Interview with Ory Okolloh on post-election violence in Kenya, cyber-activism and Ushahidi

Gregor Rohrig / Flickr

Pic: Gregor Rohrig

I met Ory Okolloh at the Global Knowledge Partnership GK III event in Malaysia late last year where I moderated a panel discussion on blogging human rights and democracy.

Ory’s idea, Ushahidi, became one of the most visited and commented on sites dealing with the post-election violence in Kenya. I’ve reviewed at Ushahidi a while ago on this blog and so have others, including this story by GlobalVoices Online that details the evolution of her idea and cyber-activism’s role in addressing the post-election violence in Kenya in general.

I emailed Ory a couple of questions to find out more what prompted her to create Ushahidi and what she now feels about it. Ory, I know, is tremendously busy and I appreciate the time she took to answer these questions.

SH: You’ve been a regular blogger on Kenyan politics and a significant thought-leader in new media, who by example, has made the Kenyan parliament more accountable to its peoples. Did you expect the degree of post-election violence? If so, could more have been done to prevent it?

OO: Thanks for the compliments. I did not expect the degree of post-election violence – I don’t think anyone did. Definitely a lot could have been done to prevent it, starting with an election process and result that had legitimacy with the voters; and a more humane response from the government forces in response to the riots that broke out.

SH: From your first post on your blog to the final website, could you tell me what the process entailed to set up Ushahidi? Who was involved? From where? What did they rally around?

OO: The process was very organic, several bloggers and techies responded to my post. Apollo, a U.S. based technology consultant was instrumental and getting the site registered and hosted. Erik, who blogs at, was instrumental in rounding up various people to help out, he also put together the initial template. The template was then further by David Kobia, who is also a U.S. based IT consultant and the founder Mashada ( Other bloggers who helped with input are Daudi of and Afromusing I think everyone rallied around the ongoing crisis and the sense of wanting to do something about it on an individual basis.
SH: What was the greatest challenge in setting up this site? How was it addressed?

OO: The greatest challenge has been spreading awareness about the site on the ground. We are still working on this.
SH: What’s the feedback you are getting on the site from those on the ground in Kenya as well as concerned civil society globally?

OO: The website has been received positively both locally and globally. We have also received valid critiques about the website from experts in the humanitarian field and we are working hard to address the issues raised e.g. on the verification process.

SH: What has resulted from the information presented and captured on this site? Is anybody using it to mitigate the violence?

OO: At the moment, we are not actively tracking how the website has been used. I think there has been greater awareness of certain events e.g. the peace efforts. I don’t think anyone is using it to mitigate the violence per se but more as an information-gathering tool.

SH: You’ve created a category called Peace Efforts, but there’s nothing on the map when it’s clicked to suggest active processes to mitigate and transform violence. Is this reflective of a dire need or are there things going on that simply aren’t, as yet, reflected on the site? If so, why do you think there’s a delay?

OO: If you filter the events using that category, information should pop up. It just doesn’t appear on the main site due to how the website was initially configured. This will be amended as we evolve.

SH: How do you see the site evolving and to what degree will you be involved in its evolution?

OO: We see the site evolving into a platform or plug-in that can be downloaded and applied to other humanitarian crises at a global, regional or local level. I will be closely involved in helping this evolution occur.

SH: The charge has been leveled against Ushahidi that it does not address the real needs of real people. How would you respond?

OO: Ushahidi was mainly intended to be a mapping tool and a repository of information about the post-election crisis as seen from the view point of people on the ground. We were trying to capture information that was not mainly being reported in the mainstream (there was a lot of self-censorship in the media) and also provide a timeline for information for both mainstream and citizen reported events. In the case of real time mapping Ushahidi could be used to track where the violence or the peace efforts were taking place. We hope to be able to provide those people who are “addressing the real needs to real people” with information that might help their efforts and to be part of the “testimony” as it were of what happened.

SH: Even a few years ago, Ushahidi would have been impossible to create. In what way do you see technology helping prevent, mitigate and transform violent conflict in the future?

OO: I’m not sure we are at the point where technology is preventing violence, but it can help mitigate violence e.g. by facilitating instant documentation via Youtube and Flickr and creating international awareness and also facilitating rapid organization by groups who want to mitigate the violence. It’s not all positive though, for instance in Kenya SMSs and emails were used to propagate hate speech.

SH: Related to the question above, how will bloggers and blogging contribute to both action on the ground and a greater awareness of the ground realities in places and contexts such as the post-election violence in Kenya often marginalised by traditional media?

OO: I can’t speak for other bloggers, but I hope people will keep documenting what is occurring in Kenya even now that the mediation agreements have been signed. It is important for us to keep an eye on the political class and ensure that the promises they have made are delivered, otherwise we will find ourselves in the same scenario in a few years. In other words we need to take on the role of the Fourth Estate, which traditional media in Kenya seems to have abdicated.

Ushahidi – Testimonies of violence in Kenya on the web

“Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. 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?”

Ory Okolloh, aka Kenyan Pundit, is who started it all.

Ushahidi is quite frankly an inspired and inspiring use of ICTs, including mobile phones, to bear witness to, record and facilitate action against the most dispiriting post-election violence in Kenya. It is one of the best mashups this author has seen dealing with the reporting and documenting of post-election violence and communal unrest, as well as a tool that facilitates international and local help to affected communities and victims.

I’ve passed this website around to a few people as the first meaningful application of an idea I first touted in 2006 talking about SMS, MMS and Google Maps mashups:

Rather than think of Citizen Media only as a text based initiative, mash-ups that match SMS location data with MMS / SMS messages onto a map, allowing users to browse through locations and messages related to that location, but also see an interactive timeline of the development of message clusters on a map, would have tremendous applications in mapping violence, confidence in peace, IDP movements and a whole raft of other issues.


As White African notes,

At the beginning of a project like this the technology portion can seem to be the hardest to get off the ground. In the end, it’s just the tool, and the hard work will come from people in the field who are working with NGO’s to keep this information accurate and to chronicle as much of it as they can..

The tool allows for those on the ground to send in situation reports and alerts via the web and mobile phones. At the same time, the Kenyan government was warning mobile phone users of possible prosecution if they use SMS to cause public unrest, “The Ministry of Internal Security urges you to please desist from sending or forwarding any SMS that may cause public unrest. This may lead to your prosecution.”

Others note the importance of going beyond technology to address the needs and concerns of those on the ground,

While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services. Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite.

While in principle agreeing that a technocratic approach to conflict resolution has its significant short-comings, I don’t agree with the sentiment above.

This suggests that the information presented on Ushahidi (Swahili for testimony) is somehow removed from the “real problems of real people”. As far as I can gather, Ushahidi is no work of fiction or a figment of the collective imagination of a few bloggers. By plotting violence, communal needs and actual incidents on a map, this becomes a vital record for the Kenyan State, NGOs and the international community including humanitarian agencies to know about and effectively plan for exigencies on the ground.

It is not just those who are connected (the “technologically (sic) elite”) who benefit, but all citizens, esp. those who don’t have access to technology. Those who choose to bear witness  and report violence may be individuals empowered to do so using ICTs ranging from PCs to mobiles, but important to recognise is that they do so on behalf of others as well. Technology facilitates actions and responses for ALL victims of (post-election) violence, not just those who send in the reports and who have mobiles or PCs.

I had the rare opportunity to meet and talk with Ory Okolloh at the Global Knowledge Partnership in Malaysia late last year and wish her the best in this and all her ventures to bring about an end to violence in her country.

For another idea that could be helpful in Ory’s case, take a look at this. For a more detailed account of the evolution of Ushahidi, read Global Voices Online.