How to track a crisis

The following post is by my friend Matt Silberstein. Matt is deeply concerned about the events occurring in places like Darfur, and brought the following to my attention. I asked him to write a post, and here it is.

Hi folks, Matt here sitting in for our silverback. I like to think of myself as “The Pretty One”. (You know how movies have the smart one and the …, well I hope you get the idea.) I sent John a link to a NY Times article about Ushahidi, since he has a real life he offered me this opportunity to guest blog. So here I go. ( I’ll try to make this somehow relevant to evolution and such.)

Ushahidi is a new on-line service for tracking disaster information. Using cell phones people text in reports (building collapse, police rapes, flood damage, etc.) and mapping software lets others see the extent of the damage. This allows real time information regarding the extent of a problem. Cell phones, unlike computers, are ubiquitous even in the third world. Sure, there will be false reports, but false reports will not tend to cluster and will be noise rather than signal. And of course this will be used for evil as well as good, but governments (and, I assume, others) already have that ability.

Ushahidi was developed by a Kenyan lawyer living in South Africa in response to election violence in Kenya. It was built in a “long weekend” mostly out of open source tools and has been released as an open source platform for others to build upon

So why am a telling you this? I started my Internet with the Usenet, the grand dad of on-line social networking. I met John through Usenet, social networking has been quite important in my life and likely your life. But there is a world of difference between geeks talking about research and Monty Python, and finding out about an army riot as soon as it starts. Simply put, this is a useful tool that will do good in the world. It will help direct aid to those in need and let people know sooner of problems. The more people who know of this thing, the better.

Then this was developed not in Silicon Valley and aimed at making a billion dollars, this was developed in South Africa, over the Internet, for the point of helping. For those of us who like that humans are social animals this is rather nice. This puts an important power into people’s hands. There was a time when we did not have journalists, but if someone was “away” they might right home and so news traveled. With this, and of of course other social media, everyone has that ability again to tell the world. (Yes, I know that this will soon, if not already, but used for celebrity sightings and fashion updates. Tools are ultimately morally neutral.

Finally, Ushahidi was developed “instantaneously” from existing parts. The phones were already in people’s hands, the texting engine existed and mapping software existed. They mashed it all up and gave us a crisis notification tool. And that is what makes this a blog post here. This recombining of existing building blocks looks remarkably like, well, recombining genes to produce new features. It does not take a great big series of mutations/coding to produce a new feature. Once you have a sufficiently rich environment and sufficiently stable pieces, then new features come from small changes. (If I wanted to enter the Intelligent Design Wars, I would point out that design resembles evolution and designed things resemble evolved things because design is a sub-set of evolution. But I am not about to join that war here.)

So, go and check out Ushahidi and may you never need to report anything.

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