The latest on Ushahidi Liberia + iLab

It’s been a few months since our Ushahidi Liberia team shared an update. Here’s what we’ve been up to in the world of conflict mapping and information sharing, as well as the latest on our sister project, iLab Liberia:
Early Warning and Early Response (EWER) Working Group:

  • Ushahidi Liberia continues to support and manage the Working Group’s use of the LERN platform for reporting conflict early warning information. To date, more than 3,600 reports of conflict, instability and peacebuilding activities have been added to the map by two-dozen early warning and response partners. Earlier in the year, the Working Group identified 10 key areas of concern for 2012 (4 primary, 6 secondary) and in response Ushahidi Liberia’s team has created new categories on LERN to reflect these priority issues and reassigned existing reports accordingly.
  • Ushahidi Liberia provides biweekly updates to the Working Group on any themes that emerged from recent reports, in what part of the country they occurred, as well as the LERN instance’s site visits and visitors’ demographic distribution.
  • Critical reports that need a timely response are shared weekly and a ranking system is being developed to assign varying levels of urgency to reports according to each report’s early warning and immediate threat implications. Ushahidi Liberia is also leading the Working Group in reevaluating how urgent reports are shared with relevant responders to ensure that critical reports reach the right people in a timely manner.
  • Ushahidi Liberia is in the process of cleaning up the LERN database, i.e. standardizing the format of existing reports that lack consistency due to partners’ varying levels of computer literacy and no standardized structure for a report’s description. Once the cleanup is complete, Ushahidi Liberia will graph the LERN data for the Working Group’s cumulative, analytical review of the reports, with the goal of identifying trends in certain types of instability and locations that are high-risk areas. Stay tuned for another post on these graphics in the next month.
  • Ushahidi Liberia’s partners, particularly the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ Peacebuilding Office, continue to offer trainings in the field both alongside Ushahidi staff and on their own. More than 200 field reporters have been trained this year in how to report conflict, instability, peacebuilding efforts and insufficient public services to the LERN platform.
Reports on the LERN instance share critical information about armed violence, land disputes, border issues and more, crowdseeded from citizen reporters.

United Nations Mission in Liberia (UNMIL):

  • Earlier this year, in collaboration with the UNMIL Situational Awareness Visualization Environment (USAVE) Initiative, Ushahidi Liberia developed a password-protected pilot instance populated with sample data from the Mission. This pilot was requested by members of the Mission to demonstrate that the Ushahidi platform could serve as the Mission’s primary information management tool. The USAVE team compiled a centralized data repository from a variety of UN sources (UNMIL, UNDP, UNHCR, UNICEF, UNOCHA and UNFAO) that not only allowed UNMIL staff to view reports geospatially but also to see relationships between reports and across departments. As Lt. Col. Dave Foster mentioned in an earlier post, the USAVE instance is intended to better position Liberia’s UN agencies to make decision-grade analysis more efficiently, thus allowing UN resources to be even more effectively directed.
  • UNMIL staff across departments continue to have an interest in using the Ushahidi platform Mission-wide, and the scale of its deployment has been re-envisioned: UNMIL IT experts are now hoping that a successful model at Liberia’s Mission could lead to every Mission’s use of the Ushahidi platform for more rapid data collection, visualization and dissemination. Yet for such an initiative to get off the ground requires approval from a number of senior leaders within UNMIL and at UN HQ, which is still ongoing. At this stage, Ushahidi Liberia continues to meet with the IT team and several Mission departments about customizing the platform for their needs and scaling for such a large body of administrators and reporters.
USAVE pilot instance for UN Mission of Liberia, created in April 2012.

iLab + Ushahidi office expands:

  • in May, iLab and Ushahidi moved into a space twice as large as its former office to offer simultaneous trainings and accommodate more users interested in the Ushahidi platform and other info-sharing technologies. For those of you who don’t know, iLab Liberia (founded by Ushahidi Liberia consultants in 2011) is a sister organization that shares a space with the Ushahidi Lib team and provides the technical equipment, connectivity and staff for Ushahidi training sessions and conflict early warning meetings. In addition to the increased space, the internet connection has also more than doubled from 2011 (now a 2mb dedicated VSAT connection), constituting Liberia’s fastest public internet connection. This enhanced connectivity increases the number of participants iLab can host for mapping parties and Ushahidi partner gatherings where limited bandwidth used to be an issue.
The new lab
With increased space, simultaneous trainings such as these are now possible.

iLab’s activities:

  • iPod Touch for tracking land disputes: The Norwegian Refugee Council in Liberia (for whom we made this map of their land dispute data) contracted iLab in March and April to host a series of trainings for NRC staff. These staff were given 45 iPod Touches to better document ongoing land disputes and their conflict resolution techniques. Over three weeks, iLab trained these mediators how to use the iPods for gathering and sharing a variety of information while in the field.
NRC staff learning how to use the iPod Touch for better tracking land disputes
  • Pitch Salon: Blair Glencorse, co-founder of the Accountability Lab, started Pitch Salons in DC, a cross between speed-networking and public talks by handpicked innovators who think about more than just the bottom line: social entrepreneurs, thought leaders and change-makers. Pitchers give an “elevator pitch” for an organization, cause or idea that is engaging, accessible to an informed listener and has the potential to change the world for the better, and the room of listeners includes potential mentors, investors and interested peers. In August, iLab and Blair created the first Pitch Salon for Liberia that highlighted innovators such as a Liberian filmmaker, an entrepreneur starting the country’s first recycling and composting center, youth hip-hop dancing to fundraise for a youth center, a local journalist seeking to share the voices of Liberians living in the most remote regions, and much more. It was a huge success with a big turnout and promising partnerships formed during the breakout networking session. 
  • SPARK + Lonestar partnership: The Dutch development organization, SPARK, has partnered with iLab to host a business plan competition for IT entrepreneurs over the course of the next six months. With a grant from Lonestar, Liberia’s largest telecommunications company, SPARK will select ten final applicants with the most promising business plans and then provide guidance on all aspects of executing a successful business model. iLab will offer access to mentors around the world working in similar fields of interest and will facilitate discussions and learning sessions between the mentors and finalists. iLab will also host two sets of trainings for the applicants focusing on tools and concepts that are relevant to their specifics areas of interest. Liberia’s IT sector is under-resourced with little national investment, thus the competition serves to motivate aspiring techies to take their ideas to the next level, with a final prize of a $10,000 loan and ongoing mentorship from SPARK in business relations.
  • Python programming for Liberia: iLab’s digital media and programming intern, Allan Martell of Georgia Tech University, hosted three months of Python programming courses at iLab this summer. These courses, the first offering of Python in Liberia, were also made possible by Georgia Tech that provided free self-guided online lessons in Python and also interviewed students to get a sense of the courses’ relevance to their lives.
  • Logo and branding software for entrepreneurs: iLab’s marketing intern, Shira Kaminsky of UMASS Boston, offered a training in logo design and branding for small business entrepreneurs via the Ministry of Commerce’s Micro, Small and Medium Enterprise Division in August. These entrepreneurs learned how to use the free design software, Scribus, and create templates for their own business cards, brochures and logos – work they usually can’t afford to pay others to do on their behalf.

Coming up in October + November:

  • Using cleaned LERN reports to generate more customized graphics that inform the Working Group’s conflict analysis
  • Provide customized Ushahidi instance for civil society group, Citizens United to Promote Peace and Democracy in Liberia (CUPPADL). This CSO monitors public service provision, evaluates teachers’ performances in local high schools, and seeks to hold the government accountable; they will soon be using an Ushahidi instance to better track new laws and legislative proceedings, attendance and performance in secondary schools, and more.
  • Conduct social media trainings for key ministries’ public relations officers
  • Begin course on digital media for mass communications students at University of Liberia
  • Offering a course in free audio editing and online distribution sites for Liberia’s musical artists