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Society & Success

Kenyan gives platform for airing post-poll atrocities

Ory Okolloh intends to continue changing the
Ory Okolloh intends to continue changing the things that she thinks are wrong in the society. /Courtesy 

There was a time when information was the preserve of the few.

The expense involved in gathering information, as well as the primitive nature of the tools available to share this, meant that the landscape resembled that of a medieval priesthood, where a few anointed people at the top —political leaders, a few media outlets, and clergy of all religions —had access to the tools to disseminate information on a wide scale, and were thus the be-all and end-all repositories of useful information in their societies.

One need only think of VoK and the Moi and Kenyatta years.

Now, however, there are very interesting ways in which technology is being used which are far divorced from how it was originally intended.

The widespread nature of mobile phone and Internet technology, allied with imaginative ways and methods of use, as well as the democratisation of information gathering and information sharing, has meant that no one has any monopoly on either the generation or the dissemination of information.

Technology played a key role in the 2007 Kenyan election and its aftermath.

From the SMSs and e-mails that circulated before the election and helped to stoke some of the fires, to those that both helped and hurt the situation when the violence was going on; the situation was such that the government temporarily considered shutting down the mobile phone airwaves to try and rope in the situation.

Whether that would have worked is a question that can be argued either way, but thank goodness it did not, otherwise today’s profile would not have been as significant.
Forgive the extremely lengthy introduction, but it is important to put the work that Ory Okolloh presently does, into the right context.

Even without Ushahidi Inc, the firm she co-founded and currently runs in South Africa, her resume would be impressive enough, but the innovation she coined at a moment of crisis may help propel her to the ranks of one of Kenya’s most significant entrepreneurs in decades.

Ushahidi was launched at the very height of the post-election violence. Ms. Okolloh, who had been a well-known blogger for a while on Kenya and other matters (those who follow the blogging world may recognise her handle – Kenyan Pundit), realised that, because of restrictions in information-gathering there was a lot of information that was not being gathered —of violence and murder, destruction of property, looting, rogue government operations and the like.

Yet, at the same time, millions of Kenyans, had two invaluable tools at their disposal—a pair of eyes and a mobile phone. Putting these together was the insight that she had— a website where these reports could be collected and shown spatially (on a map).

One of the keys to the original success of Ushahidi was that the information was almost in real-time, and tracked the spreading of the violence.

Track violence
There were very few filters on the information, people on the ground who were actually experiencing and being subjected to the violence were the ones reporting on it.

The Ushahidi experiment was extraordinarily successful. Successful in the sense that, for the first time, civil violence was being tracked and monitored and the information shared in real time and in its raw form.

If one considers the fact that violence in the Rift Valley in the 1990s was hidden for months, and its nature and impact subject to contention, this was something unprecedented.

Revolutionary, in that the Ushahidi tool has been used in various other places and situations in the world, including by Al Jazeera about the Gaza operations by Israel at the turn of the year.

So, who’s the person behind the revolution? For someone who is such a technological revolutionary, it does come as a bit of a surprise that Ory Okolloh is a lawyer, and a quite accomplished one at that, though a close perusal of her resume does reveal a keen interest in human rights and civil liberties that point to her eventual work with Ushahidi.

She’s an old girl of Moi Nairobi Girls, and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh and Harvard Law School. She was a many-garlanded student, receiving prizes for academic excellence and being admitted into fellowships that showed her academic fortitude.

She worked in white shoe law firms in the United States, such as the storied Covington and Burling as a summer associate and institutions such as the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights—this latter job as a legal consultant developing a programme to monitor hate speech and keep tabs on misuse of public office for political campaigns.

She also worked at the World Bank – looking at how Bank disbursements could be subject to corruption, and whether the confidentiality agreements signed as part of these loan disbursements were subject to disclosure requirements.

This keen mind also came up with another innovation in the Kenyan blogging space, where Ms. Okolloh, along with her fellow blogger (the ever hilarious and entertaining, yet slightly mysterious ‘Thinker’s Room’ author known as ‘M’), put up the mzalendo.com website, which kept an eye on Parliamentarians by monitoring their speeches and activities in such fora as the Constituency Development Fund.

The spotlight that Mzalendo shone on MPs was not very comfortable for some of them (who had earlier demanded the editing of the Parliament website – some were uncomfortable with their CVs being on public display), and the site’s launch in 2006 was an interesting exercise in civic engagement using the technological tools that were becoming widely available.

Change wrongs
Ory Okolloh intends to continue changing the things that she thinks are wrong in the society around her, and technology and a passion for innovation provides her with the tools for doing so.

She has become a truly global figure and not just in the sense of creating a tool in the new ‘crowdsourcing’ space, seeing as she’s happy sitting in South Africa, with an American degree and Kenyan roots, providing a tool for reporting and analysing on Middle Eastern crises and the Indian election.

Location is almost immaterial in the work she’s doing, with South Africa currently providing a convenient home for her, but she’s perfectly happy coming back home to Kenya every few months or so.

When the wanderlust settles, it may make it easier for us to monitor our own revolutionary up close and personal, as she continues to change the world.

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