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A netizen revolution

I LEARNT a Swahili word recently: “Ushahidi.”

It means “testimony”. It’s also the name of a crowdsourcing platform for people to post crisis information. People on the ground witnessing a crisis can send information about it through text messages on the mobile phone, e-mail or other web forms.


Screenshot of Ushahidi

Developed by Kenyan bloggers in response to violent clashes that erupted after the national election in December 2007, Ushahidi was a way to tell the rest of the nation, and the world, about what was happening across Kenya.

The idea and technology have since been adopted elsewhere in the world. And for its impact and achievement, Ushahidi was one of the winners of the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism in September 2008.

J-Lab, which administers the awards for Knight Foundation, said the awards were meant to honour creative uses of technology to get citizens involved in public issues. What’s fascinating about Ushahidi and some of the other winners is the way they use internet technology to engage regular folk — non-techies — to tackle such issues.

From the grassroots

Ushahidi, which won the Special Distinction Award in 2008, was born out of much blood-letting. A BBC special report on the crisis in Kenya says post-election violence — contributed by disputes over the poll results and tussle for land and power — left some 1,500 people dead and 600,000 homeless.

As the violent incidents grew, a group of Kenyan bloggers developed Ushahidi, a website that would glean reports of violence across Kenya with the help of citizen journalists. On 22 Jan 2008, it posted this alert: “If you would like to send an incident report to Ushahidi, just enter it into an SMS message and text that to 6007. Make sure you make note of your location.”

The reports started to flow in, first text messages, then videos, some of which were contributed by professional journalists.

“Modeling grassroots information-sharing amid a crisis, Kenyan techies launched a site where bloggers and citizen journalists could text eyewitness accounts and map incidents of political violence in the wake of a corrupted presidential election,” J-Lab said in a statement announcing the winners. “A perfect example of how far-reaching and important citizen reports can be,” the judges were quoted as saying.


Screenshot of “War on Gaza”

Ushahidi has since been adapted by others elsewhere. AlJazeera used Ushahidi in its War on Gaza website. The Ushahidi engine is used in UnitedForAfrica.co.za, a portal set up for people to share information on xenophobic violence in southern Africa.

Liar, liar, pants on fire

Another winner of the Special Distinction Award in 2008 was PolitiFact.com. Set up by the St Petersburg Times in Florida and Congressional Quarterly in Washington, DC, the website tried to identify the true versus false and everything-else-in-between statements made in the 2008 US presidential campaigns. And it did it with plenty of wit and attitude.


Politifact’s Pants on
Fire image

“PolitiFact … is bolder than previous journalistic fact-checking efforts because we’ll make a call, declaring whether a claim is True, Mostly True, Half True, Barely True or False. We even have a special category for the most ridiculous claims that we call Pants on Fire,” it said.

Since I wrote about PolitiFact in 2008, I won’t repeat the information here. Read more about it and another similar effort, FactCheck, in Fact from fiction.

Commenting on the winner, J-Lab said while others have attempted similar projects, PolitiFact stood out for “making detailed research easy to get”.

WikiScanner

The Knight-Batten Grand Prize went to Wired.com, for its project which invited visitors to use WikiScanner to investigate and expose corporations or organisations putting up questionable self-serving edits of Wikipedia entries.

WikiScanner was developed in 2007 by then California Institute of Technology graduate student Virgil Griffith. With the Wikipedia scanner, one can get all the IP addresses assigned to a company, organisation or government department, and scan for anonymous edits made from those IP addresses.


Some companies reported for whitewashing their own
entries in Wikipedia had to clear their name
(© Julos / Dreamstime)

In August 2007, Wired.com’s Threat Level blog asked visitors to take part in a project to search and vote on “the most shameful Wikipedia spin jobs”. “Griffith’s work is a neat example of what can be uncovered just by reorganising public information,” it said. “Threat Level predicts a lot of sad, embarrassing secrets will emerge from this project once netizens dive into it — and we’d like to be a part of that.”

Wired.com readers dug up more than 100 self-serving anonymous edits performed by corporations and governments on Wikipedia. The top whitewashes voted by the readers included names like Dow Chemical, ExxonMobil and the FBI. 

The results were reported in the media and some companies were compelled to clear their name. “Dow Chemical told Forbes that it had no official policy of whitewashing its entries, but that it couldn’t control employee behaviour. ExxonMobil told the New York Times that its employees are barred from making any edits without company permission,” Wired.com said.

Comments on the blog were wide-ranging. Some crowed about the exposed spin jobs, some argued that certain edits were fair and justified. Others questioned the reliability of crowdsourced information on Wikipedia.

Believe it or not


We should always determine for ourselves which
content is credible(© Lynne Lancaster / sxc.hu)

Yes, the credibility issue always crops up. While crowdsourcing is great for grassroots empowerment and engagement, there remains the question of just how reliable the information is, since just about anyone can send the message or rewrite a Wikipedia entry.

AlJazeera recognises this and puts in a disclaimer on its War on Gaza website: “As content is contributed from users around the world, AlJazeera cannot be held accountable for accuracy of data on this site.” However, it does indicate which reports are verified and which aren’t.

UnitedForAfrica.co.za is stricter. “All reports will be verified before they appear on the site,” it says.

Crowdsourcing is here to stay, whether we like it or not. But as with any source of information — including websites with content generated by official sources and professionals — we should never suspend our critical thinking, to determine for ourselves what’s credible and what’s utter BS.


Cindy Tham is business development manager at The Nut Graph. She’s also interested in how different people and organisations promote their ideas, brands, products and services on the internet, whether for commercial or non-commercial reasons.

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