Q&A with TED Fellow Erik Hersman: When technology goes African

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In his 2009 TEDTalk, techno-blogger Erik Hersman breaks down the framework of and uses for Ushahidi, a crisis reporting platform that emerged to help Kenyans avoid violence during riots after the 2008 elections. During this follow-up interview with the TEDBlog, he talks about his African ties, how the TED Fellows program has impacted him and the very beginnings of Ushahidi.

How did Ushahidi begin? We know it began during the aftermath of the 2008 Kenyan elections, but who were the key players and how did they come to contact each other and form this system?

It was very, very fast and loose. We quickly combined our thoughts around the basic idea via Skype and then got the whole thing going in a couple days. Ory, Juliana, Daudi and I knew each other from the Kenyan blogosphere, and as past TEDGlobal 2007 Fellows. I knew David Kobia, our lead developer from an interview I had done of him on my WhiteAfrican blog.

Could you give some examples, from your recollections, of the most successful moments of Ushahidi — moments where you knew you were part of an important structure?

The first week was the first indicator. To us, the system was rudimentary, but it worked. To outsiders, especially those in the humanitarian field, it was the first time they had really seen a technology tool used to bypass the establishment and go directly to ordinary people on the ground to get information. It seemed like the only thing to do to us, but it was revolutionary to them.

The other big moments were when we started to get approached by people and organizations from the rest of the world asking us to create one for them. Needless to say, we couldn’t due to our having our own full-time jobs, but it proved there was a need.

Finally, having Al Jazeera pick the tool up for use to collect and monitor the Gaza situation back in January was big. It was the first time an established media organization had used our tool.

What are the elements of the system that contribute most to its success? Anonymity of reports, ability of the population to vote credibility of reports — which to you are the most important or essential?

Well, I think the biggest thing is that Ushahidi fills the gap. It makes it easy for the traditionally unconnected, those in developing world countries and in rural areas, to start sending information in and getting alerts of things that happen around them — all from a simple SMS only enabled mobile phone.

Beyond that there are two very important issues. First, the need for anonymity in environments where you can’t trust the governing bodies. Second, a way to verify information as it comes in.

Just to probe, it seems that Al Jazeera is the only non-grassroots media group using Ushahidi? Why do you think this is? What makes Al Jazeera and Ushahidi a good fit?

There are some other NGOs using Ushahidi, but Al Jazeera is the largest organization using it to date. I happened to be in Qatar last week and had the chance to visit Al Jazeera’s new media team in person. We spent a good portion of the day talking about what they’re trying to do and why Ushahidi makes sense for them. It turns out that they’re really trying to stretch the traditional news in new ways. Ushahidi isn’t the only tool in their repertoire as they get into ways to both gather and disseminate news via mobiles. Finally, because Al Jazeera is largely focused on the parts of the world that most other large media organizations are not, it’s a good fit since that’s where Ushahidi works best as well.

READ MORE: Erik talks about his connection to Africa, attending TED2009, the TEDFellows program and more. Can you touch on your connection to Africa and the changes you have observed or want to see on the continent, or at least in the countries you have lived in, Kenya and Sudan?

I grew up in Sudan and Kenya, and lived in both the rural and urban centers of both countries throughout my life. Technology, since the mid-’90s, has had an inordinate impact on the culture. I’m excited about this, as I believe that technology allows us to bypass inefficiencies — be they government corruption, economics or business-related. It’s why I write about it on my personal blog (WhiteAfrican) and why I started AfriGadget, the group blog that showcases Africans solving everyday problems with their own ingenuity.

Would you also speak to the intersection of your African identity, technology and blogging, and your interest in TED? Is there a connection between these three?

There is an intersection point, and it all started when TED decided that the focus for TEDGlobal 2007 was going to be Africa. That was a pivotal moment, bringing together some of the greatest minds across the continent along with some of their counterparts in the Western world. On top of this, and maybe the most important, was that 100 TEDAfrica fellows were brought together. Because of the energy and creativity put in motion by that event, we are starting to see in initiatives like Ushahidi. Like I stated then, I think we still haven’t seen the full repercussions of that event.

How was your experience at TED and that of giving a TEDTalk?

TED has an aura about it that is both intimidating and exhilarating at the same time. It’s big, with 1200 people this year. It’s glamorous and somewhat surreal as you sit behind someone like Ben Affleck and then walk out the door to see Al Gore speaking on his iPhone. All of that bleeds over into the Fellows program as well.

Having only 4 minutes meant that I really needed to get to the point, and that was difficult, as I felt there were a lot of areas I had to carve out that were really good stories.

Also, what’s your insider perspective on the TEDFellows program?

The TEDFellows program. It’s full of an eclectic mix of polymaths, who are incredibly intelligent, open and the relationships created from that are amazing.

There was a distinct focus on communication at TED this year, as the main show for the afternoon session was Eric Albertson of Duarte Design and Slide:ology. They are the masters of the stage, presentation geniuses who are famous for putting together some of the best talks you have ever seen.

Since this happens the day before the TED conference begins, the anticipation continues to build throughout the day. You strike new friendships and make connections that hadn’t existed before. And, because they draw from such an eclectic mix of “doers”, your new best friend might be a mangaka artist, teacher or a scientist. That’s good though, because the next day you are thrust into the maelstrom and you now have small islands of friendship to keep you grounded over the next four days.

The TEDFellows staff are also there to support you through the conference. More importantly, they are connectors, making sure that you are being introduced to the right people and having the right conversations to make your time as a Fellow a success. As one Fellow famously said, “Tom Rielly knew all 40 of our elevator pitches better than we did, and he gave them flawlessly to each person he introduced us to.”