During a natural disaster or in the midst of civil violence, the immediate need for those caught up in the situation is to escape and find a safe haven. But oftentimes in such chaos, information is difficult to come by and unreliable.

One such crisis propelled the formation of a software platform called “Ushahidi,” which combined Google Maps with crowd-sourced information to pinpoint safe havens. First developed within a matter of days during the aftermath of the post-election violence in Kenya in 2008, today the technology is used all over the world.

Users in the Middle East have adapted the software platform for their causes. Activists track casualties in Syria with Syria Tracker and Shamiyaat, and harassment in Egypt with HarassMap. The platform was used in the aftermath of the 2010 Haiti earthquake to find survivors and the 2011 Japanese tsunami to visualize information about what was going on there.

Since 2008, Ushahidi has had 2 million users and 17 million unique visitors. The word “ushahidi” means testimony in Swahili. Speaking with Arabic Knowledge at Wharton, Ushahidi co-founder and executive director Juliana Rotich says that she is thrilled that others elsewhere in the world have turned to this platform to make their own social tools. “The software can be a simple thing, but tapping into the wisdom of the crowd takes some hard work,” she says.

An edited transcript of the conversation follows.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: In the first days of developing the Ushahidi platform following the post-election violence in Kenya, can you describe the atmosphere? You were in western Kenya at the time, correct?

Juliana Rotich: The atmosphere at the time was extremely stressful. Personally, I felt hopeless. It was a bit frustrating because the flow of information was hampered. There was a ban on live media broadcasts. There was a clamor for more and more information and not much was available. We had the Internet and that was an available conduit.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: What was the inspirational moment or turning point when you and your cofounders decided to use programming as a way to protect innocent people and fight the violence?

Rotich: What happened was we had to the Internet and a community of bloggers. We wanted a way to document what was happening. We wanted a simple mashup to give people a conduit to share their stories of what was going on and where. What happened was we were able to get the platform online on January 4, 2008 about eight days after the election. The voting ended and it was a very difficult time.

There were SMS text messages sent around to promote ethnic violence in a targeted, dangerous way, such as burn the Kikuyu homes in this village, then we will go to this town and then we will organize to go to another town. In fact, a government official approached Michael Joseph, the CEO of Safaricom, Kenya’s largest mobile phone provider, about shutting down the SMS system. Instead, he decided to send out a message to all 9 million of his subscribers, promoting peace and calm.

We wanted to share information about what was going on. We correlated information from bloggers. It was sort of a collaborative effort based on an existing network of bloggers. There was a ban on live broadcasts and people weren’t getting information.

Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan lawyer and blogger, put out an online SOS call – “Any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?” David Kobia, Erik Hersman and Ory Okolloh, our other cofounders, had the platform working within a few days. The Ushahidi platform and web site were all set up. Within the next month, there were 300 reports. After the initial prototype was set up, we all went back to our jobs.

I was working in data warehousing in Chicago. Meanwhile, I was volunteering on Ushahidi and Global Voices Online in the evenings after work. A few months later, we decided to make it a nonprofit organization. In 2009, we had to create software from scratch so other people would have something to get going if they needed a simple system. We were growing the number of initial cases. One of them was in Gaza. One was used in South Africa. These were very early-use cases.

In 2010, the Haiti earthquake hit. That changed the scale of what we were doing to another level. We tapped into the biggest network we had encountered so far. There were Haitians in New York, in Canada — basically volunteers from all around the world who could speak Haitian Creole. They jumped in and assisted, looking through information coming in through Haiti. There were calls for help, such as women and children stuck under supermarket rubble. We had information where survivors could find food and water. Our efforts would not have been possible without partnering with other organizations and the amazing volunteers.

We continue working on the software. Recently, we put the software in the cloud with Crowdmap. When we first started, it took three days. We reduced that time by making it downloadable and an install could be up in three hours. In 2009 to late 2010, we set up a cloud-based system called Cloudmap. We can get a map ready to use within three minutes, reducing that time even further. So we went from three days to three hours to three minutes. It’s been a journey of a lot of hard work. We wouldn’t be anywhere without our community for what we achieve what we’ve achieved.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: When were you able to devote yourself full time to this project?

Rotich: It was in late summer 2008.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: It must’ve been quite a decision to decide to leave a comfortable office job in Chicago to work on Ushahidi and other technology projects in Africa, was it not?

Rotich: Yes. Yes it was. It was uncharted territory for me as I had not really devoted myself to a virtual tech organization before. Most of my experience was in telecoms and some editorial work I did for Global Voices Online. So working firsthand with more developers than I was used to was different for me. I greatly enjoy working with developers. They are funny, a little weird, just like me. We have the corniest jokes on our team. I loved it. We had a hackathon for Ushahidi and FrontlineSMS recently. I was happiest to deliver tea and coffee and snacks to the developers. The worldwide community is just incredible. Volunteers are from everywhere. People should not confuse volunteers with those who are not experts. They can be incredible experts and, more importantly or interestingly, the global reach is inspiring to me.

When we first started, we didn’t know it would become this. We didn’t know where it was going. It’s been a fantastic challenge. We have a diverse group of developers and a diverse group of volunteers. We’re all learning every single time to actually make Ushahidi get better. To work with Internet people is like working with friends from college. Internet people tend to be happy to working with other Internet people. It’s been really gratifying.

We also have groups learning and translating the platform. We have a group in Seoul who just translated Ushahidi into Korean. We also have our manual translated into Macedonian. They can use it however they see fit, whether it’s city mapping, crisis mapping or for fun. It’s really up to the community to see if they like it. Hopefully, they can join our community and it helps people out. We provide toolkits on our Wiki to share best practices, but by and large, the best and most successful uses of Ushahidi are powered by local developers who extend their network and invite others to assist them in partnership.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: It was a core of Kenyan citizen journalists that helped make the information available to the public at first. Is there a culture and history of citizen journalism in Kenya that made this phenomenon start in Kenya?

Rotich: Kenya is the hub of East Africa. Kenyans like myself are diaspora Kenyans. Some of us have decided to come back to Africa. There is a big diaspora. From 2004 to 2007, there was already an online presence of bloggers, some were diaspora and some were in the country still. But we were all digitally networked with an informal group called KenyaUnlimited. It still exists online, now with many more bloggers than I remember. We had a very active online society.

In 2005, I started blogging. In 2007, we founded Ushahidi. We had a culture of citizen journalism if you mean that it includes blogs. Then yes, we had that base. It formed the foundation that helped Ushahidi to succeed.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: It seemed that with the blogging community and the post-election violence in Kenya, it was almost the perfect storm to have Ushahidi begin.

Rotich: I think the really key thing was that the Internet that brought us together. There were questions we were trying to answer and we continue to try to answer. How can we use technology to assist? How can people use our technology to deal with situations efficiently, to give voice to whatever project they have? How can they involve crowds? That’s our underlying goal. What brought us together was the Internet.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Since the Kenyan election in 2008, Ushahidi has been used over 25,000 times in crisis mapping, including the Haiti earthquake, the tsunami in Japan, HarassMap in Egypt, and the political crisis in Libya. How was it used in Libya? I understand it was the United Nations in Libya that called upon your services.

Rotich: The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs contacted us about a search in Libya. They worked closely with the standby task force with volunteers around the world who are available to assist in terms of shifting through the data. The Standby Task Force includes members of the Ushahidi team and community. When you have to look at thousands and thousands of information pieces, you need help. This is a key collaborative outcome of the United Nations’ involvement. It also helps to accurately work on best practices. The technology can be easy. They have a strategy for effective crowd-sourcing. It must be really holistic too. We depend on 90% of our efforts through partnerships and pure hard work. Assistance can really come through when you have a flashpoint.

There are categories of data being gathered. Our best practices are gathered from past projects, which we post on Wiki. We share a lot of information about crowd-sourcing and security concerns around crowd-sourcing. If you look at Syriatracker.crowdmap.com, the activists are gathering information on delicate situations where there are serious implications in certain parts of the world. That’s why the crowd sourcing is best articulated by the people in those situations.

We have information on our Wiki about how to report. The learnings are shared with our community, who can report, “Hey, this is how the Libya crisis reporting worked. This is how the Syria crisis worked.” Local people know best how to work it in the local context.

Every country is different. Every community’s learning is different. The software can be a simple thing, but tapping into the wisdom of the crowd takes some hard work.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: I read that you have a Standby Task Force composed of 300 people all over the world who will step in when a disaster strikes to coordinate information. How often do these task forces get activated?

Rotich: It varies. The Standby Taskforce has helped with the U.N and has also helped the Kenya Ushahidi team with the simulation of elections data gathering for 2013. We hope to work with them on varying scales and capabilities. It’s not something we can activate whenever, at a moment’s notice. It’s a big collaborative thing that needs to be talked about with our volunteers. Most often they are able to do it.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve got a core group of team members and volunteer developers across the globe. What compels them to volunteer their programming skills?

Rotich: I can speak for myself in terms of why I do it. For me, it’s the firsthand experience [of making a difference].

A few weeks ago, we did a simulation of the Kenya 2012 elections. We needed to find the latitude and longitude of polling stations. Government agencies had that information but they were not sharing it. We had to go find it ourselves. We had to use various maps to find the names of the polling stations. It’s very tedious to find the latitudes and longitudes of these polling stations.

It was the weekend and we could’ve been going out to different places. But instead, we were inside our offices and really having fun doing this project. We had the help of other online volunteers from ESRI [Environmental Systems Research Institute, a digital mapping software company] from their East Africa office doing geotracking. It was just great to see some place showing up on a [webpage] as “not found” to “found”. It is amazing. So that’s one reason.

The other reason is doing something beyond providing money for disaster relief. Sometimes, the only thing I may think I can do is give to the Red Cross and Salvation Army. But Ushahidi is something beyond that, particularly with crisis mapping and assisting with information management. It’s doing more than giving a dollar amount.

It’s an incredibly coherent mission. We’re part of Ushahidi and we want to help. We want to lend our skills and help other people in their time of need. Beyond that, we also try to listen to them and they can tell us, “This is what we need.”

We help people use the software and sometimes, we help them with translations by reaching out to our worldwide community. The thing we don’t want to do is introduce problems so we listen to the needs of the people doing the mapping.

For example, during the flooding in Pakistan, there was someone in Pakistan who wants to use Ushahidi and wants to achieve X, Y and Z. We can help run more computers and do Ushahidi mapping. Then we can engage in that way.

Beyond that, we care about making crowd-mapping even easier to use. We’re re-launching in the next couple of months with a new interface. We want to make the experience even easier and share stories of places and show people what is going on.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: How did you transition move from computer developer to blogger and activist?

Rotich: I think if I look at my own personal goals, they’re very much aligned with the goals of the organization when we began and now as we grow. Those are “How do we use technology to assist people? How can we help people with technology?” With simple mobile phones, people can contribute. The progression was quite surprising and not too surprising at the same time. Once you get on the Internet and begin working with other people online, you discover a projection of your life that was frankly quite welcome. If I wasn’t blogging, I would not necessarily be associated with people with the same interests, which are blogging and technology and Africa. I think it’s important to remain curious and share your knowledge with other people.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Did you meet the other Ushahidi co-founders at TEDGlobal in 2007 which took place in Arusha, Tanzania? What was the circumstance?

Rotich: Yes, I met Ory [Okolloh] and Erik Hersman there. I worked with them and with David Kobia virtually for more than a year before we met again. That conference was extremely important, especially to have in Africa. When you talk to people about Africa, they have a certain image. Clearly most continents have a lot of challenges. I come from a continent with 54 countries and over 3,000 languages, and Africa is sometimes being branded as a basket case.

TEDGlobal brought together an incredible group of fellows, innovators, leaders and showed an Africa that many people did not know about. It was really fantastic. It was like the first episode of Africa Mythbusting, a change in the narrative that we were tired of hearing about. I was invited as part of the inaugural TED Fellowship and I also covered the conference a blogger.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You identify yourself as a budding African futurist. Can you explain what that means?

Rotich: The West has great people but when I look at the discourse on Africa, we have a few futurists. I’m still trying to find the true African futurist — people imagining a different future for Africa.

Wanuri Kahiu is one. She’s a filmmaker [who made Pumzi, African’s first science-fiction film which received critical acclaim at Sundance Film Festival].

I say “budding” because when you think of Africa’s big challenges — health, environment, food security — these are immense challenges. We would like to figure out a general trajectory of Africa’s future and think about and figure out what the core problems are and get society to work together as a whole. That becomes more progressive and helps people live a better standard of living. I’m looking for that answer, in terms of figuring out a future for Kenya and Africa. How can technology advance it? How we can make things happen?

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: Ushahidi is a nonprofit tech company. Why is it important to keep it nonprofit?

Rotich: I wouldn’t state that as a given. We work along with a board of directors to help guide us and give us direction. For now, being a nonprofit serves our purpose and our community. We have to think about sustainability. We’ve expanded our external projects and consulting arm in the last year. I would not categorically state that it will remain a nonprofit. We’re committed to providing services and we’re putting our energies into going toward that aim.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’ve also founded Mobisoko, a mobile marketplace for language and location relevant apps for Africa. Can you explain how that works and why it works for Africa and not other places in the world?

Rotich: I was involved in that startup a few years ago but I’ve transitioned the company to several other local partners. Ushahidi took more than 100% of my time.

Arabic Knowledge at Wharton: You’re also interested in renewable energy in Africa. What are some of the challenges to making this idea catch on in regions where outside companies have had a history of milking the natural resources from Africa?

Rotich: There was a character called Blue on a show on Cartoon Network in the U.S. and all over the world. There is one episode where the electricity went out. He said, “Oh my gosh, I need to come up with different things to make something work. Let’s try to do that. Let’s try to do this. If it doesn’t need electricity, then it can’t be any fun.” Industrialization is powered by energy. We need to use energy to run all kinds of things. As an individual, I need electricity to power my gadgets, my tools for my work. Eighty percent of Africa has yet to be electrified. Renewable energy is the smart way to go, especially when you look at emissions and global warming.

For African countries, we need to leapfrog and improve the livelihood of the people. We’re looking at green energy as the solution. We’ve got sun, we’ve got geothermal, we’ve got hydro, we’ve got wind. We just need to harness that energy on a larger scale.

Renewable energy companies in Africa are really growing. We need to grow to the scale of a national grid. We need to get money to send excess energy into the grid. The smartest way to go is to build a sustainable economy. I am a big fan of Jeremy Rifkin’s writing when it comes to industrialization and the green economy. His ideas can be realized in Africa too.