Page last updated at 10:35 GMT, Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Web tool maps Congo conflict

Digital Planet
Alka Marwaha
BBC World Service

A Congolese army soldier inspects a truck in the rebel zone
Violence in DR Congo has caused misery in the country for 15 years
A web-based reporting tool is allowing Africans caught up in political unrest to report incidents of killing, violence and displacement.

The website is called Ushahidi, which means ''testimony'' in Swahili and was first developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout.

Ushahidi is now being used in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to report on the war that has torn the country apart for the last 15 years.

Its goal is to create a simple way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.

The site is a free open-source mash-up which can be run by anybody, anywhere in the world to to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualise it on a map or timeline.

Democratic Republic of Congo

"This is a tool specifically made for the ordinary person," said Erik Hersman, the creator of Ushahidi.

"Anybody who uses this free open-source tool can download it and run it off your own servers.

"It allows you to use Google Maps, Microsoft Maps, Yahoo Maps or Open Street Map.

"In the DRC, we are using some NGOs [non-governmental organisations] to help with that data gathering and the main focus for us is to get ordinary people's stories up," he added.

Users can report an incident by filling in a very simple form with a description of what happened, when it took place and put it in a category.

A Red Cross worker waits to distribute buckets to displaced people
Ushahidi is used to identify areas where aid is required

The incident data is colour coded on the website into categories for things such as riots, looting, illness and sexual assault.

When you click on one of the categories it will identify on a map of DR Congo where these incidents are happening.

Audio, video and images can also be uploaded but identifying yourself is optional as fears for people's safety is top priority.

Hot spots

Currently there is a cluster of these spots around DR Congo's eastern border.

"Goma in the DRC has been an area that has had a lot of action over the last couple of weeks," said Mr Hersman.

"You'll see that most of the data and stories we have are coming from that area.

"We are already starting to see news being spread out, so you'll see a few dots further away now.

The violence has gone into a dark hole of information
Lyn Lusi
"When you click on the coloured dots, you get news reports in French and in English, which are compiled by non-governmental organisations and aid groups.

"Right now a lot of them are from different NGOs, people out in the field in the eastern Congo."

With web access being limited in much of rural Africa, people can also post incidents to the website using text messages sent from their mobile phones.

Lyn Lusi is the founder and programme manager of an NGO called HEAL Africa and has been involved in putting the Ushahidi project into action on the ground.

"It started off with quite a lot of information because the violence was all around Goma," she said.

"The fighting has moved up north to a very rural area where cell phone network coverage is very sporadic and where people are extremely poor.

"The violence has gone into a dark hole of information, we are just coming into the technological age in Congo," she added.

Verifying information

Although technology can limit information getting out in some areas, she feels that everything must be done to raise awareness of the conflict in DR Congo.

"If we can regularly bring in information from the conflict zones, information about human rights abuses and community action to rebuild peace, then we will keep this problem on the front burner," she said.

"We have set up a network with two telephones that will always be in the hands of people who can pick up SMS messages sent by people from their mobile phones

"They will have access to the internet - even if it is sporadic, as we want to be able to get this information to the Ushahidi website," she added.

The information must get out if we are ever going to reach a solution
Lyn Lusi
Reports that are posted on the website are verified by local NGOs and are also given a credibility rating.

"It is also very important that this information should be verified because this is also an information war," said Ms Lusi.

"On the night of the shooting in Goma, SMS messages went around saying that the UN has given orders to the national army to put down their arms and that the town is now effectively in the hands of the [rebel] CNDP," she said.

That turned out to be false information and caused a number of demoralised troops to run away.

People posting information on the website and passing it on via text messages are putting themselves at risk, although they do not have to identify themselves when doing so.

"We have to be very careful to conceal identity, it is a big risk," said Ms Lusi.

"But if you can't get the information out, then you cannot call for help either.

"People want the international community to be aware of what's going on have it on the political agenda.

"The information must get out if we are ever going to reach a solution," she added.

Map

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen onlineor download the podcast.

Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Country profile: Democratic Republic of Congo
20 Nov 08 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Democratic Republic of Congo
20 Nov 08 |  Country profiles

RELATED BBC LINKS

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2013 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific