Back in 2008, several techies and online activists sat around a kitchen table in Nairobi, Kenya, trying to devise an online platform to help the public make sense of the post-election violence. A government ban on live news coverage left journalists in the dark about politicised ethnic violence over disputed election results, which conservatively claimed 1,200 deaths.
This small group of online pioneers started Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony"), open-source software for crowd-mapping events using citizen journalism. The website became a tool to map incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted by citizens via the web and text messages. Since then, it has been used predominantly as a crisis-mapping tool, from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the tsunami in Japan. IFEX used it to document events and activities around the International Day to End Impunity last year.
Ushahidi also helped circumvent state censorship of the 2008 post-election violence. "We believe that the number of deaths being reported by the government, police and media is grossly under reported," blogged one of the founders, Ory Okolloh, at the time. "Reports from family and friends in affected areas suggest that things are much worse than what we have heard in the media."
"I remember at the time I was the only one at the office who could find out what was happening on the ground," said Ephraim Muchemi, the Safety and Protection for Journalists coordinator for Kenya's statutory Media Council. "Social media such as Facebook and Twitter were not common back then so there was no outlet to get [real] time information. With Ushahidi one could see cases as they happened and then compare them with the local press."
Now the people who developed Ushahidi have started Uchaguzi (Swahili for "elections"), which is being launched in time for this month's general elections. Daudi Were, the director of projects, claims it will be much easier for users to upload information, including photos and videos. Eight separate teams will upload data and verify reports so that Uchaguzi will present quick, accurate and diverse election-related information for reporters. "We will also release daily blogs and Twitter messages that will contextualise what the data on the Uchaguzi map is showing. It can hopefully complement journalists' work," said executive director Juliana Rotich.
Just as before, reporters and bloggers are hoping to use the platform to circumvent state censorship. "Of course we have to be sensitive and report carefully events around the elections, but that does not mean we simply stop reporting events altogether," said one journalist who wished to remain anonymous. "Uchaguzi will at least let me get the word out there when my media house won't."
The team that developed Ushahidi has also branched out, and in September started another platform, Umati ("crowd"), to monitor online dangerous speech likely to fuel ethnic tensions ahead of the elections. During the last elections, some media, especially community radio stations, were complicit in spreading ethnic violence through "hate speech" – so much so that Kass FM director Joshua Arap Sang is facing International Criminal Court charges of inciting post-election violence.
Many journalists and bloggers admitted that they have curtailed their coverage for fear of being targeted for writing hate speech. Some have even avoided reporting on local politicians who use inflammatory language during political rallies. Robert Kunga of the Bloggers Association of Kenya confirms: "As bloggers we've had a lot less content come out on the elections… Not much has been mentioned, for instance, on the epic presidential debates."
Nonetheless Umati has identified some worrying trends leading up to the 2013 elections. Identifiable politicians and community leaders have made extremely dangerous online comments, mostly via Facebook and blog comments, said Were.
The Ushahidi software has also been recently used to create a platform that tracks threats to the press. The Media Council's Ushahidi map, Media Freedom 254, has reported 13 cases of threats and abuses against the press so far in 2013. "It was something that I have been thinking about since 2009 when one of our reporters, Francis Nyaruri, was killed," Muchemi said. "Nobody has done this before, as far as I know – monitoring and mapping press freedom cases in Africa. The potential is huge."
Ushahidi has also been useful to help journalists network and provide more exposure to lesser-known reporters. Brice Rambaud from Internews, an international media development organisation, used Ushahidi for the 2010 constitutional referendum in Kenya. "It was a network of journalists that shared content across the country. It worked very well at the time and allowed smaller radio stations access to national coverage," Rambaud said.
Despite these measures, few local reporters use the platform or have even heard of it. William Oloo Janak, head of the Kenya Correspondents Association, believes the website may have more viewers outside Kenya: "It seems as if its impact is fairly minimal. I do not know anyone who uses it."
Were, however, believes it may be different this time around since they have done an outreach campaign, using road shows and events with local partners.
The problem of access, especially in the rural areas, is another obstacle. "It's better than last time but it is still a challenge since the connectivity in rural areas is not the same level as we enjoy in Nairobi," conceded Rotich. "But we are doing the best we can with what's available now."
The lack of local awareness of the site may prove another stumbling block to Ushahidi's first objective – to provide Kenyans with information not provided by the media. "What's the point of all this you might ask?" Okolloh blogged back in 2008. "When this crisis comes to an end we don't want what happened to be swept under the rug in the name of 'moving forward'… For us to truly move forward, the truth of what happened needs to be told. Ushahidi is our small way of contributing to that."
While authorities and civil society are keen to ensure peace in March's elections, very few are talking about those displaced or killed in the previous elections. And few seem to question that one of the main presidential contenders and his running mate have been accused of 2008 post-election violence by the International Criminal Court.
Nonetheless, the Ushahidi team are more prepared than before to report on the election and its aftermath, and believe in the potential of citizen reporting. "We have the power as Kenyan citizens to protect our vote," Were said.
Tom Rhodes is the East Africa Consultant for the Committee to Protect Journalists and former co-founder of South Sudan’s first independent newspaper, The Juba Post. He contributes to various publications with a focus on issues in the East and Horn of Africa.