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Crowdsourcing the Gulf oil spill

Photo: flickr/whiteafrican

What do the search for earthquake survivors in Haiti, the “snowmageddon” dig out in Washington, D.C., and cleanup efforts currently underway in the Gulf of Mexico have in common? The answer may surprise you: Ushahidi, a crowd-sourcing technology originally created in 2008 to track political violence in post-election Kenya, has played a prominent role in the aftermath of these three very different emergency situations.

Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit organization based in New Orleans, has launched a database built on the Ushahidi platform (which aggregates text messages, calls and e-mails into a visually mapped and searchable database) to track the effects of the Gulf oil spill to direct first responders to where help is most urgently needed. We spoke with Anne Rolfes, founding director of the Bucket Brigade, about their project.

Sam Weber: What is Ushahidi?

Anne Rolfes: Ushahidi is a Web-mapping tool that allows regular people to report on what’s around them. In this case, Ushahidi is a tool for people on the Gulf Coast to report on the devastation of the BP oil spill.

Weber: How did you find out about Ushahidi and what made you think it would be helpful in the Gulf?

Rolfes: I learned about Ushahidi in a class that I took at Tulane University in March, and I immediately gravitated towards it. I had been wanting a tool that would allow people to text message and have their reports appear on a map. Ushahidi is exactly that. I started to put a process in place to get Ushahidi set up for the Bucket Brigade, which at the time was a refinery mapping project. And so we had Ushahidi pretty much in place when the oil spill hit, but it was for a different purpose. We shifted it to focus on this oil spill and it’s the perfect tool. It’s incredibly serendipitous that we already had it in motion.

Weber: How quick was that transition?

Rolfes: We made the decision to do it last Thursday at 5 p.m. and we launched it publicly on Monday at noon.

Weber: What has the response been so far?

Rolfes: The response has been extremely robust from an [outsider] interest point of view. And now we need to connect that interest to reporting.

Weber: So how does that reporting process work? Can anyone just send a text or give a phone call?

Rolfes: Yes, the whole point about Ushahidi is accessibility and eyewitness testimony. You can submit a report via text message, by calling on the phone, by sending an email or by going on to our website.

Weber: How are you verifying reports as they come in?

Rolfes: Verification is an extremely important part of Ushahidi because this data needs to be reliable. We look at the report and then look at news stories and other reports to see if that information is parallel to other information we’re receiving.

So, for example, if we were to get a report about a major fish kill on the beaches in Mississippi, that would be quite interesting because we haven’t seen anything like that. We would not just post that but would look for news reports or perhaps wait for several other reports about that fish kill to come in. So we have people here checking on the veracity by cross-referencing with a few different sources.

Weber: And what kinds of data have you actually received?

Rolfes: [We know that] the environmental damage is extreme, but [right now] it’s all out in the Gulf where we cannot report on it. So the [most immediate] damage that is apparent is to people’s livelihoods. For example, an oysterman out of work, a commercial fisherman out of work, a fourth-generation shrimper who is out of work. Those are all in the Louisiana coast. Alabama fisherman out of work because of Gulf fishing ban. Over in Pensacola it says “fishing closed in the Gulf waters – affected by the oil spill.” So even though we’re in the very early stages of this, you can already see from people’s reports the extent of the devastation to fishermen from New Orleans to the Florida panhandle.

Weber: What are you hoping to achieve with the project?

Rolfes: One is to give people a voice, that’s really the most important part of this. This is a way for a regular person to make a report, and then once many reports get submitted then each individual report becomes even more powerful. If I’m an oysterman and I’m saying ‘my God, I’m out of work. I still owe money from trying to rebuild after Katrina.’ It enables that voice to merge with the thousands of other commercial fishermen who are out of work. The other part is about showing the magnitude of it. We hope that in the end this will be populated by thousands of responses. That’s a much better picture of what’s going on than simply an anecdote that you hear about or read in a newspaper. And we hope that it will drive response. Whether it be from Health and Human Services or the Coast Guard or Wildlife and Fisheries, we hope that our first responders will look at this.

Weber: Do you have a sense that that’s going to happen?

Rolfes: We’re working on it. Happily, there seem to be some people within the federal government who get this concept. But everybody is slow to take to a new concept – especially government – but we certainly have hope.

Weber: I understand that this is one of the first applications of Ushahidi in the U.S. Can you imagine this catching on in other situations?

Rolfes: We’re in New Orleans, right? Off the top of my head, I can think of 10 [other] applications in this city [alone]. Think about the complaints over corruption. Imagine if we had an Ushahidi map of New Orleans’ City Hall and residents were able to text in when they had problems with a permit or got the run around getting a particular kind of contract. The [possibilities] are endless.

We are extremely proud to have what we believe is the very first use [of Ushahidi] in the U.S. for humanitarian purposes. And we’re also really proud of the fact that this comes from Africa and that we’re following in the footsteps of the Haitians who used it to such great effect. We only hope that we are as smart about embracing this technology as they have been.

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