Kenyans put messaging to work to head off poll violence

  • @howden_africa

For Juliana Rotich, like so many Kenyans, the last election at the end of 2007 evokes painful memories.

Having returned from her studies in the US to vote in the Rift Valley town of Eldoret she was stranded for days as her compatriots fought and died over the disputed results. She remembers feeling helpless and has no intention of repeating the experience. As Kenya goes to the polls again tomorrow, the young technologist is among a small army of Kenyan geeks who have been leading efforts to prevent violence.

During the post-election crisis text messages were used to spread rumours, incite violence between different communities and even coordinate attacks. But mobile phones could also be put to positive use as Ms Rotich proved when she helped to found Ushahidi (Swahili for Witness), a platform that allows text messages to be used to map crises.

The tech initiative was one of the few positives to emerge from a crisis that left 1,300 people dead and 600,000 more homeless. The Kenyan startup has since been used all over the world from mapping temporary office locations during superstorm Sandy in the US to improving public transport systems in Beijing. Now the crowd-sourcing and crisis mapping venture returns home for possibly its greatest test.

“You (the media) can't be everywhere but the crowd is everywhere,” said Ms Rotich.

Ushahidi's election project aims to take tens of thousands of SMS reports and turn them into live maps, bulletins and in some cases report incidents to the police. They are also overseeing Umati (Swahili for crowd), which has volunteers scanning Kenya's lively social media for any signs of hate speech, while members of the public can flag incitement by sending a free of charge text message.

During a referendum vote two years ago they launched the Nipe Ukweli (Gimme Truth) campaign. When a false rumour spread that some Kenyans were burning churches a young activist tweeted a photograph of one of the unharmed churches with the words "stop the lying."

Hopes that the country might move beyond the tribal politics that blighted the last election have evaporated. The election will be won by one of two clearly ethnic alliances whose presidential hopefuls drawn from the same pool of politicians who oversaw the chaos in 2008. On one side is Prime Minister Raila Odinga, who most observers agree narrowly won the last election but had to settle for the junior role in a power-sharing government. One the other is Uhuru Kenyatta, the son of Kenya's founding president, who is due to stand trial at the ICC for his alleged part in the post-election violence of 2008.

In this context Ms Rotich remains realistic about the limits of technology in preventing intercommunal unrest: “We can at least show that there are Kenyans whose reality is not tribal.”