Kenyan Company Shrinks The World With Crisis Management Technology

Written by Steven J. Smith

Ushahidi is a Swahili term for “testimony,” and it’s an accurate word to describe a company that specializes in developing technology that quickly brings local matters to global attention.

The Nairobi, Kenya-based company got its start as a website gathering map reports of violence in Kenya after its incendiary 2008 elections. Its roots are in the dissemination of information among Kenyan civilian journalists during a crisis.

Initially the website, Ushahidi.com, was employed to map hot spots throughout Kenya  based on reports received by mobile phone and the Web. Since then, Ushahidi has grown from a group of volunteers to a non-profit company comprised of human rights advocates and savvy software developers.

Director of Strategic Ops and Strategy Erik Hersman, 37, who co-founded Ushahidi, said the company now is actively rebuilding itself “from the ground up, in what we call v3, or version 3.”

That effort, he said, includes the development of products designed to making one’s testimony more easily heard — from places off the beaten path. One such product is the BRCK, referred to by its creators as a “backup generator for the Internet.”

Resembling a black brick, the BRCK is a software-infused cloud device operating with its own website that one can access from anywhere to manage alerts and applications, or to check how WiFi and electricity are performing. Acting as a hub for local devices, the BRCK holds sufficient power to weather a blackout and is portable and sturdy enough to take anywhere.

For Ushahidi, inspiration for the BRCK stems no further than its own office in Nairobi.

“As a company full of engineers working in places with poor infrastructure, we simply can’t get online as much as our peers in the developed world,” Hersman said. “We asked ourselves: why is the networking equipment used in Kenya, India, and the rest of the developing world the same as that used in the U.S.A. and Europe, when the conditions aren’t similar at all?”

Hersman said Ushahidi’s strength is acting as a catalyst in changing the traditional way that information flows.

“We’ve been able to be a part of things like building out the crisis mapping community, the iHub in Nairobi — a place where entrepreneurial members can receive mentorship, Internet connectivity and possible venture funding — and now our new hardware product, the BRCK,” he said. “We’ve had a great deal of fun building the things we see are needed, and take great joy in seeing them spin up and grow bigger than ourselves.”

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