archiving the crisis

A recent New York times article highlights Ushahidi a “Kenyan-born” open-source adaptation of wiki technolgy, which has been used in crisis situations across the globe. From the election-related violence in Kenya, to the earthquakes in Haiti and Chile and even to the snowstorms in Washington, DC, Ushahidi technology has come to the rescue. How does it work?

Anonymous mobile phone users witnessing an emergency situation, or incident of violence, can text messages to the local Ushahidi number. These messages are instantly relayed to a mapping station and triangulated on interactive maps, and then help may be be dispatched to the crisis area, or researchers may get a sense of where incidences of violence are occuring most frequently, or find out how far inland hurricane damage struck, etc.

As an archive instantaneously created by people in situations of distress, this is unmatched. The use of technologies like Ushahidi, challenges the paradigms of reporting and writing the history of places like Kenya, Haiti and Chile. Reports can now come from local people, on the ground, living these situations, rather than from the first wave of foreign reporters, and then years later the histories created from these reports by trained, published historians. This is the Long Here and the Big Now in action. This is the creation of an alternative sort of archive.

It is also interesting that this creative use of open-source technology, which challenges the paradigms of history-writing, and which is so in tune with the everyday ways in which people use technology today, comes from an African city, generally marginalized in discourse on technology, the city and crisis management.

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One thought on “archiving the crisis

  1. I love the fact that the users text using their cell phones. I find that many Americans do not know that citizens of many “developing” or “underdeveloped” nations are veteran users of cell phone technology. Add to that the creation of a opensource software for mapping areas / moments of crisis or need is a teachable moment. It seems an interruption, if you will, of outsider imposed decisions of what is “crisis” and therefore news or noteworthy.

    It also seems to be a type of technologically “[in]organic” 🙂 911-emergency response system, the likes of which we only know as being possible with a gridlike infrastructure, which the countries in discussion do not have (for many different reasons). This bypasses a certain priveleged infrastructural format, predisposed to an exclusionary hierarchy of information flows. This format, at least as presented, seems like it can shape itself to match the substantive or normative information flows endemic to the region wherein it may be used. To me it seems preferable to any socially, economically or geographically incompatible grid-like imposition which might normally be sold them.

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