Ushahidi‘s approach to conflict early warning/response is refreshingly different from mainstream conventional approaches.
Conflict early warning systems like CEWARN in the Horn of Africa, ECOWARN in West Africa and the African Union’s CEWS are all top-down, centralized and hierarchical. Some argue that these systems actually take both a top-down and bottom-up approach since field monitors (at the bottom) document early signs of conflict escalation for policy makers (at the top). True, but as we know all too well, policy makers rarely close the feedback loop by responding early and effectively to conflict warnings.
To paraphrase Erik Hersman at Ushahidi, this lack of response is perhaps like the “pothole theory”: you generally don’t care about the pothole on a street, unless it’s yours. This helps to explain why we don’t respond to problems further down the street. Ushahidi therefore takes a different approach; one that I like to call the “bottom-bottom” approach.
Just how different is Ushahidi’s approach to that of other NGOs? Take for example Swisspeace‘s conflict early warning system, FAST, one of the early pioneers in the field of conflict early warning. The architects of FAST understood that early warning information needs to be actionable and customized to meet the demands of the end users. They described this using the analogy of planning food for a dinner party.
“We not only need to know how many people are coming but who is coming, the time of the day, and the season. Without such knowledge, we may prepare the perfect dinner for the wrong set of people” (Krummenacher and Schmeidl 2001, PDF).
The rhetoric of conventional early warning systems labels local at-risk communities as the intended beneficiaries; but they are rarely included as end users of early warning activities. To be sure, FAST never invited at-risk communities to the “dinner party” since the organizational challenges and financial costs of preparing the “perfect dinner” for the bottom billion are too bewildering. As a result, the invitee list quickly gets reduced to VIPs.
FAST’s use of the dinner party as an analogy clearly reveals the command-and-control mindset of conventional conflict early warning systems, also known as first-generation systems. Organizing the dinner is described as a centralized, almost egocentric activity: “we need to know,” so “we may prepare”. How about making it a pot-luck and use evite?
This, in essence, is the philosophy behind Ushahidi.
Ushahidi seeks to develop a more decentralized yet customized approach to throwing a dinner party. In conventional conflict early warning systems, blanket alerts are disseminated to an unknown guest list. Because the latter are never invited to dinner, there’s no way of telling whether the alerts were useful let alone received. (The field of advertising faces similar challenges, incidentally).
So why not let the end users decide for themselves what types of alerts to subscribe to? As Erik Hersman recently wrote in relation to early warning alerts,
“I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.”
Ushahidi is therefore developing a customized SMS/e-mail service alert option. Users will be able to specify what types of alerts they are interested in receiving and/or the particular location they want to receive alerts about.
This mindset is what makes Ushahidi different and why I call theirs a “bottom-bottom” approach. Needless to say, I’d rather attend Ushahidi’s dinner party over FAST’s.