Kenya Site to Offer Early Warning Tools for Violence

African communities living in violence- or disaster-prone areas will soon be able to use online early warning tools to map the incidents.

After successfully using Ushahidi.com to map post-election violence in Kenya, the site's team is now focusing on building a tool that can record early warning signs and allow people to share their stories online.

"During the violence in Kenya, people told stories of how they had received verbal threats and leaflets warning them, and they knew what was going to happen," said Ory Okolloh, a member of the Ushahidi team.

Ushahidi.com was developed at the height of violence in Kenya. "It is a forum for people to share their stories. We want to improve the features to suit specific communities and have early warning reporting features," Okolloh said.

Ushahidi.com is a collaborative effort among team members Okolloh, Juliana Rotich, David Kobia and Erik Hersman. The group worked together to develop content and user-friendly tools that could be used by victims and people who had witnessed violence. The team used an online platform as well as Short Message Service (SMS) messages to collect information.

In March this year, the Sokwanele site mapped the violence in Zimbabwe, using a different online platform as well as SMS services.

"By the time Sokwanele launched their mapping application in Zimbabwe we had not fully developed our application, so we could not offer much help, but we were in communication. But we have learnt from their experience in Zimbabwe and we plan to build on it in our applications," Okolloh said.

In May, the Ushahidi team worked with local organizations to track xenophobic attacks against people in South Africa, updating news about incidents online, said Okolloh.

An organization in Madagascar has also contacted the Ushahidi team and wants to use its online application to track endangered species. The communities will take pictures whenever they see the endangered species and upload them.

The application, which uses a Google Maps mashup and Microsoft's ASP (Active Server Pages), is easy to download and will also be available and useful to organizations working with communities affected by HIV/AIDS, Okolloh said. A missing-persons feature will make it easier to track child soldiers in Northern Uganda, Okolloh said.

"We don't have capacity to collect and verify data; it is important to give people the tool and customize it to suit their needs," said Rotich.

Ushahidi is also an archive for people to take a historical view of what happened, according to the team.

"A lot of people who died were poor, young people, and some died for nothing, while some will never be known. We want to know their names, their stories, bring out their voices and show that beyond the statistics, there are human faces," Rotich said.

To deter misuse, the team warned that reports were unverified and encouraged people who reported to forward their contact details. Others in the area have also confirmed or refuted the claims.

"Other people came in and added more info and corrected the stories in case there were any missing facts. For instance, somebody reported violence in Garissa, and somebody in the town wrote to us and said there was no such incident," Okolloh said.

The improved application will be customized to include a voice service, where people can call in and leave a message in case they have difficulty using the online platform, or if they just prefer the voice option. The voice feature is a plug-and-play tool designed to be easily downloaded, the team said.

Okolloh said there has been no reaction from the government because the team is just collecting the information. It is not engaging in discussions such as how many people died or trying to discredit government reports, which in many cases would attract attention, he said.

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