LOS ANGELES (CBS) I met Patrick Meier at last week's Twitter Chirp Conference and was immediately intrigued by his card, which read: Ushahidi, Crowdsourcing Crisis Information. Ushahidi means "testimony" in Swahili. The platform, which is completely free and open, was initially developed in early 2008 during Kenya's post election fallout as a way to map reports of violence.
"We threw up a Google map of Kenya," says Meier. "We got a short code 6007 with Safaricom (a Kenyan mobile operator), which meant that anyone in Kenya could text in their observation saying I just saw a riot, I just saw a person getting beating up and then we'd be able to geo-locate that and have a completely transparent map that anyone could access and see what was happening."
After seeing the traffic grow to 45,000 users from Kenya alone, they knew they were onto something.
Come January 12, 2010, a 7.0 earthquake hit Haiti. Within 48 hours of the earthquake, Josh Nesbit of FrontlineSMS:Medic and Katie Stanton of the U.S. State Department convinced DigiCel, the largest telco in Haiti, set up a short code - 4636 - (much like our 911) that people could text for help. Anyone in Haiti could text their urgent life and death situation with their location, and Ushahidi would map that information.
"If you go to Haiti.ushahidi.com, we've mapped over 3,500 individual crisis related incidences and you can animate that map from January 12 and see how that information gets distributed over time."
There were two problems: Translating the flood of texts in Creole, and getting workers to carry out the labor.
To tackle the translation problem, Ushahadi teamed up with CrowdFlower, a web service that provides labor-on-demand - in this case translators.
"Harnessing thousands of volunteers would normally create a logistical nightmare, but it is specifically this kind of amorphous virtual labor force that the CrowdFlower platform was built to accommodate," said Lukas Biewald, the company's CEO.
Ushahadi also joined forces with Samasource, a nonprofit specializing in socially responsible outsourcing, who got Haitians on the ground hired to handle emergency message routing. That, in turn, created jobs for the local economy.
This collaborative effort is now being hailed as www.mission4636.org.
There's no doubt that this is a model for how governments, NGOs and aid workers on the ground can more efficiently report and react to any event or incident (not just a crisis) through SMS, Twitter and the web.
Ushahadi is not only being used to deal with disaster.
As I spoke to Patrick backstage at Twitter Chirp, he showed me Ushahidi's latest voting map for Sudan that was made to "track and create transparency for any irregularities that may take place," during the recent presidential election.
There can be bumps in the crowdsourcing revolution however.
The independent site sudanvotemonitor.com had a few hundred markings on its map showing locations tagged for defamation, voting access, disturbances and vote tampering. The morning I spoke with Patrick, it had been suddenly shut down. As of today, it remains blocked.
Now that's a big issue that has yet to be crowd sourced successfully. Any hackers... I mean volunteers out there that want to give it a go?