Forward Thinkers, Science and Technology // 12.02.2010

From Kenya to the World: African advances in IT

Article by Aba H

Ory Okolloh, Kenyan activist and blogger, has been at the forefront of developing the software, Ushahidi, which has taken information sharing to a different level. Ushahidi is a tech company and software that offers free software for information sharing and “interactive mapping” thereby creating a platform for people to share experiences and stories. Ushahidi was invented in Kenya to share post election violence information in 2008 that wasn’t commonly reported. With the success of Ushahidi in Kenya there was an opportunity to share the software with the world. Mexico, South Africa, Haiti, India, the Democratic Republic of Congo and the United States are a few countries that are now enjoying the information sharing benefits of Ushahidi.  Okolloh has shown the world that as Africans we too are able to export our ideas and creations to the world. “We have been able to demonstrate that … we can create software that can be used all over the world, that we have that kind of talent in Africa.” Okolloh said on CNN’s African Voices.

Ms. Okolloh

Okolloh’s passion for her native country Kenya and the continent of Africa is obvious the projects she has initiated and those she associates herself with. The Harvard law school graduate is the co-founder and Executive Director of Ushahidi –meaning “testimony” in Swahili.  She also co-founded Mzalendo, a site that keeps tabs on Kenyan parliamentarians and their performance. Okolloh is passionate about reshaping Africa through the sharing of information and by creating means for citizens to hold their governments accountable. Okolloh, also known as “Kenyan pundit” (meaning a critic or source opinion), enjoys blogging about her activist activities. In addressing the common stereotypes about Africa, she frequently blogs on topics of human rights, politics and other controversial topics.  In doing so she daringly deals with relevant issues faced by the continent through information sharing and increasing awareness.

Living far from Kenya (in the U.S. and in South Africa) didn’t prevent Okolloh from returning home to participate in the historic 2007 elections. The unreported violence, rioting, raping and looting which occurred during the post-election time after Mwai Kibaki’s victory, distressed Okolloh.  “Most of the TV stations had cartoons going on and the radios had music and then you look outside and you’re seeing smoke all over Kibera.” said Okolloh on CNN’s African Voices interview. She continued:  “It was very surreal, sort of like a North Korea kind of moment, the disconnect between the reality and what you’re hearing. So I opened up my blog for people to send their stories…” For this first-time voter, witnessing an election for which she had many optimistic expectations descend into violence was “heartbreaking”.

Ushahidi: Connecting Africans through Information Technology

Instead of becoming a despondent spectator of the violence, Okolloh got serious about using what she had -her laptop and some blog followers- and began to gather and circulate information about events that were plaguing the country. In the midst of the killings and displacement of half a million people, Okolloh was receiving updates from Kenyan journalists and political sources. Her blog was soon flooded with information. Through the generosity of a blog follower who bought her a url and two other bloggers who wrote a software code for her, Okolloh’s overflowing blog soon turned into a website and software.  The software lets people gather information through email, the web, or SMS and it visually place the events on a map.  During the 2008 elections, Kenyans could use Ushahidi to send in their reports of events happening around the country via mobile phones and the net using the software which would then map these events on the website.

No place like home

In the future, Okolloh, hopes Ushahidi will be used to send out early warnings to high risk natural disaster areas and reminders for people on medications such as antiretroviral medication. For her, there is no place like home. She hasn’t lost hope in her home country but rather sees potential as things “can’t get much worse.” She says of Kenya: “I’ve never seen or been to a place that has as much potential.”

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