Ushahidi, Twitter, and the future of foreign aid

Text of a short talk I’ll be giving next week:

I want to tell you a story about crowdsourcing, social media, and how the world is changing.

A little while ago, we saw an outbreak of brutal ethnic violence in Southern Kyrgyzstan. Southern Kyrgyzstan is largely populated by ethnic Uzbeks, and they were being attacked – in really horrible ways – by ethnic Kyrgyz. They had been living together calmly for 20 years. It was an ugly shock.

I have spent a lot of time in both Southern Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, and I was pretty upset about what was going on. I was reading about the situation obsessively, and talking to all my Uzbek and Kyrgyz friends about it. I learned that the violence was being driven by rumors. The first Kyrgyz attacks came in response to rumors of Uzbek atrocities, and rumors and distorted stories were still triggering violence.

So I thought, Kyrgyzstan needs Ushahidi, to cut through the rumors.

Ushahidi is an open source software platform that aggregates and maps crowd-sourced information. It receives information via SMS or the web, and then presents it in a user-friendly way that people can view on a computer or a cellphone. It was first used to map post-election violence in Kenya.

Five years ago if I’d thought that, there would have been nothing I could do. I could have told my friends, written a blog post, and worried. This year, I posted about it on Twitter. A couple people on Twitter gave me the contact information for the Ushahidi team. I wrote to them, and they told me that there was an Ushahidi Kyrgyzstan effort going on.

A guy called Altyn Ismailov was working on an Ushahidi platform for Kyrgyzstan. I got in touch with him by email. He told me that by now the violence had mostly stopped, but there was a constitutional referendum coming up in three days that threatened to trigger it all over again. Alytn wanted to have a referendum-specific Ushahidi platform running, to both monitor the voting and track any violence that occurred, but he had hit a wall.

Altyn was out of money, and he was exhausted. He asked if I would help him write a grant application to get funds to finish the Ushahidi platform and educate people about how to use it. I said yes, but I was worried about trying to get DfiD or USAID to mobilize funds in four days. Then Altyn told me he needed 564 dollars.

Now I don’t have a life where I can just write a check for $564, but I do have a bunch of Twitter followers. I told Altyn I thought I could fundraise the money for him, and leave major donors out of it. I put up a ChipIn widget with a project description, and described the effort to my Twitter followers. My goal was to raise $564 in 48 hours.

We raised $610 in 8 hours. It was amazing. Altyn got his money, and the platform was up in time for the referendum. The voting went smoothly, and there was no further violence. Odds are it would have gone smoothly anyway, but we were proud to be part of the insurance.

This isn’t a story about me or Altyn, though. This is a story about change. Ushahidi is an open source platform, developed in the global south. Ten years ago, Africa didn’t have the connectivity to develop and distribute a platform like Ushahidi. And ten years ago, cell phones didn’t have the power or the ubiquity to make Ushahidi a useful tool.

I learned about Ushahidi from the web. I got the contact information for its team via social media. I was in touch with Altyn by email. I raised the money using the ChipIn widget to let people track and donate, and all my fundraising requests were on Twitter. Nothing about the fundraising effort would have been possible without social media and new technology.

This was a small scale effort, and there were a lot of reasons that it got lucky.* But I have a feeling it’s going to be the model for a whole lot of bigger efforts in the future.

*Specifically, Ushahidi is a social media darling, the amount of money needed was small and specific, and Kyrgyzstan was in the news.


(Photo credit: Robert Thomson)

Chosen because this is a gorgeous picture of Kyrgyzstan and looks just like I think of it.

International Development on Twitter, Part II – Five more people to follow

Joseph Kimojino @maratriangle

Why you should follow: Fascinating first-hand account of wildlife protection in the Mara Triangle, complete with catching poachers, making tourists behave, and helping wounded animals.

Sample Tweet: Three poachers arrested two nights ago and poaching activity seen in Mingu area. 14 snares collected this morning.

Appropedia @appropedia

Why you should follow: A constant stream of interesting information on useful technology.

Sample Tweet: A miracle substance that’s cheap & could add 1 billion points to the global I.Q.: iodised salt.

Usha Venkatachallam @nadodi

Why you should follow: Great posts on information technology and the developing world.

Sample Tweet: mix a nerd & humanitarian news. result = AidNews, AidBlogs, and a how-to blog post.

Gaurav Mishra @gauravonomics

Why you should follow: Links and thinking on social media and ICT for development.

Sample Tweet: Preparing for a talk tomorrow on the role of citizen journalism in crisis reporting for my fellow associates at

Jon Camfield

Why you should follow: Interesting information technology information, and great coverage of One Laptop Per Child.

Sample Tweet: TCO for low-cost computing in Education: The video archive of last Thursday’s discuss.

As always, let me know who I forgot in the comments.

(photo credit: Steve Woolf)
Chosen because it was either this or the fail whale.

International development on Twitter, Part 1

Ten people to follow on Twitter if you’re interested in international development. Not the top ten, necessarily – there are too many great people on Twitter for me to make that claim. But ten microbloggers who consistently engage my attention with interesting ideas:

Glenna Gordon
Glenna Gordon is a journalist, photographer, and author of the Scarlett Lion blog, currently living in Uganda. Her writing, and the links she posts, offer beautifully written insight into Uganda, with a solid dose of cynicism and wry humor.

Sample tweet: Supermodel risks TB and Genocide by visitng Rwanda: Monika Schnarre, who considers herself a supermo..

Why you should follow: For links to photos and articles on Uganda, Africa, and development which you wouldn’t have found on your own.

Chris Albon@chrisalbon
Chris Albon is author of the amazing War and Health blog, and posts a great series of links on war and conflict.

Sample tweet: For the past 2 weeks I’ve been writing post on armed groups potentially exploiting Ushahidi. This is what I mean:

Why you should follow: For links to a huge range of articles and resources on conflict in general and conflict and health. He’s obsessed with the intersection of war and health, and obsessed people make great reading.

Vasco Pyjama
Vasco Pyjama
is an aid worker who’s been everywhere, including Somalia and Afghanistan.

Sample tweet: Documenting lessons learnt and writing up methodologies. At first I thought I had indigestion. Now I realise it’s heartache.

Why you should follow: For a self-aware, intelligent, first-person perspective on aid work and its discontents.

Glenn Strachan@glennstrachan
Glenn Strachan travels the planet supporting ICT for development. He blogs as well as using Twitter.

Sample tweet: Right now I am trying to assemble a list of the top 30 organisations worldwide doing work specifically in ICT4D. There is no list.

Maneno @maneno
The twitter account of, which is devoted to making African voices heard.

Sample tweet: Toivo Asheeke’s latest post on his Maneno blog, “A Brief Case Study of A Successful African Country” (Namibia)

Why you should follow: To keep your news sources broad and deep.

I’ve got five more profiles coming up in my next post: @maratraingle, @chriswaterguy, @nadodi, @guaravanomics, and @joncamfield. Who am I missing? Tell me in the comments.

(photo credit: FunnyBiz)
Chosen because I love graphs.

The story of FORGE

About two weeks ago, something fascinating happened. Kjerstin Erickson, the director of FORGE, a small NGO that works with refugees in Zambia, posted on her blog at Social Edge. She said that FORGE was in major financial trouble and might have to shut down. The story has unfolded from there. A major philanthropy blogger wrote about FORGE on his blog, lauding their transparency. Consultants have been stepping up to help FORGE find a way to carry on. It’s become an opportunity to have some fascinating conversations about transparency, accountability, and what makes an NGO “deserve” to exist.

For something of such interest, this is getting no attention on Twitter; there is also surprisingly little attention from the web at large. I think this is because FORGE’s web presence is limited to the FORGE site and the Social Edge blog maintained by Kjerstin. Both of these are a good start but to create buzz you need to be all over the place. FORGE does not seem to have buzz.

FORGE needs a Twitter account immediately, as well as a friend feed account, and a Flickr pool. I know they have a very small staff, but they could work with a consultant to get the ball rolling (yes, I have contacted Kjerstin and offered to donate my services on this), and even some of the ongoing stuff could be done by a committed and well-informed volunteer. Their fundraising model – many small donations – is well suited to microblogging. So is their commitment to transparency. I’d love to see Kjerstin with a Twitter account, as well as someone in the field. Epic Change‘s use of social media would be a great model for FORGE.

Where is their board in all this? Sara Hall from New Philanthropy Advisors makes this point well. Why doesn’t their board care enough to give? And if they cannot give, why are they not out foraging for donations? FORGE can’t really overhaul their board now, but your board is not just a source of guidance or a required technicality. They should stand ready to open their pockets, call their friends, and do media on your behalf. The Nonprofiteer has some great writing on what your board should be doing for your non-profit.

Another thing: I hate to say this, but I don’t like the FORGE website. I think the writing is jargon-heavy, and obscures the power of their model and their message. I also think that the color and design is unwelcoming. In general, it feels very academic to me. It feels like something I am supposed to read about, not something I am supposed to be involved in.

Finally, I think FORGE is choosing the wrong selling points. Their main website page says “With FORGE, you can help end the cycle of war and poverty in Africa.” That doesn’t make them stand out from the scores of other organizations that work in Africa. They also emphasize that FORGE lets you choose how to support and change lives – again, that’s not very different from what everyone else is saying right now, especially Kiva. It’s all just more of the same. I also suspect that use of the catch-all “Africa,” instead of naming countries, may be off-putting to some people.

What is exciting about FORGE is that it is refugee-driven. Refugees themselves identify their needs, request funding, and implement their projects. FORGE just provides money and gives them tools and support as needed.

FORGE has the community drive and focus of a local NGO, paired with the accountability and transparency of an international organization. That’s exciting. That’s where they should shine their spotlight.

Five mistakes international organizations make when using Twitter

1. Using it just for press releases. People don’t follow you on Twitter for generic organizational announcements. They follow because they want to feel a personal connection with what you do. They want to become friends and allies. Write your Twitter updates in less formal language, and tweet little things, too. Not just press releases. Welcome new employees, for example, or tell them a little bit about one specific project.

2. Only asking for money. Constant calls for funds will bore people and cause them to unsubscribe from your Twitter feed. Ask for money no more than once a week, and when you do, tie it to something you mentioned that week.

3. Not following back or replying to others. As an organization, you should automatically follow back anyone who follows you on Twitter. People don’t want to be broadcast to; they want to be part of a conversation. Following people is the first step; the second step is paying attention. Use Twitter search to monitor mentions of your organization. Reply to those mentions. Periodically read the postings of people you follow. You don’t have to read every post, but check in from time to time, and reply if you have something interesting to say.

4. Forgetting the global audience. Twitter has a worldwide user base. This includes people in the countries where you work. It may include potential donors and beneficiaries in other countries. It will definitely include your own staff. When you write about events in, say, Rwanda, assume Rwandans will be reading. Are you still comfortable with your post?

5. Not having a Twitter strategy. There are things to think about before you post your first tweet. Do you want to encourage all your staff to have organization-linked Twitter accounts, or just a single account to represent the whole organization? What aspects of your organization do you want to highlight? What kind of expertise do you possess and can showcase? Who will update the Twitter account, and will all postings need to be approved first? These are issues that can be resolved with some planning, and can go very wrong on you without some advance thought.

Five things everyone really ought to know about already was actually the inspiration for this list. I thought everyone in international development had heard of Kiva by now, but apparently that’s not true. A former colleague of mine was wishing she could find a way to give to Tajikistan in a way that let her see impact. I suggested Kiva, and was met with total blankness, because she’d never even heard of it. That made me think of all the other stuff I thought was obvious. Therefore, I bring you:

Five things everyone really ought to know about already


Kiva is an NGO that supports microlending. Individual entrepreneurs are listed on the site, with a description of how much money they need and the projects they want to invest in. You can then choose who to support and how much you want to lend. Kiva devotees are passionate and vocal, and the lending experience is an awful lot of fun. Kiva consistently has more people who want to loan than qualified borrowers.

I think this kind of personal choice and connection is going to be important in the future of global charity. Combining the personal link with micro-credit is sheer genius, and it’s something we can all learn from.

2) Global Giving

Global Giving is an aggregator aimed at people who want to donate to global causes. You can search by location, topic, or though a nifty little donation wizard that helps finds projects to suit you (which introduced me to the concept of microhealth insurance). From a donor’s perspective, I love the idea of finding causes to support in a logical way that lets you do research, instead of waiting for someone to come to you and solicit a donation.

From an NGO perspective, this is a great way to gain committed donors who have genuine passion for what you do. For a small NGO, this is an amazing opportunity to access funds without having to invest in a fundraising infrastructure. Global Giving and organizations like them are the wave of the future.

3) RSS Readers

RSS is an acronym for a name that doesn’t really matter. The important thing about RSS is that it brings the content of websites to one place so you can read them easily. I use Google Reader, because I’m lazy, but there are a lot of choices. Just search for RSS Reader, and see what you come up with. By bringing everything to one place, it makes it much easier to keep up with new web content, saving you time and effort. Most of the smarty-pants people you meet who seem up-to-date on everything use RSS readers to accumulate all that knowledge. It’s hard to explain exactly why it’s so much easier to use one reader instead of visiting each site individually, but trust me, it is. Give it a shot and see for yourself.

4) Google alerts

I love Google alerts, which are basically searches that Google saves and runs for you on some kind of regular schedule that you select. You are emailed the results. I put a Google alert on any topic that seems like it might interest me – my current list includes several countries, “public health,” “maternal health,” and several other terms. If I’m not getting anything interesting, I dump the alert. I also have Google alerts set up for colleagues, former colleagues, and anyone else I want to keep up with, as well as my current employer and former employers. My Google alerts are the long-term memory I wish I had, remembering to hunt down information on everything I’m interested in, and they’re my antennae that sense information about what’s new in the world.

5) Twitter is a microblogging site, where you can set up an account and post updates of up to 140 characters. It is a little like Facebook, because you sign up to “follow” people who interest you, and acquire followers of your own. I use Twitter to give people a sense of me as a person, to highlight web links that don’t quite fit in with my blog, and to flag things that I plan to expand into blog entries later.

The sense of community is powerful and addictive. I post the link when I write a new blog post, along with the topic, and a lot of people come over to check it out. People will often respond immediately and send me links they think I will like. I also use twitter for brainstorming – it gives me a chance to ask random questions and get immediate answers from a whole herd of interesting people.