The first time I saw Juliana Rotich was at OR Tambo International Airport, in Johannesburg, South Africa this past October. We had (apparently) gotten off of the same inbound KLM flight from Amsterdam. I noticed her at the bureaux de change—minutes after we’d picked up our respective checked bags from the slow-as-molasses-luggage carousel—getting pointers from the exchange agent on how to negotiate with the local taxi drivers en route to her hotel. I craned my neck slightly and tried to listen in from the back of the line, so I wouldn’t be “that guy”-you know, the hundredth guy asking the same question, as if I expected the words “tour guide” to be written on the exchange agent’s forehead.
I didn’t think much of the encounter until a few days later when I walked into her and David Sasaki‘s session on mobiles in citizen media at MobileActive08. It was here that I learned about the birth of Ushahidi and Juliana’s role in launching the oft-applauded online crisis mapping application during Kenya’s tumultuous post-election violence in early 2008. We later waxed poetic on all things techy, African development, and music while club-hopping in Jo’burg’s Melville enclave of restaurants and bars.
Two weeks after MobileActive08, I flew out to Chicago for an extended one-on-one with the multi-faceted Juliana. It quickly became clear that our paths were destined to cross, as we shared a mutual geekery for all things tech. We also shared an interesting factoid relating to our primary education. You see, Juliana and I attended primary school a stone’s throw away from each other in the highlands of Chavakali, in the Western Province of Kenya. I day-schooled at Chavakali Primary while she was boarding nearby at Mukumu Girls. We retraced her path from Chavakali to Kansas City, to windy Chicago.
Juliana also has a love for the latest in smart mobility, and is a connected media enthusiast. But wait, there’s more. Juliana makes her mark on the world as an environmental editor, and staunch supporter of green technology at Global Voices. If she isn’t glued to her Blackberry, she is complaining about and/or complimenting some new feature or application on her iPhone, or drooling over the latest addition to the N-series of phones from Nokia. I had to confiscate her Blackberry in a Johannesburg night club in order to get her to relax and enjoy Jo’burg’s emerging and surprisingly good House music scene. Needless to say, she’s very much open as to which tools she uses to accomplish her many tasks, as long as the story is told accurately.
Ushahidi launched out of a need for accurate, “verifiable” information during Kenya’s regrettable post-election crisis, and the tool of choice was the mobile phone. The project was a successful hybrid partnership between Kenya’s Diaspora community and Kenya’s blogosphere.
“It was sort of manual and intensive at the beginning,” she said, and emphasized the team effort it took to bring the Ushahidi platform to life, “but it was very much a collaborative, collaborative, collaborative, project.”
Ushahidi’s success indeed has been due to it’s collaborative team of heavy hitters. It’s a veritable mash-up soup of Africa’s finest bloggers, technocrats, and social watchdogs – African blogoshpere stars like Erik Hersman at White African, David Kobia of Mashada fame and the one and only, highly-decorated Kenyan Pundit, Ory Okolloh to name a few. Consider that these are outstanding members of Kenya’s Diaspora and reaspora communities.
Jiliana added, “we came together. Ory, Daudi, and I were in Kenya at various times [during the crisis]. In the early days it was the three of us who were in Kenya…the programming and the setup was done by the guys overseas. What we did was enter content, and blogged on our own blogs and told other people about the [Ushahidi] platform.” The election violence put Kenya’s future in a very precarious position. “If you would have asked me earlier this year if we would survive, I would have said no. But, now, it’s a maybe,” Juliana added.
The result is a poster-child for what successful participatory citizen media initiatives should look like, Diaspora-led or not. With over 132 contributors to the platform at the height of the crisis, the immediate adaption of the mobile reporting tool catapulted it to a platform.
Ushahidi has since open-sourced the platform’s code and localized the reporting tool to recent conflict zones in Africa including South Africa’s xenophobic flare and most recently, to cover DRC’s rebel insurgency.