Cellphone and Internet access helps – and hinders – accurate reporting in Kenya
An online mapping project depicts violence reported by ordinary Africans. But inaccurate or biased reports can serve to inflame tensions.
Citizen news reports of major events have become more commonplace as cellphones and broad Internet access have made it easier to share eyewitness accounts. But in Kenya, where tensions and violence escalated after the disputed presidential elections of Dec. 27, 2007, their shortfalls have been exposed – particularly their ability to quickly spread incorrect information and inflammatory words.Skip to next paragraph
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Earlier this month, bloggers launched a website in an effort to track developments in Kenya, where more than 850 people have died in attacks and reprisals among different ethnic communities loyal to either President Mwai Kibaki or opposition leader Raila Odinga.
The group of bloggers, in Africa and the United States, set up the clickable online map at Ushahidi.com to counter what they suspected was official underestimation of the destruction and killings. Anyone can contribute a report to the site, from freelance journalists to ordinary Kenyans, and each report will be pinpointed on the map.
The blogger Ory Okolloh, who runs the blog Kenya Pundit from South Africa, told the BBC in 2005 that the primary motivation for many Kenyan bloggers was creating a broader array of media options for the public.
The new mapping initiative is intended as a repository for futurereconciliation efforts; Ushahidi means "witness" or "testimony" in Swahili. Unlike international monitoring and news agency dispatches, the reports are intended to be immediate and can be reported by cellphone text message/SMS (short message service). [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized comments Ory Okolloh made to the BBC in 2005. Ms. Okolloh had been discussing Kenyan bloggers, rather than the recently launched map at ushahidi.com.]
In 2005 in Egypt, organizers used SMS and e-mail to rally against President Hosni Mubarak over a referendum to hold multiparty elections. Other mapping documentary projects, or "mapumentaries," have been organized less spontaneously, including a Crisis in Darfur map organized by the US Holocaust Museum; a site mapping environmental pollution set up The Center for Public Integrity; and a map of a neighborhood destroyed by a hurricane in Louisiana set up by a Dartmouth researcher.