[Guest Blog Post: Caroline Stauffer traveled to Chile in early May with Anahi Ayala Iacucci to speak with Chilean organizations about Ushahidi-Chile. She is a recent graduate of Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) and is moving to Mexico City to work as a journalist this summer.]
Investigative journalists collect information and statements over time, comparing promises made by governments and officials to what is actually delivered, and in a democracy, to the needs and desires of the general public. In the past, individuals or a team of journalists did this work, but platforms like Ushahidi are quickly redefining the craft and expanding the possibilities.
Ushahidi-Chile was deployed following the 8.8-magnitude earthquake of February 27 to map out destruction and relief efforts. The ground has ceased to tremble, but much still needs to be rebuilt in Chile’s most affected areas. See photos from Talca, Talcahuano and Concepcion on the platform for evidence.
When we started our project, my colleagues at Columbia University and I certainly did not imagine that transparency and accountability would be the end goals of a platform that was set up to aid humanitarian response efforts. But after the immediate emergency phase of the earthquake had past, we did hope that Chilean organizations would somehow continue to find the platform and existing reports useful. We were lucky to receive a grant from The Mozilla Foundation that enabled us to send four students to Santiago on two separate trips to find out.
In Chile, we discovered many tech savvy organizations that were familiar with Ushahidi and had their own ideas about how the platform could be improved or deployed in the future. We learned that Chile has a burgeoning civil society, both traditional and digital, that had sprung into action after the earthquake.
RECONSTRUYE one of many NGOs we met during the team’s second trip in early May, was formed by a group of architects in Santiago who believe design and city planning should work for society’s interests, and has grown into an organization that strives to ensure post-earthquake reconstruction is a democratic process.
Part of the Chilean government’s plan for long-term reconstruction is to assign the major affected municipalities to private companies that will finance reconstruction and decide how rebuilding should proceed. The plan is controversial not because of the private sector’s involvement, RECONSTRUYE believes, but rather because citizens haven’t been given very much information about the process.
Sur Maule based in Talca, is another NGO interested in using the Ushahidi platform for accountability in reconstruction. The organization had hoped to facilitate a public forum so that the citizens of Talca who lost their homes and workplaces could openly debate and discuss reconstruction, but the company overseeing the rebuilding of the town does not support such a forum. It is not yet clear what influence the public will have. Many people in Talca use bicycles, for example—will the corporate plan allow for bike paths?
Once additional categories are added to the existing platform, Ushahidi-Chile could serve as a digital forum for reconstruction, with the public submitting geo-referenced reports via the Internet or SMS, displaying the progress of rebuilding along with citizen hopes for reconstruction. On the Internet, the public can opine whether or not they are granted a physical forum for discussion, and the Ushahidi page can serve as a record of thoughts, ideas and actual progress.
With the cooperation of Accion a network of 40 NGOs like Sur Maule from throughout Chile, reconstruction efforts and public opinion in different geographic areas can also be compared.
Working on a long-term project with many different actors and without the incentive for public participation that comes during an emergency will no doubt be challenging. It will be interesting to see if the Chilean public will truly get behind a digital, geo-referenced accountability tool for reconstruction. If so, and with a little tweaking of the existing platform, Ushahidi-Chile could become society’s record of the earthquake, from its first vibrations to its final reconstructed building.