How to create your own project using the Ushahidi platform

In the last period of time we are seeing an increase in the use of the Ushahidi Platform by NGOs and media organizations, and there is an emerging interest in using the platform outside the emergency context.

Here there is a list of 10 tips or suggestion I think can be pretty useful to those organizations that are interested in implementing a project using the Ushahidi plaform outside the emergency context.

1. Ushahidi is a software. It is not a problem-solver. As Ory Okolloh said, Ushahidi is 10% of the solution. So if you adopt the platform you still have to solve the remaining 90% of the problem.

2. Ushahidi is a great user friendly platform, but it is still a pain in the ass to install. There are still quite a lot of bugs and the installation is, for a non tech person, a sure headache and lot of frustration. The Ushahidi team is working on it, and a new platfrom will be released, no idea when, but I hope soon. For now, deal with it. You need a programmer to help you install and fix the bugs.

3. Don’t fall in love with your baby. Ushahidi is awesome,very adaptable and open source, so has an extreme flexibility. On the other side there are other tools that had similar features, in some cases better ones, depending on your goal and methodology. Be sure that your project is better implemented with Ushahidi, otherwise look around you and you will find a better tool that fit your needs.

4. The mapping system in Ushahidi is not automatic: you need to geo-reference each information manually. You can do it at the admin level, or you can have people reporting doing it from the web-submission, but either case, it has to be done manually. If you plan to use it as a crowd-source system, you need to have a big number of people mapping those messages, or you need to do it only by web-submission (it means also forget about the media monitoring, SMS, e-mails and twitter submissions).

5. A Ushahidi project doesn’t start with setting up the platform and putting it on-line. You need to prepare your strategy, study the context, understand the implications, secure cooperation and knowledge of the tool for all the actor involved. The launch of the platform is the last step of the project, not the first one.

6. Ushahidi can use different systems to collect information: web-submission, SMS, e-mail and Twitter. You are not obliged to use all of them. You need to understand which one/s is/are more suitable for the context of your project: internet connection availability, use of mobiles phone, use of social networks and so on. Look closely at the information flows and systems already in use and adapt your Ushahidi platform to the context, not the contrary.

7. Decentralize. If you decide to use Ushahidi in cooperation with a number of organizations give to each organization working with you an admin account and decentralize the mapping and reporting system in this way. Have only the tech people with a Super-Admin account, but let the rest of the work to be done independently by the single organizations, better if distributed geographically. This has two main advantages: the geo-referencing will be done by people knowing the areas they are mapping, so it will be easier, and faster; the administrator, which normally is the one that verify the report is not in the capital hundreds kilometers away from the actual area, but he is there, and can more easily verify information and contact reporters.

8. Communication. Communication. Communication. Ushahidi makes communication easier, it doesn’t do miracles! You need to set up a very efficient and fast communication system if you are cooperating with different actors in using the platform. Set up a Skype Chat, a google group, whatever you like to improve communication and assure that the people working on the platform can easily reach each other.

9. If your platform is set up only to collect information and not to respond to any need, make it clear for the crowd. Don’t create false expectations and let people understand very clearly what is your goal and how the project is set up. You not only run into the risk of having people expecting you to act in response to the need but also to undermine existing mechanism of response.

10. Ushahidi is not a map. Ushahidi doesn’t create a map. What Ushahidi does is that it puts information on an existing map. If you don’t have a map you have a problem. Same thing if you want to implement the Ushahidi platform in a place where there are no addresses. Geo-referenciation tend to be difficult when a map looks like this:

If this is the case there are different ways you can solve the problem, first of all by having people living in the area as mappers, and with the help of OpenStreet maps. I hope to have time in subsequent post to talk more about it. For now just consider this as a variable when you have to decide to use Ushahidi in your project.

In conclusion: Keep it simple!!

Managing a Ushahidi platform is a lot of work. Yes, the software is free and easy to use. The managment of the platform itself is also pretty straight forward, and also the additional softwares you can use with it are free (and sometimes also open source like FrontlineSMS). But the larger you want your project to be, the more resources you have to dedicate to it, in terms of human resources and in terms of money. See this great post from Chris Blow for more on this.

Lots of other issues can be discussed about the use of the Ushahidi platform, but I think this is a good starting point. Any other suggestion is more than welcome!

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