Looking at 2011: Ushahidi’s Strategic Focus

Ushahidi was born as a group of ad hoc Kenyans who came together to build a tool for crowdsourcing information 3 years ago. The organization was formed a few months later, so both are almost 3 years old. In that time a lot has happened, with 2010 being a pivotal year in both the size of the team and deployments globally. With those thoughts in mind, we started talking about the strategic direction that we’re going in, and as usual, we wanted to share that with the greater community.

Ushahidi Foundation

  • Mission: We have always been, and will continue to be, a non-profit tech company that develops free and open source software for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. We focus on creating simple tools for crowdsourcing information and changing the way information flows, with a specific focus on information trickling from the bottom up.
  • African roots: We’re now up to 12 people on the team, and more than half of us are Africa-based, with team members in Ghana, Kenya and Uganda, with the rest in the US.
  • Global focus: Our volunteer network spans the globe with programmers, deployers and translators in every continent (except Antarctica). We might have built the tool for Kenya, but the organization was formed to take the platform global.
  • Independent funding: We made a rule within Ushahidi in the very first year that we wouldn’t take any public funding from any government. We haven’t, and don’t plan on changing that anytime soon. Our funding comes from private foundations (Cisco, MacArthur, Omidyar Network, Knight, Hivos, Humanity United), and from select custom projects each year.

The 2011 Focus

The strategy at the Ushahidi organization for the past 3 years has been on getting the right team together to create the best crowdsourcing and visualization platform that we could so that others could do in 3 hours what took us 3 days to do in Kenya. It has also been to figure out how to best cultivate and work with a growing community of volunteer programmers, designers and deploying organizations that have emerged around the platform.

The strategic focus for 2011 takes us into new territory, with a focus on the user community, platform refinement, product packaging, deploying organization partners and funding diversification.

The User Community
2010 saw us shift from primarily putting our focus in the volunteer programmer community, and starting to reach out more to the user and deployer community. We’ve been working hard since this time last year to better understand the needs and create better ways of sharing between these groups. It’s still a work in progress, but you can see the new community section of the site here.

We’re trying to create the community connection point, where people can learn from others who have done similar-type deployments to the one that they are planning, as well as a knowledge library for you to find, read and learn from for your own deployments. Finally, it’s a place where people can connect directly to each other, and hopefully we’ll see a lot more partnerships take place.

Last year also saw the beginnings of the Universities for Ushahidi program (U4U), where Ushahidi and the United States Institute for Peace (USIP) are partnering to develop a unique, open curriculum and training program for students to develop core skills for conflict management, real-time mapping, and promote peacebuilding initiatives in their own communities.

Platform
The Ushahidi platform focus in 2010 was on its basic architecture, making sure that what we had built could be extended (plugins), was easier to customize (theming), had an easier install and update process, and that everything that was supposed to work, worked.

This year, while there will always be some architectural work to do, we’re going to pay a lot more attention to the little things. Our goal is to make both the front-end, and admin side, more user friendly. For us this means simplifying and making the user experience more refined. We’d love to get some of your help as we go through this process, and we’re already seeing a lot of great work from the volunteers on making this happen.

Products
SwiftRiver and Crowdmap were both launched into their betas in 2010. We’re still taking Crowdmap through it’s paces, and we have some big adjustments coming that way from the lessons we learned in this month’s Australia Floods deployment. SwiftRiver has a number of tools within it, with the framework well set, and starting to be fully integrated into the Ushahidi platform.

What we’re doing that’s different in 2011 though is that we’re packaging products that can be sold. While all of our code remains free and open source to download and run on your own, if you want to use our servers and web services, those are available as well. SwiftRiver serves are a great example of this.

Crowdmap, our hosted Ushahidi platform service, is also free and available to anyone to use. Where you’ll see the packaging of our products for purchase here is in the plugins and upgrades that you can do on top of the vanilla installation. Though many will be free, some will be for paid upgrades. Look for packages around SMS bundles, “checkins”, and data export/backups among others.

On top of the Crowdmap and SwiftRiver products, we are bundling some of our tools into specific packages for certain types of uses. For instance, we have a number of plugins that we created specifically for election monitoring efforts in Kenya and Tanzania and we’re going to make those freely available to everyone in the community for use anywhere in the world.

Deploying Partnerships
As Ushahidi we get approached by a lot of organizations to help them do custom deployments for all types of use cases. Due to how our team is made up (primarily focused on platform development) we’ve historically been quite choosy about who we work with, and the type of projects. This will continue, with Ushahidi as an organization taking on a few high-level projects each year. We’ll soon release our pricing plans for this direct engagement with our organization.

At the same time, there are certain people and organizations who have continued to be a strong part of the Ushahidi ecosystem in the last 12-18 months. Our plan is to continue to connect organizations who need help in their deployment, and who are willing to pay for that work, with this growing community of deploying experts. Our purpose is to extend what can be done through crowdsourcing and data visualization far beyond what we alone can do as an organization, and to us that means making sure that others are deeply involved and benefiting from it too.

Funding Diversification
Our funding has traditionally been by private foundations, which is a model we needed to get started, but is one that we hope to diversify. In 2010 approximately 10% of our revenues came via custom work for clients. Our goal for 2011 is to push that number closer to 20% for external custom work, with an additional 10% from the SwiftRiver and Crowdmap products.

An couple examples of this type of work are how SwiftRiver worked with the (RED) campaign on a custom deployment for AIDs Day. Another is the work that we started last year with Humanity United last year to put together an early warning system in Liberia. These are wildly different types of deployments with different engagement timelines, teams and costs – and serve to show just how different the possibilities are for the platform.

Pre-Launch

This move towards a distinctly different revenue stream strategy will mean some adjustments in our team makeup, including shifting of some individuals into different teams, and likely an addition or two that have an outside focus on community development, project management and customer service. As always, we’ll keep you updated on how and when this unfolds.

5 Responses to “Looking at 2011: Ushahidi’s Strategic Focus”

  1. Thanks for this useful overview — are you finding that there is an active aftermarket for your products yet? ie — are there any third parties who have begun to specialize in implementations/consultations using your free tools?

  2. Hi Matt, we are finding that there are a lot of organizations who want to deploy the Ushahidi platform for their own use, but who lack the technical skills to customize it for their needs. Due to that, there are a number of organizations and individuals who are starting to specialize in the platform. Some examples are:

    eMoksha
    Digital Democracy
    Pamoja Media
    The individuals at the Konpa Group

  3. Matt, on the Swift side there are few free APIs for processing data, and even fewer which are also open source projects. We’ve begun to see a great deal of use and interest in what what we do there for those reasons. Also features alike location auto-detection are services that many Ushahidi users will appreciate and a big reason behind the approach.

  4. I am very interested in the concept of networked problem solving in the non-profit sector. The Ushahidi platform looks amazing. Are there other platforms similar to Ushahidi that you have seen? I am specifically looking for other platforms that could be suitable for collaborating/crowdsourcing solutions around problems that are not necessarily crises. Thanks.