Even Africa’s political and ethnic violence has led to some mobile phone-based innovation. Ushahidi, the open-source crowdsourcing and interactive mapping platform that has been described as one of the most innovative organisations in the world, traces its roots to the unrest that followed the Kenyan general elections in 2007. After these, a lawyer and a handful of activists put up a website to keep tabs on the country and report outbreaks of violence. Meaning “testimony” in Swahili, the platform has grown to be available in more than 30 languages in over 159 countries constituting over 30,000 deployments. The countries that Ushahidi covers include Haiti, Pakistan, Japan, Libya, the United Kingdom as well as the United States.
"Activists discovered that the government had become involved with mobile network operators to block text messages."
The 2013 Kenyan general election has been the biggest test of both the platform as well as the fragile political stability that the country has seen in recent years. The platform sought to find its place in a peaceful election by engaging ordinary Kenyan voters and citizens. Through Uchaguzi, meaning elections in Kiswahili and the apt tagline “Protecting the vote”, Ushahidi rallied over 230 volunteers working around the clock in the field across the country, online or out of Nairobi’s technology space, the iHub, taking in text messages, tweets, emails and updates from the web. Even when the Interim Electoral and Boundaries Commission’s tallying process took a five days longer than anticipated, the team kept going. “The best version of the web is that where the signal to noise ratio matches what we expect in the real world. We’re happy with the signal (we got) because we saw it play true where unrest cropped up,” says Executive Director Juliana Rotich.
Just over the border in Kampala, Uganda’s 2011 elections were a different case altogether. During the run-up to the election, activists discovered that the government had become involved with mobile network operators to block text messages containing a set of keywords the government did not approve of. Abayima, which today is a non-profit organisation that provides technology solutions to protect human rights and free speech, emerged out of activists frustration with curbs on freedom of speech. Taking the common denominator in all mobile telephony - the SIM card - Abayima transforms it into a read/ write device - much like a thumb drive. This enabled the population to pass along messages physically across SIM cards, transporting them between activists or from sources to journalists or between anybody who wished to communicate with somebody else. This functionality proved critical for those who did not have access to a computer when test messages were no longer available due to the government’s interference. Every mobile phone has SMS technology and it is one of the few ways of communication with a 100 percent read-rate. There is much focus on the spectacular smart phone boom but the most basic mobile phones’ SIM cards are still a powerful tool to evade government control and state monitoring of mobile networks.
About the Author
Mark Kaigwa is a consultant, technologist and blogger based in Nairobi, Kenya. Technology continues to transform Africa as innovation is accelerated in particular by the breathtaking spread of the mobile phone. Mark leads by advising brands, businesses and nonprofits aiming at impacting the hundreds of millions across the continent. In his most recent work, he led the digital advisory for “MamaYe”, a fiveyear campaign that aims to use information, advocacy and evidence to improve maternal and newborn survival in six Sub-Saharan African countries.