Page last updated at 15:45 GMT, Monday, 1 March 2010

Net puts Kenya at centre of Chile rescue efforts

By Jonathan Fildes
Technology reporter, BBC News

Ushahidi map

Kenya is nearly 12,000km (8,000 miles) from Chile and is therefore perhaps not an obvious place from which to try to coordinate the earthquake relief efforts.

And yet, on Saturday, within an hour of the massive quake, volunteers at a crisis group called Ushahidi sprang into action.

"All we need is a computer and a fast internet connection," said Erik Hersman, one of the team of volunteers based in Nairobi.

Ushahidi is an online mapping tool that can be used to collect and plot reports coming in from citizens via e-mail, SMS or even Twitter.

Messages plotted on Ushahidi's map of Chile already include: "Send help. I'm stuck under a building with my child. We have no supplies".

The intention is that emergency services can then use that information to target their efforts.

"We aggregate the citizen data and visualise it so that it can be used more easily," said Mr Hersman, who is just one of a team that spans Malawi, Uganda, Ghana, South Africa and the US.

'Critical role'

The online tool was built amidst the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008 to document the troubles and make them available the world.

Since then it has been used in South Africa, the Democratic Republic of Congo and most recently in Haiti.

"That was probably our biggest success story," said Mr Hersman.

"It proved what we said all along - you can crowd source useful crisis information."

A man looks at a collapsed road in Santiago
SMS: +44 7624802524
Twitter: #chile or #terremotochile
Submit via the web

The tool was used to plot thousands of reports, which were then used by organisations such as the Red Cross to co-ordinate their relief efforts.

The US secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a speech that hi-tech relief efforts had played a "critical role".

"The technology community has set up interactive maps to help us identify needs and target resources," she said during a speech in Washington on 21 January.

"On Monday, a seven-year-old girl and two women were pulled from the rubble of a collapsed supermarket by an American search-and-rescue team after they sent a text message calling for help."

In Chile, the platform was up and running in the space of an hour, according to Mr Hersman.

As well as plotting direct reports from people on the ground, the team have also built a tool called Swiftriver to filter and verify the torrent of information that comes from sources such as Twitter, blogs and news reports.

"It's a way for us to figure out which information has the most value," said Mr Hersman.

The system initially uses computer algorithms to spot and discard duplications and to mash the different channels into one coherent feed.

This filtered stream is then scrutinised by volunteers before it is plotted on the map for all to see.

Information torrent

It is just one of the tools that the team have had to build to react quickly and effectively when disaster strikes.

Others include SMS Turk, which can be used to translate SMS information sent in by people on the ground.

Ushahidi Haiti
Haiti was a proving ground for the Ushahidi platform

The system collects the text messages and farms them out to volunteers - often from the diaspora - for translation and sorting.

Volunteers may for example be able to locate a place on a map - mentioned in a text message - which is known by many different names.

The tool was critical in Haiti, where many of the texts were being sent in Creole and French.

Mr Hersman admits the system doesn't always work perfectly. In Haiti, for example, Swiftriver was "overwhelmed" with information he said.

As a result, the team are now testing an updated version.

And it is this development work that Mr Hersman said is the future of the Ushahidi team.

He said the intention was to build a tool that even a person with no experience can begin to use "within two hours". That way, he said, people with more experience of a country or situation could tailor the service to their own needs.

In Chile, the team has already started this process.

"We set up an installation, made sure it was all up and running, and then passed it on to someone else within 24 hours," said Mr Hersman.

The Chile site is now being run by Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs in the US, supported by the Chilean diaspora.

That way of working also has other advantages, said Mr Hersman, who was one of several volunteers who worked through the night for three weeks at the start of the Haiti crisis.

"One night of no sleep is nothing compared to that."

Print Sponsor

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

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


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific