Why Ushahidi's Ping Is Crucial For Connecting Loved Ones During Times of Crisis


Image: Ushahidi.com

For four years, social entrepreneur, Charles Harding, built fiber and cellular networks to bridge the digital divide at Google.org. Now he's using his business infrastructure and web technology skills to connect people during tragic disasters. He and the team at the nonprofit tech company, Ushahidi, are currently developing Ping, a two-way multi-channel alert and group check-in system that asks if people are ok during an emergency. 

"Last year, during the West Gate Mall shootings in Kenya, we had a bunch of colleagues who were trapped in the the mall," shares Harding. "And when I was working at Google, my colleagues were there, as well. It was a really terrifying moment, and what I think is really cool about Ushahidi is that so many of their tools are built in response to a real need.

The original Ushahidi tool, an open source crowdmapping platform, was built in response to the Kenyan election riots. Using Ushahidi, Kenyans across the country could texting reports of violence from their mobile phones and provide information via email. Ushahidi is a fitting name for the organization. It means witness in Swahili. The eye witness accounts of the people in Kenya were added to an online map, and within days the crowdsourced effort generated a comprehensive picture of the violence in that region. 

Like Ushahidi's other tools, Ping is an emergency support system. Currently in private alpha, Ping is SMS enabled and designed to send alerts across all of a user's communication networks. Harding says what makes Ping stand apart from other tools is that it will work on any phone—even a phone that costs a mere $10. 

He added that other emergency platforms aren't multi-channel. Facebook recently released a tool called Safety Check. If a crisis in your area shows up in your newsfeed, it will say, 'hey, there was earthquake in Los Angeles. Are you ok?' And then you can respond.

"What if you’re in an area where the data networks go down, and people can’t get onto Facebook?" asks Harding. "Usually during emergencies, cell networks are overloaded because everybody's trying to call everybody, and making a data connection is very difficult. Instead, to be able to send an SMS takes a very small amount of data. So the goa [of Ping]l is to be able to serve people in whatever scenario they’re in across all platforms around the world." 

Originally hacked together in response to the Kenyan mall shootings over a year ago, Ping is now expanding to a hosted service that anyone can use without being a developer. Harding says the goal for 2015 is to launch Ping to the public, and to also be able to offer the tool to humanitarian organizations—not just individuals.  

Harding and the Ushahidi development team are currently testing Ping, and looking for organizations in humanitarian relief, or individuals who are familiar with challenges of working in low connectivity areas, to give Ping a try and provide feedback.

For more information on Ping and Ushahidi. check out their site here

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