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David Kobia, 32

Software that helps populations cope with crises


Long reach: David Kobia’s Web programming helps communities facing catastrophe around the world.
Credit: Yvonne Boyd

The Ushahidi project brings crowd­sourcing to bear on some of the most desperate situations people face around the world. Its downloadable software allows users to submit eyewitness reports during a conflict or disaster; the collected reports are displayed on a map. At times when ordinary sources of news and public information are unavailable, Ushahidi gives users a way to share information and shape political opinion, guide rescuers, or pool resources. Ushahidi has been used to monitor elections in Sudan, document violence in Gaza, track the BP oil slick, and assist earthquake recovery efforts in Haiti.

Ushahidi was born during the riots that followed Kenya's 2007 presidential election. President Mwai Kibaki had imposed a media blackout throughout the East African nation, so the Internet provided the only open channels of mass communication. David Kobia was 8,000 miles away in Birmingham, AL. A Kenyan expatriate who had dropped out of the University of Alabama at Birmingham to work as a Web developer, Kobia was frantically trying to moderate an online forum, Mashada, that had started as a personal project but was becoming a very public arena for Kenyan politics. Discussions on the site were spiraling into vitriol and paranoia. A French news agency reporting on Mashada called it Kenya's answer to Radio Mille Collines, the infamous Rwandan radio station that had fueled that country's genocide in 1994.

"Being mentioned in the same sentence as Radio Mille Collines is akin to being called a Nazi," says Kobia, a gentle man with an open face and an easy smile. Beset by remorse and despair, he pulled the plug on Mashada, got into his car, and sped up Interstate 20, planning to spend a somber winter holiday with friends in Atlanta. Somewhere near the Georgia border, his cell phone rang. An online acquaintance, Erik Hersman, was calling. Hersman had read a post by a prominent Kenyan blogger, Ory Okolloh, calling for someone with the know-how to program a Google map to track the violence and destruction. "Can you put it together?" Hersman asked. Seeing an opportunity to atone for Mashada, Kobia turned around and headed back to Birmingham. Two days later, Ushahidi was up and running.

Ushahidi map of the disputed Kenyan election in 2007. Credit: Ushahidi

That initial version was simple: just a map and a form that let users describe an incident, select the nearest town, and note the location, date, and time. Nonetheless, it was enough to attract widespread attention. "Suddenly my phone was ringing off the hook to do an interview with BBC News or NPR," Kobia says.

By now, Ushahidi--the name means "testimony" in Swahili--has played a central role in coördinating the responses to crises around the globe. Kobia, with the help of Hersman, Okolloh, program director ­Juliana Rotich, and a growing number of coders, has continued to develop and expand the original no-frills online application into a downloadable open-source platform that includes a time line, an API to develop applications for mobile devices, an architecture that allows functionality to be added through software plug-ins, and support for several mapping protocols. It has been used in more than 30 countries, mostly by grassroots relief and watchdog organizations, to direct aid workers to specific locations, document corruption, and track complex events in space and time.

"Ushahidi is one of the most globally significant technology projects," says Ethan Zuckerman, cofounder of the blog network Global Voices and a senior researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. "It's built on open standards and accepts input not only from the Web but from mobile devices--a critical feature for enabling global participation. And it evolves with each installation, resulting in a system that can aggregate, map, and authenticate crowdsourced data in a very wide range of environments."

Kobia grew up in Kenya, the son of a civil engineer and a schoolteacher. He moved to America to study computer science at the University of Alabama in 1998. By that time, the dot-com boom was under way, and Kobia left school to build publishing platforms for Time Inc., Reader's Digest, and Cygnus Publications and also for sites that automated processes such as hiring or booking travel. Through those projects, he gained the deep knowledge of online infrastructure that made it possible for him to assemble the first version of Ushahidi so quickly.

Soon after Ushahidi came online, Kobia was contacted by NetSquared, a nonprofit that promotes the Web as a vehicle for social change. The organizers invited the Ushahidi team to enter its Mashup Challenge, and Kobia flew to San Jose, CA. Walking among the gathered Silicon Valley hipsters, he thought that a group of Africans had little chance. To his great surprise, Ushahidi won the competition. It was a triumphant moment for Kobia, who still felt lingering guilt for the Mashada forum. "I felt drunk with redemption," he says.

Returning to Birmingham, Kobia wrapped up his business and threw himself into Ushahidi, funded by $25,000 from NetSquared and a grant from Humanity United. Later, he secured some $700,000 from philanthropies including the Cisco, Knight, and MacArthur foundations. The result is a system that packs tremendous communication power into a simple user interface. The platform collects incident reports through e-mail, status updates, and blog posts; reports can include text, photos, audio, and video. It uses another open-source program, ­FrontlineSMS, to aggregate text messages, making good use of the cell phones that are ubiquitous in the developing world even where computers are rare.

Incoming incident reports queue up on a dashboard screen where administrators--usually volunteers for organizations that have downloaded Ushahidi and set it up on a server--can categorize and vet them by cross-checking against news and other information online. Within minutes of arrival, messages deemed valid are posted to a public Web page, where they appear on a map as colored dots that grow as reports from those locations accumulate.

Helping Haiti

After receiving the NetSquared prize, Ushahidi played a role in crisis after crisis as tech-savvy grassroots organizations downloaded the platform. With each implementation, it grew as users requested features and Kobia and a growing team of developers obliged. The most challenging test came early this year. On the evening of January 12, 2010, Kobia received an urgent phone call from Patrick Meier, director of crisis mapping and strategic partnerships at Ushahidi and founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers, an Internet-based group that brings together cartographers, imaging experts, and specialists in crisis management. He was looking for ways that digital mapping might help Haiti cope with the aftermath of the earthquake that had just struck.

Kobia set up a Ushahidi website for the crisis, and within hours, the system was fielding reports of human misery on a vast scale--25,000 text messages and 4,500,000 Twitter posts before the month was out. Working through the U.S. State Department, he arranged with Haitian telecommunications companies to supply a four-digit SMS code for emergency messages. Aid workers in Haiti distributed the number on printed flyers.

The bulk of incoming incident reports were written in Creole, so Ushahidi arranged for some 10,000 Haitian expatriates in North America to serve as translators, first through a custom system and later through a partnership with the commercial crowdsourcing website ­CrowdFlower. Meanwhile, Meier organized Tufts University students to log reports around the clock. First responders, including members of the U.S. military, used Ushahidi's map to set priorities, organize, and reach distressed people.

Ushahidi map of the 2010 Haitian earthquake. Credit: Ushahidi

Ushahidi had a decisive impact on the Haitian crisis--and vice versa. On the one hand, Kobia was thrilled to see the system rise to the occasion. On the other, the effort almost drove his team into the ground. "We put in 20-hour days for a month," he says. "Developers were getting burned out." He realized that the organization was failing in its goal of giving others the ability to use the platform independently.

Since then, Kobia has focused much of his energy on making Ushahidi more accessible and easier to operate. For instance, an initiative called Crowdmap delivers Ushahidi's functionality directly over the Web, so local groups don't have to install it on servers of their own. He's also working on a system that uses machine learning and natural-language processing to evaluate the validity of incoming data.

Some of these efforts might ultimately generate revenue: larger organizations might pay for Crowdmap's services or license other parts of the Ushahidi technology. This is necessary, Kobia says, to insulate Ushahidi from the whims of charity, about which he is deeply ambivalent. "In truth, I don't like nonprofits," he says. "They've never solved any problems. Instead, they've destroyed free enterprise and turned Africans into beggars. Some of the best programmers in Kenya are working for nonprofits when they could be creating an economy. Ushahidi's challenge is not to get caught in that cycle."

To that end, Kobia has started an innovation center meant to galvanize ­Nairobi's burgeoning high-tech community. "There's a pool of mind-blowing talent waiting to be tapped," he says. "We remind them, 'It's your duty to participate in this community and build your own businesses.' " --Ted Greenwald

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