After Another Snowmageddon, Ushahidi Helps New Yorkers Dig Out

BY Chris Amico  December 29, 2010 at 5:15 PM EDT

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In February, a Nor’easter buried Washington, D.C., in several feet of snow, shutting down the federal government and overwhelming the city’s ability to respond.

In DC’s Dupont Circle neighborhood, a Web developer turned to Ushahidi (which means “testimony” in Swahili), software first developed amid post-election violence in Kenya to help organize cleanup efforts. Within a day, The Washington Post adopted and began promoting the site, dubbed Snowmageddon Cleanup.

“I really thought it was going to be just a fun experiment with my friends,” Ryan Ozimek, CEO of PICnet, a Web development firm that services the nonprofit and public sectors.

Flash forward to this week, New York and much of the East Coast are living though another Snowmageddon and turning to the same site to report on and respond to the ongoing mess. Versions of the site have launched in Boston, Newark and Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. A version for another city can be launched in less than an hour.

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Using Ushahidi has provided a window into how people respond to crisis.

“Within the first 24 hours, it’s a lot of calls for help,” Ozimek said. Cars are stuck. Streets are unplowed. Then something interesting happens.

“After that first 24-hour reporting period was when we started to see more connections being made,” Ozimek said. People begin organizing themselves.

There’s a lesson here for cities, Ozimek says.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg apologized Tuesday for the city’s slow response to the storm and inability to plow every street:

“I care about all parts of this city. … We have tried to allocate the resources around the city based on the needs,” Bloomberg said when asked about why thousands of outer borough streets had not been plowed.

“It isn’t that we don’t care. … The question is why did [the snow removal response] not work well this time?”

(via NY Post)

Cities are realizing the limits of their ability to help everyone, Ozimek said. Ushahidi and other open-source projects provide a way to help citizens organize themselves — but municipalities will still play an important role.

“I do think it’s an opportunity for cities to lend a helping hand.”