Why not create an Open311 add-on for Ushahidi?

This is not a complicated post. Just a simple idea: Why not create an Open311 add-on for Ushahidi?

So what do I mean by that, and why should we care?

Many readers will be familiar with Ushahidi, non-profit that develops open source mapping software that enables users to collect and visualize data in interactive maps. It’s history is now fairly famous, as the Wikipedia article about it outlines: “Ushahidi.com’ (Swahili for “testimony” or “witness”) is a website created in the aftermath of Kenya’s disputed 2007 presidential election (see 2007–2008 Kenyan crisis) that collected eyewitness reports of violence sent in by email and text-message and placed them on a Google map.[2]“Ushahidi’s mapping software also proved to be an important resource in a number of crises since the Kenyan election, most notably during the Haitian earthquake. Here is a great 2 minute video on How how Ushahidi works.

ushahidi-redBut mapping of this type isn’t only important during emergencies. Indeed it is essential for the day to day operations of many governments, particularly at the local level. While many citizens in developed economies may be are unaware of it, their cities are constantly mapping what is going on around them. Broken infrastructure such as leaky pipes, water mains, clogged gutters, potholes, along with social issues such as crime, homelessness, business and liquor license locations are constantly being updated. More importantly, citizens are often the source of this information – their complaints are the sources of data that end up driving these maps. The gathering of this data generally falls under the rubric of what is termed 311 systems – since in many cities you can call 311 to either tell the city about a problem (e.g. a noise complaint, service request or inform them about broken infrastructure) or to request information about pretty much any of the city’s activities.

This matters because 311 systems have generally been expensive and cumbersome to run. The beautiful thing about Ushahidi is that:

  1. it works: it has a proven track record of enabling citizens in developing countries to share data using even the simplest of devices both with one another and agencies (like humanitarian organizations)
  2. it scales: Haiti and Kenya are pretty big places, and they generated a fair degree of traffic. Ushahidi can handle it.
  3. it is lightweight: Ushahidi technical footprint (yeap making that up right now) is relatively light. The infrastructure required to run it is not overly complicated
  4. it is relatively inexpensive: as a result of (3) it is also relatively cheap to run, being both lightweight and leveraging a lot of open source software
  5. Oh, and did I mention IT WORKS.

This is pretty much the spec you would want to meet if you were setting up a 311 system in a city with very few resources but interested in starting to gather data about both citizen demands and/or trying to monitor newly invested in infrastructure. Of course to transform Ushahidi into a process for mapping 311 type issues you’d need some sort of spec to understand what that would look like. Fortunately Open311 already does just that and is supported by some of the large 311 providers system providers – such as Lagan and Motorola – as well as some of the disruptive – such as SeeClickFix. Indeed there is an Open311 API specification that any developer could use as the basis for the add-on to Ushahidi.

Already I think many cities – even those in developing countries – could probably afford SeeClickFix, so there may already be a solution at the right price point in this space. But maybe not, I don’t know. More importantly, an Open311 module for Ushahidi could get local governments, or better still, local tech developers in developing economies, interested in and contributing to the Ushahidi code base, further strengthening the project. And while the code would be globally accessible, innovation and implementation could continue to happen at the local level, helping drive the local economy and boosting know how. The model here, in my mind, is OpenMRS, which has spawned a number of small tech startups across Africa that manage the implementation and servicing of a number of OpenMRS installations at medical clinics and countries in the region.

I think this is a potentially powerful idea for stakeholders in local governments and startups (especially in developing economies) and our friends at Ushahidi. I can see that my friend Philip Ashlock at Open311 had a similar thought a while ago, so the Open311 people are clearly interested. It could be that the right ingredients are already in place to make some magic happen.

7 thoughts on “Why not create an Open311 add-on for Ushahidi?

  1. Scott Young

    I’m an admirer of Patrick Meier and Ushahidi, and think the applications for Ushahidi have wider applicability. For example, is there some way to draw upon the Ushahidi platform to help drive EMS services (911), not just in developing countries, but also countries that have longstanding but increasingly outdated infrastructure.

    TIME did a report in April 2011 (http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2062452,00.html) on how the foundation of the 911 system in the US is based on landlines, with no provision for Skype, VoIP, and other new technologies. I think Ushahidi could help be the answer.

  2. Erik Hersman

    David, this is an excellent suggestion.  Brian Herbert from our team was playing around with this idea earlier this year as well, so I should get feedback from him before I say too much.  However, what I remember about this is that it does take someone knowledgeable of the 311 systems, and the way that the cities work, to make it happen. 

  3. Pingback: Ushahidi and the Open311 Ecosystem | Open311

  4. Philip Ashlock

    Thanks for writing this up David. I started writing a long response and turned it into a blog post. I’ll link to that post and also keep a copy of the text here:

    I expressed a similar sentiment in a post I wrote last year called Reporting Issues for All Occasions (http://open311.org/2010/01/reporting-issues-for-all-occasions/) and during the RHOK event you linked to there at the end I did in fact finish initial integration of the Open311 GeoReport v2 spec with Ushahidi. There’s a demo of it up at http://ushahidi.georeport.org with familiar GeoReport endpoints being


    This isn’t complete though and it’s not packaged in a way that integrates well with the rest of the Ushahidi codebase. I’m long overdue in better coordinating this with folks like Erik and others on the Ushahidi developer list where I’ve been lurking, but there are a number of efforts underway which will surely bring more of full Open311 support to Ushahidi. If there are folks interested in this, please let us know on our respective mailing lists:


    It’s also worth noting that there are a number of other open source systems much like Ushahidi which have been working on support for Open311 GeoReport v2. These include two of the FixMyStreet codebases and Mark-a-spot.


    …As featured in my talk at OKCon: http://www.slideshare.net/philipashlock/civic-commons-okcon-2011-talk

    See more open source Open311 efforts at: http://wiki.open311.org/Open_Source

    I should also state two of the main shortcomings with Ushahidi in it’s current state which I hope can be addressed with more developer involvement. 1) Ushahidi is great for simple reporting of problems, but needs more robust features to triage, assign, and track them 2) Ushahidi doesn’t use a true geospatial database, so you are limited in your ability to do things like query reports by a “geo-fence” (a polygon).

    Accommodating features like this was part of our thinking in providing the benefit of a geospatial database for the Trac issue tracking system with GeoTrac (http://demo.geotrac.org/) and I think things like that can be part of a diverse ecosystem of issue tracking systems and Open311 implementations.

    Currently, Ushahidi has the broadest number of international deployments and developers, so in my mind it’s one of the best places to focus for Open311 integration and it’s where I plan to put a great deal of my attention this year, but ultimately the goal is to let a diverse yet interoperable ecosystem bloom.

  5. Bruce Buttles

    I am headed to Kenya in 13 days on a mission trip to Bomet and Tenwek. Great idea for a 311 service extension. I’ve has related conversations with doctors, pastors, and community leaders that have me thinking that Ushahidi (or Crowd Map) may be a great way to help folks stay connected with the vast villages they serve. In particular the regular community health visits by Tenwek nurses and doctors to remote areas. Imagine them knowing ahead of time the needs in each village?!

    Just curious – have you seen Ushahidi or Crowd Map used like this?

  6. Tom Steinberg

    Hi David,

    Can I just point out a slight danger of Not Invented Here in your post?

    FixMyStreet is *already* a fault reporting system, that is open source, easy to translate, Open311 compliant, and which has all the nitty-gritty back end stuff you need to deal with the day to day reality of routing real problems to real public servants in different governments. 

    That’s how Norway was able to get a version that covered the entire country, in just a month including substantial data gathering, language translating and no-longer-necessary hackery. Now the system is even easier to re-install, and is rapidly gaining problem-specific features. 

    Why not encourage Ushahidi to develop excellence in their core capacity (around disasters and election monitoring) and work to improve the main product for fault reporting that’s already there – FixMyStreet?


    1. David Eaves

      Tom – great comment. I don’t disagree at all. Would (and will) definitely encourage local and national governments in Africa to look at FixMyStreet. The only additional thought I’d have is that my assumption has been that Ushahidi has networks and support on the ground in various communities in Africa, and so there are people who are better placed to maintain and support it. It was also driven by the assumption (completely an assumption) that Ushahidi was built around people contributing it via SMS and feature phones, whereas FixMyStreet was more smartphone driven. But again, very happy to champion FixMyStreet as well and encourage people to take a look at it.


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