting for authoritative information is often like “Waiting for Godot” in certain conflict situations.

    On the comment of not wanting “the same sort of information I get from my neighbors, amplified.” Really? I would want to know if a militia was entering the outskirts of town if a neighbor happened to see the movement of soldiers. I would want to know from a friend in a neighboring village that military jeeps have been spotted heading to my village. The authorities are not going to be giving me that information!

    @Ory – I too agree that “the trust wouldn’t likely happen in a crisis itself.” Still, I’d at least provide the platform; because without a platform the challenge of trust becomes a moot point.

  6. Adam H.

    Paul brings up a good point in the added value issue of Ushahidi. The exact same type of data that Ushahidi is collecting has been collected for years by human rights investigators and MONUC (the UN mission). There exist literally tens of thousands of records that are personal accounts of what bad things have happened there. These files are stored and then accessed again when say, someone from the ICC visits at which point the people are interviewed again. And then the people are interviewed again when international media crews want some heartbreaking stories about Congo. So, the issue isn’t a lack of information. It’s there and it has been there for a very long time. The issue is a serious lack of action upon the information that’s given, so the question of added value is extremely valid and actually a crucial question for Ushahidi to answer in regards to what you’re doing in DRC.
    I admire what Ushahidi is trying to do, but this is just another “flash in the pan” if there is no substantive follow through that goes along with it and from working in DRC for over two years, I have to say that the people there are tired of words that have no action behind them.