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April 03 2013

11:54

August 14 2012

14:00

What's Next for Ushahidi and Its Platform?

This is part 2 in a series. In part 1, I talked about how we think of ourselves at Ushahidi and how we think of success in our world. It set up the context for this post, which is about where we're going next as an organization and with our platform.

We realize that it's hard to understand just how much is going on within the Ushahidi team unless you're in it. I'll try to give a summarized overview, and will answer any questions through the comments if you need more info on any of them.

The External Projects Team

Ushahidi's primary source of income is private foundation grant funding (Omidyar Network, Hivos, MacArthur, Google, Cisco, Knight, Rockefeller, Ford), and we don't take any public funding from any country so that we are more easily able to maintain our neutrality. Last year, we embarked on a strategy to diversify our revenue stream, endeavoring to decrease our percentage of revenues based on grant funding and offset that with earned revenue from client projects. This turned out to be very hard to do within our current team structure, as the development team ended up being pulled off of platform-side work and client-side work suffered for it. Many internal deadlines were missed, and we found ourselves unable to respond to the community as quickly as we wanted.

This year we split out an "external projects team" made up of some of the top Ushahidi deployers in the world, and their first priority is to deal with client and consulting work, followed by dev community needs. We're six months into this strategy, and it seems like this team format will continue to work and grow. Last year, 20% of our revenue was earned; this year we'd like to get that to the 30-40% range.

Re-envisioning Crowdmap

When anyone joins the Ushahidi team, we tend to send them off to some conference to speak about Ushahidi in the first few weeks. There's nothing like knowing that you're going to be onstage talking about your new company to galvanize you into really learning about and understanding everything about the organization. Basically, we want you to understand Ushahidi and be on the same mission with us. If you are, you might explain what we do in a different way than I do onstage or in front of a camera, but you'll get the right message out regardless.

crowdmap-screenshot-mobile-397x500.png

You have a lot of autonomy within your area of work, or so we always claimed internally. This was tested earlier this year, where David Kobia, Juliana Rotich and myself as founders were forced to ask whether we were serious about that claim, or were just paying it lip-service. Brian Herbert leads the Crowdmap team, which in our world means he's in charge of the overall architecture, strategy and implementation of the product.

The Crowdmap team met up in person earlier this year and hatched a new product plan. They re-envisioned what Crowdmap could be, started mocking up the site, and began building what would be a new Crowdmap, a complete branch off the core platform. I heard this was underway, but didn't get a brief on it until about six weeks in. When I heard what they had planned, and got a complete walk-through by Brian, I was floored. What I was looking at was so different from the original Ushahidi, and thus what we have currently as Crowdmap, that I couldn't align the two in my mind.

My initial reaction was to shut it down. Fortunately, I was in the middle of a random 7-hour drive between L.A. and San Francisco, so that gave me ample time to think by myself before I made any snap judgments. More importantly, it also gave me time to call up David and talk through it with him. Later that week, Juliana, David and I had a chat. It was at that point that we realized that, as founders, we might have blinders on of our own. Could we be stuck in our own 2008 paradigm? Should we trust our team to set the vision for a product? Did the product answer the questions that guide us?

The answer was yes.

The team has done an incredible job of thinking deeply about Crowdmap users, then translating that usage into a complete redesign, which is both beautiful and functional at the same time. It's user-centric, as opposed to map-centric, which is the greatest change. But, after getting around our initial feelings of alienness, we are confident that this is what we need to do. We need to experiment and disrupt ourselves -- after all, if we aren't willing to take risks and try new things, then we fall into the same trap that those who we disrupted did.

A New Ushahidi

For about a year we've been asking ourselves, "If we rebuilt Ushahidi, with all we know now, what would it look like?"

To redesign, re-architect and rebuild any platform is a huge undertaking. Usually this means part of the team is left to maintain and support the older code, while the others are building the shiny new thing. It means that while you're spending months and months building the new thing, that you appear stagnant and less responsive to the market. It means that you might get it wrong and what you build is irrelevant by the time it's launched.

Finally, after many months of internal debate, we decided to go down this path. We've started with a battery of interviews with users, volunteer developers, deployers and internal team members. The recent blog post by Heather Leson on the design direction we're heading in this last week shows where we're going. Ushahidi v3 is the complete redesign of Ushahidi's core platform, from the first line of code to the last HTML tag. On the front-end it's mobile web-focused out of the gate, and the backend admin area is about streamlining the publishing and verification process.

At Ushahidi we are still building, theming and using Ushahidi v2.x, and will continue to do so for a long time. This idea of a v3 is just vaporware until we actually decide to build it, but the exercise has already born fruit because it forces us to ask what it might look like if we weren't constrained by the legacy structure we had built. We'd love to get more input from everyone on this as we go forward.

SwiftRiver in Beta

After a couple of fits and starts, SwiftRiver is now being tried out by 500-plus beta testers. It's 75% of the way to completion, but usable, and so it's out and we're getting the feedback from everyone on what needs to be changed, added and removed in order to make it the tool we all need to manage large amounts of data. It's an expensive, server-intensive platform to run, so those who use it in the future will have to pay for its use when using it on our servers. As always, the core code will be made available, free and open source, for those who would like to set it up and run it on their own.

In Summary

The amount of change and internal change that Ushahidi is undertaking is truly breathtaking to us. We're cognizant of just how much we're putting on the edge. However, we know this; in our world of technology, those who don't disrupt themselves will themselves be disrupted. In short, we'd rather go all-in to make this change happen ourselves than be mired in a state of stagnancy and defensive activity.

As always, this doesn't happen in a vacuum for Ushahidi. We've relied on those of you who are the coders and deployers to help us guide the platforms for over four years. Many of you have been a part of one of these product rethinks. If you aren't already, and would like to be, get in touch with myself or Heather to get into it and help us re-envision and build the future.

Raised in Kenya and Sudan, Erik Hersman is a technologist and blogger who lives in Nairobi. He is a co-founder of Ushahidi, a free and open-source platform for crowdsourcing information and visualizing data. He is the founder of AfriGadget, a multi-author site that showcases stories of African inventions and ingenuity, and an African technology blogger at WhiteAfrican.com. He currently manages Ushahidi's operations and strategy, and is in charge of the iHub, Nairobi's Innovation Hub for the technology community, bringing together entrepreneurs, hackers, designers and the investment community. Erik is a TED Senior Fellow, a PopTech Fellow and speaker and an organizer for Maker Faire Africa. You can find him on Twitter at @WhiteAfrican

This post originally appeared on Ushahidi's blog.

August 02 2012

13:34

The responsibilities and opportunities of the platform

Technology companies and news organizations have a lot to learn from each other about the responsibilities of running platforms.

I have been arguing that news organizations should reimagine and rebuild themselves as platforms for their communities, enabling people to share what they know and adding journalistic value to that. As such, they should study technology companies.

But technology companies also need to learn lessons from news organizations about the perils of violating trust and the need to establish principles to work by. That, of course, is a topic of conversation these days thanks to Twitter’s favoring a sponsor when it killed journalist Guy Adams’ account (later reinstated under pressure) and its abandonment of the developers who made Twitter what it is today.

One question that hangs over this discussion is advertising and whether it is possible to maintain trust when taking sponsors’ dollars — see efforts to start app.net as a user-supported Twitter; see Seth Godin suggesting just that; see, also, discussion about ad-supported NBC ill-serving Olympics fans vs. the viewer-support BBC super-serving them. I have not given up on advertising support because we can’t afford do; without it, my business, news, would implode and we’d all end up with less and more expensive media and services. So we’d better hope companies getting advertiser support learn how to maintain their integrity.

In the discussion on Twitter about Twitter’s failings in the Adams affair, Anil Dash suggested drafting the policy Twitter should adapt. Even I wouldn’t be so presumptuous. But I would like to see a discussion — not just for technology companies but also for media companies and governments and universities of institutions in many shapes — of the responsibilities that come with providing a platform.

For the opportunities and benefits of building that platform are many: Your users will distribute you. Developers will build and improve you. You can reach critical mass quickly and inexpensively. As vertically integrated firms are replaced by ecosystems — platforms, entrepreneurial endeavors, and networks — huge value falls to the platforms. It’s worthwhile being a platform.

But if you lose trust, you lose users, and you lose everything. So that leads to a first principle:

Users come first. A platform without users is nothing. That is why was wrong for Twitter to put a sponsor ahead of users. That is why Twitter is right to fight efforts to hand over data about users to government. That is why newspapers built church/state walls to try to protect their integrity against accusations of sponsor influence. That is why Yahoo was wrong to hand over an email user to Chinese authorities; who in China would ever use it again? Screw your users, screw yourself.

I believe the true mark of a platform is that users take it over and use it in ways the creators never imagined. Twitter didn’t know it would become a platform for communication and news. Craigslist wasn’t designed for disaster relief. That leads to another principle:

A platform is defined by its users. In other words: Hand over control to your users. Give them power. Design in flexibility. That’s not easy for companies to do.

But, of course, it’s not just users who make a platform what it is. It’s developers and other collaborators. In the case of Twitter, developers created the applications that let us use it on our phones and desktops — until Twitter decided it would rather control that. If I were a developer [oh, if only] I’d be gun-shy about building atop such a platform now. Similarly, if a news organization becomes a platform for its community to share information and for others to build atop it, then it has to keep in sight their interests and protect them. So:

Platforms collaborate. Platforms have APIs. They reveal the keys to the kingdom so others can work with them and atop them. Are they open-source? Not necessarily. Though making its underlying platform open is what made WordPress such a success.

In the discussion about Adams and Twitter, some said that Twitter is a business and thus cannot be a platform for free speech. I disagree. It is a platform for speech. And if that speech is not free, then it’s no platform at all. Speech is its business.

When a platform is a business, it becomes all the more important for it to subscribe to principles so it can be relied upon. Of course, the platform needs to make money. It needs to control certain aspects of its product and business. I don’t think anyone would argue with that. But if it keeps shifting that business so users and collaborators feel at risk, then in the long-run, it won’t work as a business.

Platforms need principles.

All this can, of course, be summed up in a single, simple principle: Don’t be evil. That’s why Google has that principle: because it’s good business; because if it is evil, it’s users — we — can call it out quickly and loudly and desert it. As Umair Haque says, when your users can talk about you, the cost of doing evil rises.

There are other behaviors of platforms that aren’t so much principles as virtues.

A good platform is transparent. Black boxes breed distrust.

A good platform enables portability. Knowing I can take my stuff and leave reduces the risk of staying.

A good platform is reliable. Oh, that.

What else?

December 19 2011

15:20

What I Want for Christmas: A Frictionless Blogging Platform

For those who don't know -- the Carnival of Journalism is something I restarted in January (coming up on a year!) where a bunch of journalism-bloggers get together and write about the same topic once a month. The question is posed by the host -- who rotates.

santas.jpg

This month's host is the Guardian's developer blog, and they ask:

If you are a journalist, what would be the best present from programmers and developers that Santa Claus could leave under your Christmas tree? And, correspondingly, if you are a programmer or developer, what would be the best present from journalism that Father Christmas could deliver down your chimney?

If I had to answer the question succinctly: I want a frictionless blogging platform. Not Tumblr or Posterous (although they've done an awesome job). I think there is a way to make something even simpler -- a platform where I can save something to Delicious and create the formatting once so that from henceforth all Delicious links will be posted on my blog the way I want. (ITTF does an OK job, but it's not perfect).

I go through various phases with my personal blog. When I first started in 2005, it was called "Adventures in Freelancing," and it was about just that -- the various stories I was working on or published or other stories I was reading and found interesting.

Since Spot.Us started, my blogging has laxed (at best). I use it for occasional big thoughts or announcements. Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, Google+, etc., take up a much larger space of my "online productivity" and to be honest -- I wish there were ways to streamline my efforts.

Of course, there is IFTT.com -- which is what I'm using to repost this Google+ update to my personal blog. And from my blog, it will then automatically be tweeted. So that's a start.

But there are things lost in the translation from Google+ to my personal blog and back out to Twitter.

In a strange way, I still think what I'm looking for is FriendFeed. What a brilliant site that was. Too bad they were bought (talent-scouted) by Facebook.

So I want a platform where I can post something on Google+, and format it once and forever, and my Google+ public posts will appear on my blog the way I want.

That's my holiday gift ask.

Image courtesy of Flickr user Steve Rhodes.

A version of this post first appeared here.

December 06 2010

02:35

UN Global Pulse Camp 1.0


(Photo credit: Christopher Fabian of UNICEF & Global Pulse)

Just got back from the UN "Pulse Camp 1.0".

Global Pulse is a new and quite ambitious UN initiative "to improve evidence-based decision-making and close the information gap between the onset of a global crisis and the availability of actionable information to protect the vulnerable" (Full overview at http://www.unglobalpulse.org/about).

read more

May 06 2010

07:07

TechSoup Webinar: Using Second Life to Collaborate and Connect

The virtual world of Second Life is a platform that is a 24/7 always-on online community where the world’s content is entirely user-generated. It’s a 3-D immersive space that is used by a global audience to build experiences, offer trainings, connect with friends and collaborate with colleagues. It’s an exciting medium that is becoming more ubiquitous and TechSoup’s Nonprofit Commons in Second Life is the community to teach Nonprofits and NGOs how to collaborate and get acquainted with working to raise funds, augment your communications and procure volunteers in this cutting-edge environment.

read more

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