Mobile Phone Peacekeeping

By David South, Development Challenges, South-South Solutions


Last month UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon pointed out the urgent need for interesting and relevant content to attract Africans to the internet. Official statistics can make for grim reading: the continent has less bandwidth than Ireland (World Economic Forum). While it is true Africa is restricted by serious technological and economic disadvantages, African ingenuity, creativity and hard work are bypassing these impediments to get things done nonetheless. While word has got out about the impressive take-up of mobile phones in Africa, the new world of Web 2.0 is also spawning a new generation of inspiring African technology whizzes transforming perceptions and grabbing the world’s attention.

Alongside the combination of innovation and affordability that has made Africa the fastest growing mobile phone market in the world, there is a home-grown technology boom underway: “African firms are already participating in the forefront of technological developments and investment opportunities,” according to the Africa Competitiveness Report 2007.

Powerful and easy-to-use Web 2.0 tools are being used by Africans during times of crisis. Among the most innovative are “mash-ups” – a term once used to refer to the musical style of combining two or more song tracks that has come to mean the blending together of various software programmes. These Web 2.0 software mashups combine weather information, maps, webcams, population figures, even restaurant locations – in fact any application that can be easily added to a website. The possibilities are limitless, and this is what is causing so much excitement for development in the South.

In Kenya, a website called Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony), is using ICT (information and communications technology) and mobile phones to save lives in the post-election violence. People on the ground can send in live situation reports and alerts through the web and mobile phones to the website, which then maps violence in real time.

According to the site’s originator, Kenyan Ory Okolloh, “is a tool for people who witness acts of violence in Kenya in these post-election times. You can report the incident that you have seen, and it will appear on a map-based view for others to see.”

It has been put together by Kenyan web developer David Kobia (also the developer of Mashada, an online African community), and inspired by African blogger Erik “Hash” Hersman and other Kenyan bloggers and activists.

At the start of the violence, Okolloh had put out a message for help on the web. “Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground,” Okolloh said on the site. “It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something – any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

The website came together quite quickly: after initial discussions amongst the team of five on January 5, it was live by January 9 (they estimate 40 hours for development and 20 to 30 hours for testing and promotion).

For others who want to do the same, the key is good relationships, not necessarily technology, the Ushahidi team says. “My advice is to make sure you’re well networked with the right people before something like this is needed,” said Erik Hersman, who runs Afrigadget and White African blogs. “By the time you need a site like Ushahidi, it’s too late to start making connections, it’s time to build … everyone needs the passion to fulfill the vision of the project.”

And to keep it going is not that time consuming, they say. The largest part of their time is spent keeping in contact with NGOs and a volunteer network in Kenya, and verifying the information.

“My advice would be to keep things as simple as possible.,” said Kenyan David Kobia. “Mashups are basically methods of relaying data, so simplicity is absolutely key.”

“The feedback has been phenomenal. Ushahidi’s graphical representation of events illustrates to some degree the magnitude of the events to people outside Kenya. The enormity of the situation can be understood better as events unfold, keeping everyone in the loop with a point of reference – people tend to become apathetic when regular news moves from the front page.”

Ushahidi has been praised for providing NGOs, the international community and humanitarian agencies with vital information they can use to help people.

Kobia has also launched a new mashup to promote Kenyan unity called ihavenotribe. has also been turning to mobile phones to get the news out on the Kenyan crisis. The agency’s reporters use internet-enabled mobile phones with portable keyboards to transmit photos, video and text for reports. All of it is uploaded to the website. Some are calling this the first use of mobile phone journalism in Africa.


  • Pambazuka News Action Alert blog for Kenya updates.
  • Web 2.0 tools that are for free and how to use them: an excellent resource from San Francisco’s Techsoup.
  • An excellent set of links to Web 2.0 tools and which ones are free, is here:
  • has the latest news and links to get involved in this new internet phenomenon:
  • Programmable Web: This outstanding website links to all active mashups on the web by category and gives real-time reports on progress and lots of links and support to get started.
  • African Web 2.0: 2007 was a busy year for African Web 2.0 sites, as they have grown in number and sophistication. Here you can see an at-a-glance collage of the sites’ logos and links to them:

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