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Dead Ushahidi: A Stark Reminder for Sustainability Planning in ICT4D

By Wayan Vota on July 9, 2012

dead-ushahidi-map.jpg

By now, you’ve heard of Ushahidi, the ICT4D darling for crowdsourcing map data. You also may suspect there is frothy hype around it, mapping, and GIS in general. Well just to keep it real, we bring you Dead Ushahidi, a crowdsourced list of maps that are definitely deceased. A Ushahidi cemetery if you will.

While we do not claim credit for the idea or execution, we do celebrate it’s point: “Trying to crowdscource a map without a goal or strategy is well, just a map, and pretty soon a dead map.” Sadly that happens all too often. An anonymous source tells us there are “tens of thousands” of Ushahidi maps with less than a dozen reports, dead maps littering cyberspace.

How can you escape the Ushahidi dead pool? Here is 5 ways to succeed where others have failed, as written by the Dead Ushahidi authors:

What makes a crowd-sourced map live rather than die a slow death?

  1. Careful thinking about how a crowdsourced map will advance your goals is essential. Until you can answer the question clearly: “Why will this map lead to the change I desire,” don’t set one up.
  2. A map is only as good as the data in it. Bad data, unclear categories, and no quality control = bad map.
  3. A map should have a clearly-defined focus for report collection. A map that aims to crowdsource and map all human rights violations and crimes everywhere in the world in real-time is doomed from the start. We call that a stillbirth.
  4. Without a community to draw from and intensive outreach and marketing, people won’t know about a crowdsourced map, why they should care about it let alone care enough to submit a report. (Many of the maps in the cemetery have few submitted reports, making the mapmakers look kind of pathetic.)
  5. A map with no reports is sad. We consider it on life support and soon on its deathbed, so watch out. Consider populating the map with reports from your community (make sure that you have one and know how to reach it.) Yep, just because you built it doesn’t mean they will come.

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Wayan Vota is a digital development entrepreneur and the co-founder of ICTworks. He also co-founded ICT4Djobs, ICT4Drinks, Technology Salon, JadedAid, MERL Tech, ICTforAg, Kurante, OLPC News and a few other things.
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6 Comments to “Dead Ushahidi: A Stark Reminder for Sustainability Planning in ICT4D”

  1. Ally says:

    I wonder how many of those dead maps, like mine, were made to test whether or not Ushahidi was the right tool for the project. I’ve probably contributed at least 3, maybe 6, dead Ushahidi’s (in various form), mostly because I wanted to test it, show someone else how to use it, or thought it could be useful and then after setting it up and showing it off to a supervisor, went in a different direction.

    I’m proud of my dead maps, they were learning tools.

  2. Matt Berg says:

    Should we write a blog post on all the dead blogger / posterous / tumblr blog sites out there? I personally have at least five.

    I actually see existence of these failed efforts as a testament to the simplicity of getting a crowdmapping effort going. Yes, I too have gotten annoyed with constant announcement of these dead-on-arrival projects across by twitter-stream but that’s not Ushahidi’s fault. If it serves the need for the projects that actually have their act together then where’s the harm?

    My only frustration about Ushahidi is the general lack of understanding by the public and media on what it’s good for and what it’s not. For crowd mapping with unstructured data it’s undeniably great. If you want to tie structured data to geolocations, I’d argue there are much better options out there.

  3. Wayan Vota says:

    You two bring up a good point – many of the dead Ushahidi maps are alpha and beta tests, never intended to “go live”. I agree that these should not be counted in the dead pool but celebrated as ease of use.

    Yet, we all know of Ushahidi mapping projects where much fanfare and expectations surrounded the launch with minimal efforts on the ground or long-term to actually populate and use the map. We are all guilty of this – ICTworks has its own dead map – and its these failed attempts at scale that we should take a critical eye towards.

    When we raise and then dash expectation, we seed disappointment and frustration that will take that much more to overcome when we actually do have an intervention that will scale.

    Or to put it another way, I groan every time I find that Matt has started a new blog, knowing that he’ll loose interest after a while. I’m still wondering why he just doesn’t update http://www.buildafrica.org/ which was inspirational for many.

  4. Jaclyn Carlsen says:

    Hi Wayan,

    Thanks for your blog post. Although I agree with you that many project managers underestimate the incentives, on-the-ground marketing, volunteer work, and planning it takes to run a successful crowdsourcing initiative, I think it’s important to make the distinction that many of these efforts were never meant to be sustainable, nor does crowdsourcing equal Ushahidi.

    Sometimes the point of crowdsourcing information isn’t about the information itself, but about the process. A few years back my colleagues and I worked on a short term project with a school in Washington Heights to collect GPS points and enter information into Crowdmap. The purpose wasn’t to build a sustainable database, nor was it to provide 100% accurate information; it was to work with a group of young students and expose them to maps, patterns, and technology.

    Don’t get me wrong; I’ve made plenty of mistakes in deploying and supporting crowdsource initiatives where we’ve used the Ushahidi platform. I’ve also had many hours where I’ve sworn at the Ushahidi platform itself.

    What I love about the Ushahidi platform is the low barrier of entry to using it, and the intensely passionate community of users that constantly explore and challenge our ideas about the role of information in our world. I love that the Ushahidi platform is often used as a gateway tool to explore how spatial data, crowdsourcing, and technology can be used for decision making. I hear you that ill-devised crowdsourcing initiatives can breed skepticism, but what I’ve noticed about crowdsourcing initiatives in particular is that learning from experience seems to be the best way to understand just how many components need to be considered for success. Ushahidi makes it easy to start experimenting.

    There are certainly downsides, as you’ve pointed out, but I believe there’s a more nuanced story behind all of the ‘dead Ushahidi’ maps than has been articulated. When it comes down to it, even if they were all examples of flawed crowdsourcing initiatives, I’d prefer that people keep making mistakes and learning on Ushahidi, posting them for the world to see, rather than with large sums of taxpayer money.

  5. Wayan Vota says:

    Patrick Meier has a good, deeper analysis of both the constructive criticism that Dead Ushahidi offers and his own on the way DU counts what is a failure or not:

    “I do think that one of the main challenges with Ushahidi/Crowdmap use is that the average number of reports per map is very, very low. Indeed, the vast majority of Crowdmaps are stillborn as a forthcoming study from Internews shows. Perhaps this long-tail effect shouldn’t be a surprise though. The costs of experimenting are zero and the easier the technology gets, the more flowers will bloom” http://irevolution.net/2012/07/05/deadushahidi/

  6. DeadUshahidi says:

    Yo, Wayan – we can tell that you really wanted to come up with this one yourself… We do like the ‘frothy hype’ turn of phrase, however. Better than ‘molding, rotting bodies,” probably.

    But to a few of the points above:

    1. All dead maps were taken from the Ushahidi deployment list. Test sites should probably not be included in that list as calling them ‘deployments’ is a bit of an insult to the word.

    2. To Mr. Berg’s point about his many failed / abandoned blogs that are littering the Interwebs: Good man, you need better attention span. That said, are you listing them on your CV as ‘accomplishments’? Dead maps or blogs floating around like space debris is one thing, listing them in the “deployment” is quite another. Writ, point 1, above.

    3. Ushahidi as an easy ‘learning platform’ to ‘fail’ (our words) rather than wasting taxpayer money? Sort of like a gateway drug for dead maps? Somehow, we missed something in Ms. Carlsen’s argument. What taxpayers? Is she a Republican? But, since she implicitly seems to mention monetary resources, we do wonder, however, is whether by pouring large amounts of funds and attention into platforms that may lower the barrier of entry to a particular tech but that also may actually not accomplish much, isn’t, in the end, grossly distorting what and how tech fits into actual social change efforts. A much longer critique of funding and tech fads, theories of change and lack thereof, for sure. Meanwhile, we marvel at Ms. Carlsen’s “mythical taxpayer.”

    Cheers from the Undertakers.