Out of Africa: Analytics for a better world

The Ushahidi platform is a tool to easily crowdsource information using multiple channels, including SMS, email, Twitter and the web. Credit: Source: Ushahidi

In 2008, after controversial presidential elections, violence gripped Kenya. Unlike civil upheavals in the past, this one was covered by more than war-weary journalists. It was monitored by analytics.

An organization, ultimately called Ushahidi, the Swahili word for "testimony," built a website where citizens from across the country reported via mobile phones incidents connected to the civil strife. The information was plotted in near real-time on a Google map with precise location data and a brief description of what had occurred. According to one later analysis, the information from the crowdsourcing work of Ushahidi was more detailed and useful to some needing to escape an area or to others needing to know exactly where to bring needed supplies. Since then Ushahidi's analytics has been credited with alleviating discomfort after tragedies around the globe - from the earthquake in Haiti to blizzards in North America.

At the World Economic Forum in Davos this year, one session (Note: This links to a PDF) was given over completely to the application of analytics to improve our world. In Big Data, Big Impact: New Possibilities for International Development the authors discuss, among other things, the United Nations Global Pulse initiative to use crowdsourced data "for harnessing policy and action." Further, they write, "data collected through mobile device usage can spur effective action in two primary ways: by reducing the time lag between the start of a trend and when governments and other authorities are able to respond to them, and by reducing the knowledge gap about how people respond to these trends."

As with any other technology, analytics is just one more tool for policymakers and authorities to respond to a crisis. However, unlike other technologies, analytics delivers precise information to those who need it most. And through the near real-time efforts like Ushahidi, it delivers that knowledge when it is most needed as well.

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