The first Ushahidi research seminar

Ushahidi and iHub researchers met a few weeks ago to present our current research projects and to invite the global research community to suggest ways of working together in the future. The iHub event was attended by about twenty in-person researchers, user experience experts, designers and interested individuals from Nairobi and surrounds, and a virtual audience of about fifty others from around the world. Unfortunately we had a number of technical problems using the virtual meeting software as well as a general internet outage near the end of the presentation, so we thought we would write about what was discussed and invite comments and suggestions on the Ushahidi research mailing list here.

I started off the seminar talking about the growth of Ushahidi from its inception as a response to post-election violence in Kenya in 2008. This simple way of reporting violence and peace efforts in the country has grown into a service used in election monitoring, humanitarian response, citizen journalism efforts – not to mention tracking the best burgers in the world.

Jessica Colaco, research lead of iHub Research gave an overview of iHub, m:lab and iHub research, and how they fit under the umbrella that is Ushahidi. She outlined iHub Research’s mission, which is to drive local tech research in Africa and introduced the four-member research team whose studies are guided by three principles: community, innovation and decisions. “iHub Research, which was founded on the first anniversary of iHub, aims to build local tech research capacity while telling research stories about the African tech community,” she said.

Hilda Moraa, iHub Research Strategist, described the ongoing iHub Research projects, taking an example of two projects, the governance project and ICT hubs study and highlighting lessons learned from these, challenges faced and what’s next for iHub Research. One of the greatest lessons learned so far by iHub Research is that community involvement is key to the success of research especially if the research aims to have a social impact. Over the next year iHub Research is looking for partnerships and collaborations with local researchers as part of its local capacity building initiative.

I talked about my work as Ushahidi ethnographer starting in June this year where I am looking at how Wikipedians understand, manage and verify sources and citations on the encyclopedia and at what Ushahidi and SwiftRiver in particular might learn from this. I talked about my interest in ethnography as a bouquet of methodologies that present some of the most innovative approaches to studying multi-sited online communities and at how it is increasingly being used by the technology community as a bridge between users, products and design (see for more information on ethnography in technology).

Although research at Ushahidi is still pretty small, there are three key areas that we might think about Ushahidi research encompassing in the future. These include:

  1. What are best case practices that crowd-based/peer-production communities use to organise and manage their information?
  2. How is our software being used? What are the contexts in which our software is being deployed? What are some of the challenges that our users are facing?
  3. What opportunities are there for new products to serve particular contexts?

I talked about my work on verification at Ushahidi that features voices of deployers and developers with verification experiences, contrasting this with how others “do” verification including by journalists and Wikipedians. In both cases, the trustworthiness of information changes depending on its place in a dynamically evolving story, rather than having a static or binary tag attached to it in perpetuity (which is the case currently with Ushahidi).

After giving everyone a brief taste of some of the findings of this research, I talked about three key challenges and then outlined three ways to get involved in the Ushahidi research community.

  1. How do we create feedback loops so that developers respond iteratively to research findings?
  2. How do we understand use and context in multi-sited, international and sometimes-anonymous settings?
  3. How do we create opportunities for learning from research communities when we have limited resources?

Ushahidi research intern and student of Social Anthropology at the University of Copenhagen, Maria Grabowski Kjær, then discussed the background of her study on Ushahidi, her experiences, challenges and next steps.

Maria writes: ‘The gist of my original curiosity was, how an online platform like Ushahidi creates new ways and premises for people to communicate, organize and mobilize in situations of crisis and political conflicts? I see Ushahidi as an example of a global development in technology that really has gained momentum in recent years. Because of this, I believe that the premises for social activism have changed radically. To make that idea more tangible I formed this problem statement:

‘How do the users of Ushahidi communicate, organize and mobilize as a network online, and how this type of ‘cyberactivism’ propagates to people on the ground?’

This question may look good on paper, but in real life I found it unrealistic for me to investigate: The people that I wished to talk to seemed almost impossible to track down. I knew beforehand that it would be a challenge, because the Ushahidi software is open-source and the users on the ground mostly report anonymously. I soon realized though that it would take too much time to even try, so I quickly decided to change focus to the ‘deployers’ instead of the users – meaning people that either have founded a deployment, or people that are part of a core deployment group. So for now my problem statement is:

How do ‘deployers’ use Ushahidi in a situation of crisis or conflict? What are the motivations and hopes behind Ushahidi, and which feelings of agency and change arise?

Change happens over time and is therefore difficult to measure in the short research time that I have, so instead I am dealing with the feelings of change that people experience.

My fieldwork location is mainly online, but I have also visited two offline locations in Cairo and Nairobi to do face-to-face and qualitative interviews. My interviews both show critical, positive and pragmatic views on Ushahidi (see selected quotes from the interviews in the slides).

Some deployers state that Ushahidi is too short-sighted; people share information and then what? It seems that some deployments never go further than that. Some express the need for more participation and more critical participation to make a difference, and to give a valid picture of a given situation. The more positive deployers do not claim that Ushahidi changes anything, but at least they found some dignity in using it, and the feeling of doing something was satisfying. They describe how this empowering feeling of doing something means a lot for them.

I believe that there are at least two levels to consider in these quotes. The micro level that describes the personal satisfaction of contributing to something, and the macro level that questions where the actual social change is. I will look further into this dynamics between this personal level and the social/societal level in my further research. See more on online fieldwork and timeline on the slides.’

After Maria’s summary, I concluded the event with a call for people to contribute relevant papers, events and questions to the mailing list, to add papers to the Mendeley group and to suggest ideas for thematic research seminars in the future.