Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map: #SomaliaSpeaks

Somalia has been steadily slipping from global media attention over the past few months. The large scale crisis is no longer making headline news, which means that advocacy and lobbying groups are finding it increasingly difficult to place pressure on policymakers and humanitarian organizations to scale their intervention in the Horn of Africa. I recently discussed this issue with Al-jazeera’s Social Media Team whilst in Doha and pitched a project to them which has just gone live this hour.

The joint project combines the efforts of multiple partners including Al-Jazeera, Ushahidi, Souktel, Crowdflower, the African Diaspora Institute and the wider Somali Diaspora. The basis of my pitch to Al-jazeera was to let ordinary Somalis speak for themselves by using SMS to crowdsource their opinions on the unfolding crisis. My colleagues at Al-jazeera liked the idea and their editorial team proposed the following question:

Al Jazeera wants to know: how has the conflict of the last few months affected your life? Please include the name of your hometown in your response. Thank you!

So I reached out to my good friend Jacob Korenblum at Souktel. He and I had been discussing different ways we might combine our respective technologies to help in Somalia. Souktel has been working in Somalia and providing various SMS based solutions to several organizations. Jacob had previously mentioned that his team had a 50,000+ member SMS subscriber list. This proved to be key. Earlier this week, the Souktel team sent out the above question in Somali to about 5,000 of their subscribers. An effort was made to try and select geographically disbursed areas.

We’ve since received well over 2,000 text message replies and counting. In order to translate and geolocate these messages, I got in touch my colleagues Vaughn Hester and Lukas Biewald at Crowdflower in San Francisco. Crowdflower uses micro-tasking solutions to process and structure data flows. They were very keen to help and thanks to their support my Ushahidi colleagues Rob Baker and Linda Kamau were able to customize this Crowdflower plugin to translate, categorize and geo-locate incoming text messages:

They also wrote additional software so that text messages from Souktel could be automatically forwarded to the Crowdflower plugin which would then automatically push the processed SMS’s to a live Ushahidi map hosted by Al-jazeera. While the software development was moving forward, I connected  with colleagues from the Somali American Student Association who expressed an interest in supporting this project. Thanks to them and other members of the Somali Diaspora, hundreds of Somali voices were translated and shared on Al-jazeera’s public Ushahidi map of Somalia within days. But we still need lots of help. So if you speak Somali and English, then simply follow this link.

I wanted this project to serve as a two-way conversation, however, not just a one-way information flow from Somalia to the world. Every report  that gets mapped on an Ushahidi platform is linked to public discussion forum where readers can respond and share their views on said report. So I suggested that Al-jazeera invite their viewers/readers to comment on the text messages directly. The next step will be for Al-jazeera’s editorial team to select some of the most compelling and interesting comments and to text these back to the senders of the original text messages in Somalia. This two-way flow of information can be iterated and scaled given that the technologies and workflows are already in place.

In sum, the purpose of this project is to catalyze global media attention on Somalia by letting Somali voices take center stage—voices that are otherwise not heard in the international, mainstream media. If journalists are not going to speak about Somalia, then this project  invites Somalis speak to the world themselves. The project highlights  these voices on a live, public map for the world to bear witness and engage in a global conversation with people of Somalia, a conversation in which Somalis and the Diaspora are themselves at the centerfold. It is my sincere hope that advocacy and lobby group will be able to leverage the content generated by this project to redouble their efforts in response to the escalating crisis in Somalia.

I very much hope to see this type of approach used again in Somalia and elsewhere. It is fully inline with the motivations that inspired the launch of the first Ushahidi platform almost 4 years ago today: collective witnessing. Indeed, I am often reminded of what my friend Anand Giridharadas of the New York Times wrote last year vis-a-vis Ushahidi. To paraphrase:

They used to say that history is written by the victors. But today, before the victors win, if they win, there is a chance to scream out with a text message, a text message that will not vanish, a text message that will remain immortalized on a map for the world to bear witness. What would we know about what passed between Turks and Armenians, Germans and Jews, Hutus and Tutsis, if every one of them had had the chance, before the darkness, to declare for all time:

“I was here, and this is what happened to me”?

Use #SomaliaSpeaks to witness the project on Twitter.

I want to specifically thank the following individuals who put an incredible amount of time and effort (most pro bono) to make this project happen: Robert Baker, Linda Kamau, Michael Moszczynski, Katie Highet, Jacob Korenblum, Vaughn Hester, Mohammed Dini, Hamza Haadoow, Andrew Jawitz and of course the excellent Al Jazeera team in Doha. Thank you all for going above and beyond to make this happen.

29 Responses to “Amplifying Somali Voices Using SMS and a Live Map: #SomaliaSpeaks”

  1. Thanks for the post Patrick. Its the least we can do for the Somali people and we’re open to exploring more innovative ways to reach and give a voice to the voiceless.

    On behalf of the Al Jazeera team we’d like to than everyone that has been involved and to all who have responded and engaged.

  2. My friend received the message from you on his phone. The question says “tell us how is conflict affecting your life” and “include your name of location”.
    You did not tell him that his name will be told to the world. People in Somalia understand that sms is between just two people. Many people do not even understand the internet.

    The warlords have money and many contacts. They understand the internet. They will look at this and they will look at who is complaining. Can you protect them?

    I think this project is not for the people of Somalia. It is for the media like Al Jazeera and Ushahidi. You are not from here. You are not helping. It is better that you stay out.

  3. Dear Awaale, I completely share your concern and already mentioned this exact issue to Al Jazeera a few hours ago. I’m sure they’ll fix the issue as soon as they get my message. Note that the question that was sent out does *not* request people to share their names, only the name of their general location. Al Jazeera is careful to map the general location and *not* the exact location. Finally, Al Jazeera has full editorial control over this project, not Ushahidi.

  4. Dear Awaale, the Al-jazeera team received my message and have deleted all personal identifiers from the public site.

  5. Can you provide a link to the map on Al Jazeera’s website please?

  6. I can still see the names. If Al-Jazeera is your partner than it is your responsibility also.

    He says that we are voiceless but we have phones. We can call and send a message to anybody. We are not voiceless. Who can we trust?

  7. Awaale, since you are as concerned as I am, maybe you can actually help and let us know which specific reports you can still see names for? Al-jazeera have told me twice that they have removed all personal non-identifiers. I would not be replying to you if I didn’t feel that the responsibility was shared.

  8. The names are here. I can see them in the picture.

  9. What picture are you talking about? There is no picture. And how can I trust you and what you say if you don’t let me call you? For all I know you could be someone else.

  10. Pretty sly move deleting all the very important comments about how you were putting people in danger, but somehow I don’t think that’s going to solve the problem or erase the string. BAD FORM PATRICK! I bet you’ll mistakenly publicize my name and location now, but that’s someone else’s fault too, right!?!?!

  11. Thanks for re-posting! now we might learn something about letting technology drive right over the safety of the population you’re supposed to protect.

  12. Hi Phil, thanks for your note. The comments were temporarily removed by the Tech Team because they were fixing a security bug in the Al Jazeera Somalia map and the comments simply called attention to this security hole. So they decided to err on the side of caution while quickly fixing the issue. It is standard procedure for any software company to remove comments like that until a fix is in place in order to not further expose the security hole that people might exploit. It is for the protection of the end user. We will be completely transparent in our review post regarding this security hole and other issues. We are very thankful for you input as we continue to move forward and welcome any constructive and concrete recommendations you may have to offer so we can share these with the Al Jazeera Team. Thanks again for your input.

  13. Hey Patrick and Soud,


    The project sounds good in theory but to be honest the feedback from from my Somali diaspora friends is bad.

    One thing you guys need to understand is that Somalis have been stripped of initiative for the past 21years. In the last 21 years, every initiative that was taken in Somalia was taken by the international community or it was a none-Somali driven which basically undermines all Somali initiatives.

    Its time for the international community to give initiative back to the Somalis and its time for the Somalis to take and demand initiative.
    If you guys really want to help Somalia, please highlight Somali driven initiatives which will motivate more Somalis to take initiative or speak up.

  14. Mohammed

    Thanks Deeq, for your concern. I am Somali and I am part of this initiative. Over 60 Somali students participated while this was launched during the final week or two weeks in their Universities. Amplifying Somali Voices is not run by the UN or Anyone else but Somalis who are dedicated to make their country voice heard. Thanks to Patrick and Soud for their noble humanity work to make Somalia speaks. Thanks to Ushahidi and Aljazeera for their dedication and support for this project. If you want participate, you are always welcome. Anyone who wants to help us this project is welcomed too. (Somali or none Somali)if you care the future of somalia you are welcome. No disrespect Deeq, but do you homework next time before you jump to the conclusion. Thanks.

  15. Mohamed,

    Im not jumping to any conclusion bro, im just doing my part as a Somali youth who is active within the Somali community im giving you some feedback…take it or leave it!

    Good luck


  16. Thank you Patrick so much, I really admire all you do for Somalia. Mohammed explained to us about the project couple times. Our Last conference call, as the Somali American Student Associations, this was on our agenda. Even thought I was busy with my school exams, I translated like 7 text messages. Forgot about telling the world about Somali news, it touched me personally when I was translating. I needed that wakeup call when I am driving my SUV and going through Starbucks before I go to my Uni and someone else is losing his/her life while she or he has no idea why they are killed. I know some people’s life style is just to criticize but you have a great partner ADI and SASA. I would like also to thank Mohammed for his work for our community here and Somalia.

  17. Mohammed

    Thank you again Deeq for your feedback. i know where you are coming from, and i love the fact that you are engaged in. But this initiate has unanimous support from the Diaspora. And anything you want to add is always welcome. Thank you Ayan for volunteering your time to Somalia Speaks.

  18. Hi everyone,

    Although this idea may seem very odd and disturbing to many Somalis, I believe that we should be open-minded to certain things.
    If this is going to help Somalia and it is people then it is our obligation to take the first step.

    I would sincerely like to thank Aljazeera and all the people involved in this. It is a good thing that the world finally wants to hear what Somali people have to say. And together find a solution to this seemingly everlasting wars and disasters.

  19. Heather Leson

    All, I have the utmost respect for all the people involved in this project, especially the people sharing their stories and Al Jazeera’s team for being true leaders in giving people voice.

    I am also thankful for our community, especially Rob Baker, Rob Munro, George Chamales, Saleem Khan and Aaron Huslage for all their help.

  20. Thank you very much for your kind and sincere words, Mohammed, Ayan and Hafsa. The initial inspiration for this project came from K’naan back in August. His team got in touch with us because because K’naan wanted to find a way to demonstrate that Somalis were capable of fixing their own problems. He wanted to see the Somali Diaspora play a central role in responding to the crisis and wanted to find a way to amplify Somali voices and show how capable the Somali people are. So your kind words should really go to K’naan and his team for having planted the seed of an idea many months ago. Thank you again for your comments and for sharing *your* voices with the world. I shall be forever grateful. Peace.

  21. Adam Abuzuhri

    What a great opportunity for us to convey our message to the world. This is a chance I have been seeking for long time. Yes, we Somalis should speak and say what we want, not what the international community want us to do.
    I can only say thanks to those behind this idea. I would suggest that this converted into videos rather than text to attract the youth who have been on facebook/tweeter.

  22. think beyond the box

    open your eyes and stop dreaming, international community towards somalia is a talk that is deaf.
    paint the picture, the problem was introduced by so called international family, lets look at history if you really looking for that voice that is going to help somalia. lets first see what the colonial powers did to the lands of somalia, this is before somalia had a goverment. british, italy are still found in all bounds in the field called democracy…
    time is the only key that holds the destiny of people that understand its one world that we live on and no matter what side of the box you find youself the sun shines to all of us.

  23. Aisha Ahmed

    I personally think it’s great and useful project, and i can understand some concerns towards exposing the location or names but first time i saw the masseges on the site i saw text masseges from places like Galkacyo or Bosaso which considerd save comparing to the other places like Mogdishu.But it seems that people are also saffuring there so i don’t think exposing the location will bring that much of trouble to those people because there is no worlords or Al-shabab there, as long as their faces in not appeared on TV it’s all good.
    Great initiative.. and i would love to help if there is any thing i can do!

  24. A. Warsame

    Hi Patrick, where are the results published? I’ve been scrolling through aljazeera’s webpage but haven’t found it. Can you please provide a link. Also can you provide an email address. I am very interested in the potential of this crowd sourcing technology and would liked to discuss some ideas with you. Many thanks for such an awesome initiative.

  25. This sounds like a great initiative! From listening to the conversation above, it seems that some initial kinks have been worked out, and that the team is willing to listen to questions and even take criticism. I don’t want to make assumptions about anything, so I am here to ask some questions. Is there any information on the general characteristics of the people who are sending in messages? By that I mean, do you know if you have a diverse group of respondents? For example, what if the vast majority of respondents are male? Would that impact the project and the end result? A simple way to find the answer to one part of my question, would be to have respondents note if they are male or female when they send in a message–it might seem odd, but it would help reflect the diversity of respondents and wouldn’t give away any crucial identifying information. This is Somalia Speaks and so I would think it should be a representative cross section of the Somali population, right? Geographical diversity is something that was sought and achieved, despite difficulty. I used to work in refugee resettlement, and still volunteer with newly arrived refugees and asylum seekers in the United States. I have the utmost respect for the Somali people. According to the most recent stats from the CIA World Factbook (2001), the female literacy rate in Somalia stands at 25.8%. If this project is based on SMS technology, which depends on the user being able to read a message and then send out a written answer, how can the project managers be sure that women’s voices are being included proportionately, when they are at an increased disadvantage due to lack of educational opportunities? My main point is simply that I think this is an important project. I really care to hear what people in Somalia have to say about current issues affecting them. However, I do think it is important that the project be a true reflection of Somali voices. If we out here in the world are listening to a majority group of men, the opinions will be skewed. I would love to hear some feedback. Perhaps this issue has already been addressed, and my concerns are largely unfounded. If not, it would be great to see efforts made to include women, low-income people, the disabled, and other marginalized groups who may not always have a chance to have their voices heard via SMS technology. And although I am not Somali, I have lived in East Africa and visited the Horn. I have seen the disparities in access to mobile technologies for different groups of people, in person. Undoubtedly, working to ensure that everyone’s voice is heard, will require much more effort. It all comes down to the project goals and the true mission. I bet with inclusion, the end results will be really rewarding! Thanks for all of your hard work on this project, and thanks to all of the countless people who take the time to translate messages. Your work is appreciated.

  26. Sandra Thaxter

    Despite the possible risks for Somalis.. this initiative is the kind of thinking that can heal all the mistaken efforts of the outside world to help Somalia. This is a way change perceptions.
    Thanks Patrick and Ushahidi

  27. hell a home for the devil

    افتح عينيك والتوقف عن الحلم، المجتمع الدولي تجاه الصومال هو حديث الذي الصم.
    طلاء الصورة، أدخل المشكلة بحيث دعا الأسرة الدولية، تسمح للنظر في التاريخ إذا كنت حقا تبحث عن أن صوت التي سوف تساعد الصومال. يتيح أولاً انظر ما فعلته القوى الاستعمارية في أراضي الصومال، وهذا قبل أن الصومال قد الحكومة. وبريطانيا، وإيطاليا لا تزال توجد في كل حدود في حقل يسمى democracy…
    الوقت هو المفتاح الوحيد الذي يحتفظ بمصير الشعب الذي يفهم في عالم واحد الذي نعيش على، وبغض النظر عن ما هو الجانب من مربع تجد لك الشمس يضيء لنا جميعا.