New Internationalist

We are the blogosphere

I am sure I am not the only blogger or reader who sighs each time she hears negative refrains about blogs’ ‘worthlessness’ or reads comments about the poor quality of writing in the blogosphere. There are always going to be those who take a negative or purist stance when describing blogging. But what has always amazed me is the response of the blogosphere to disasters, wars and other global crises. Take for example the following: in August 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans; in December 2005 it was the Southeast Asian tsunami, in 2007/08 the Kenyan elections and the Mumbai bombings, and this year the war against Gaza. The blogosphere has reacted in a timely and innovative fashion in response to all of these events, using the most up-to-date technologies available at the time. In the case of the tsunami, a blog, SEA-EAT (The South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog) was started to document the disaster as well as to raise funds. The ‘Help needed’ and ‘Help offered’ sections enabled ordinary citizens to work together to provide as much support and relief as possible. SEA-EAT remains an active blog and it has created the necessary infrastructure to manage and document any other disasters in the future.

Following the Kenyan elections in December 2007, Kenyan bloggers reacted immediately to the outbreak of violence, posting hourly reports. On 31 December there was a complete shutdown of the mainstream media. Erik Hersman reported: ‘The only way to get any up-to-date news for the past 24 – 48 hours has been through the blogosphere (like Kenyan Pundit, Thinkers Room, Mentalacrobatics), Skype and Kenyan populated forums (like Mashada). The traditional media has been shut out and shut down for all intents and purposes.’

Within days, the online community and blog aggregator Mashada had set up an SMS and voice hotline calling for people to send in local news and opinions on what was happening. Ory Okolloha (Kenyan Pundit) then suggested using Google Earth to create a ‘mashup of where the violence was taking place’. Nine days later, Ushahidi, ‘a platform that crowd-sources crisis information’, was born:

‘The Ushahidi Engine is a platform that allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline. Our goal is to create the simplest way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.’

The developers of Ushahidi could have stopped there but instead had the vision and commitment to realize they had created an open-source platform which could be used to monitor and document any crisis, whether natural disaster, war or elections. In November last year Ushahidi released Ushahidi DRC. As one of the founders of Ushahidi, Ory Okolloh, explains, it was not easy to ‘localize’ the platform, but one way of ensuring it was taken up locally was to nurture a local active blogging community, offer timely and quality translation, and provide a platform that was simple to use.

The Al-Jazeera news network contacted the Ushahidi team in early 2009 and within days had created their own War on Gaza site. Although traditional news media still have a crucial role to play in the provision of news, bloggers and microbloggers are creating new ways of presenting news, reacting in a much more timely manner and reporting from a grassroots perspective. They are also free of editorial constraints, providing a much broader set of opinions than we can ever get from the mainstream media.

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