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Ushahidi Responds To Westgate With Two New Emergency Response Tools

BY Jessica McKenzie | Monday, September 30 2013

Once again, violence has compelled the Kenyan organization Ushahidi to build new tools for disasters and emergencies, natural or otherwise. Ushahidi launched their popular mapping platform in 2008 so that people could track reports of post-election violence. Since then, they have also launched SwiftRiver and Crowdmap, and have built a backup Internet generator called BRCK. The Westgate Mall attack, so close to their home base, in a way sent them back to their roots: figuring out how to respond best to and mitigate the worst effects of violence.

Two new products came out of their discussion. The first is a check-in tool, designed so family, friends, and other important relations can say “I'm Okay” faster. The most pressing need in times of emergency is the need to ping someone, to find out whether they are safe or not, hence the name of the app: Ping. Similar tools exist, like I'm Ok, but they target smartphone users, whereas Ping is multi-platform and will eventually work on all phones or computers.

Hopefully the simplicity of the app, and the multi-platform access, will help people avoid the panic they feel when cell phone service fails after a disaster, as was the case on 9/11.

Ping incorporates a two-tier verification system. From the description on the Ushahidi blog:

You create a list of your people (family, organization), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc). When a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end. This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later). The message goes out three times, once every 5 minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered okay. If no response, then 3 messages get sent to their other contact. We file each response into one of 3 areas: responded (verified), not responded, not okay. Every message that comes back from someone in that group is saved into a big bucket of text, that the admin can add notes to if needed.

The second tool is aimed at citizens who would like to help by donating blood, but who might not know where to go. Blood donation centers were “overwhelmed” by donor turnout after Westgate. So many people showed up (more than 1,500) that hundreds were turned away. Other centers did not see such a huge turnout and were actually running out of certain types of blood.

The new Blood Donation Locations and Needs app will publish the location and hours of centers, and update the types of blood needed, so that potential donors can go where they are wanted, and not risk being turned away.

Technology is playing an increasingly large roll both during and after emergencies, as evident in the Westgate attack.

Using technology after a disaster has become “normal,” Kenyan tech entrepreneur Kennedy Kachwanya told ITWeb Africa.

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network and the UN Foundation for their generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.