When violence broke out in 2007  during the Kenya’s elections,  one blogger, Ory Okolloh, wrote about the disruption she witnessed that December.  But after fleeing Nairobi, she wondered if it would be possible  to map  the region she was reporting from.  With help from other members of the blogosphere, Ushahidi was developed.

Swahili for “witness”, Ushahidi allows text messages, tweets, and emails to be mapped by time and location.

Global Voices discussed how the program was used to help monitor last weeks elections in Namibia and provided one example of a report they received.

“Last Friday evening between 20hoo and 21hoo in Eveline Street in the Goreangab suburb of Windhoek, fighting started between a group of 15 Swapo party and 7 RDP supporters after the former singing ‘We are Nujoma’s soldiers’ removed a RDP poster from a municipal light pole. Members of the Wanaheda Police precinct rapidly intervened and no further incident occurred that evening.”

Ushahidi isn’t the only nonprofit group using maps to do good.  Other nonprofits, governmental and human rights agencies have also started using the innovative technology.

But Utne Reader writes that according International Network of Crisis Mappers (INCM), founder Peter Meier, “these organizations are notoriously bad at sharing data” which is the reason he created INCM, to connect people and organizations using maps.  The article goes on to state, “When a natural disaster strikes or violence breaks out in a country, a map can change the nature of that crisis. The simple act of getting people in front of a map and asking for input can build consensus between warring parties. Maps can also ensure that humanitarian resources are used more effectively and get to the people who need them more quickly.”

In the Global Post Jen Ziemke, the co-founder of the International Network of Crisis Mappers (CM*Net), describes Ushahidi as “one of the best examples of next-generation crisis platforms.”


The Coke Coast

November 19, 2009

Historically, the countries of West Africa have fallen victim to exploitation from international explorers, colonizers, or businessmen, wanting everything from goods to slaves. And now, little seems to have changed as the countries of West Africa, most notably Guinea-Bissau, begin their fight against a new industry: cocaine, an industry with a global price tag of $70-billion.

South American drug cartels are now using West Africa as a stop over for drugs on their way to Europe after finding it difficult to find direct routes.  The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime estimates that an average $7 billion worth of cocaine has been trafficked through this region of the world since 2005, more than the country’s GDP.

And the country of Guinea-Bissau seems to be the main target for drug traffickers.

In an interview with TIME in Bissau in 2007, a high-ranking West African military officer who asked not to be named said Guinea-Bissau’s government and military allowed drug traffickers to operate “not because of a lack of resources but a lack of political will.”

Earlier this year the president was murdered in a coup, leaving the country in a power vacuum that seems to fueling the lucrative cocaine industry.

“Rivalries over control of narcotics trafficking may be at the heart of the schism between military and the presidency,” said Jonas Horner, Africa Associate of the Eurasia Group in Washington in a statement also published in the same TIME’s article.

The U.N. launched a $50-million effort this year to train and outfit West African police, beginning with Sierra Leone, but in an article by the Los Angeles Times, Rudolfo Landeros, the senior police advisor to the U.N. in Sierra Leone, said,

“You’re never going to stop the drug flow through West Africa.  But we have to take a stand somewhere….”

And according to one U.N. report he might be right.

“West Africa has everything criminals need: resources, a strategic location, weak governance, and an endless source of foot soldiers who see few viable alternatives to a life of crime.”

And as Al- Jazeera English points out, even if the drug traffickers are arrested or convicted there is nowhere to put them.

“The country’s only jail was destroyed during the civil war about 10 years ago and an official from the justice ministry takes Al Jazeera to a run-down house that now serves as a prison.  About 20 men live here in cramped, filthy conditions, sharing a single toilet and sleeping on the dirty floors. The house is in the centre of Bissau, with very little security, so escapes are common.”

While little of the drug actually stays in the country, it is already having far reaching effects for the community.

The Global Post states,

“The consequences stretch as well to the slums of Guinea-Bissau, where crack-fueled prostitution is driving a new AIDS epidemic in a region where even basic health care is beyond the reach of many — and where young people turning to the drug trade become the unwitting soldiers of organized crime.”

It can be hard for most Americans to imagine their day without a cell phone. We’ve come to rely on them for everything from the Internet to listening to music.  But to communities in the developing countries of Sub-Saharan Africa cell phones have come to mean a lot more.

The telecommunications industry in Africa is the fastest growing in the world with more than 300 million users. And the people are taking advantage of the technology to boost everything from business, economy, and even healthcare.

A report from World Focus explains how some small business owners are thriving with the growing availability of cell phones.

“Before he had a cell phone he used to have to go to each individual dealer to find the best price for his fish.  Now all he does is he uses his cell phone.  He calls around.  He does it quickly.  Ends up getting a much better price than he did before.  He estimates that he makes 10 times more than before the time of the cell phone.” (1:35-1:53)

Now, cell phones are even allowing people in countries such as Ghana, Kenya, and South Africa easy access to mobile banking.  The new service lets members send money via text.

“Let’s say for example you want to withdraw cash. Well, Somebody sends money to your cell phone.  That money sits on the cell phone number.  You then take the cell phone, hand it to one of the people at the shops.  They look at it; verify the money is there.  You enter a PIN number and they simply give you the cash.” (4:06- 4:23)

The service is even available to those in remote villages or those without a bank account, which amounts to approximately 80% of the African population according to the Global Post.

The CEO of a Ghanaian ATM manufacturer said about the leaders of the new cell phone banking,

“These guys are going to be more powerful than Google, more powerful than Microsoft, within the locality in which they operate.  Already, telecoms move more money than the banks…. These guys are going to be kings.”

Global Post

Another area that has taken advantage of the widespread use of cell phones- healthcare.

As the BBC reports, last year one program helped polio patients in Kenya last year.  A doctor from the Kenyan Health Ministry said,

“In 2006 after 21 years of absence of polio in Kenya…We used EpiSurveyor to basically control our supplies, monitor which areas needed to be vaccinated and the quick flow of information helped us in achieving very good results.”


Cell phones are even being used to combat the sale of counterfeit medications. One application allows consumers to text a medication’s label code to the drug manufacturer to ensure the legitimacy of the medication.  The UN World Health Organization estimates that 30% of prescriptions are counterfeit in developing countries.

But there are still limitations on the growth of cell phone usage.

IT News Africa reports how politically appointed regulators are having a negative impact on the industry. According to Safaricom’s chief executive officer Michael Joseph,

“In South Africa you have a regulator who keeps on interfering with the market all the time. As a result you have a huge market where there are only three operators… the situation had made the country to have the highest call charges in the continent.”


Other concerns include local conflict in many countries and high taxes on users and operators.

Still, industry leaders are excited about mobile phones in Africa, seeing it as a chance to leapfrog technology and introduce more people to the Internet.