When software fights for human life

Can a piece of software help people who are suffering from political repression or struggling to survive after a natural disaster? Yes, and not always in the ways you'd expect.

Last week I saw a great presentation from Patrick Meier on how open source mapping tools can help save lives. Meier runs the African NGO Ushahidi, which makes a software platform that lets you update a Google map in real time using SMS, Twitter, Facebook, and several other services. Rights workers started using the Ushahidi platform during the Kenya elections two years ago, soliciting information from citizens about where violence was breaking out.

Later, Ushahidi made headlines when their crisis map after the Haiti earthquake helped rescue workers with everything from finding where people were buried in rubble, to where families needed food and water. Meier said that at one point, during the Haiti earthquake aftermath, he had over 100 volunteers working on keeping the map accurate, translated into English, and updated - they were coordinating with quake victims, as well as the US Marines, the coast guard, the UN, and relief workers on the ground. As a result, they had the most accurate disaster map of any organization in the world.

It's obvious how a disaster map might help people out. But there are more subtle ways that Ushahidi's platform can help with human rights. In the vast, informal settlement called Kibera in Kenya, people live in a shantytown with no addresses and no maps to help them find schools, stores, medicine, and other resources. Ushahidi has been helping Kibera's citizens put themselves on the map. People are posting videos about a local childcare center, as well as markers where there are fresh water wells or people selling food.

When software fights for human life

Now people in Kibera can find each other - via access to the map on mobile phones that are ubiquitous in shantytowns across the world - and they are being granted the legitimacy of having actual addresses.

Ushahidi is trying to make its mapping software more accessible with Crowdmap, a hosted version of their platform which doesn't require much technical expertise to set up. They're also working with Crowdflower and Swiftriver to develop mechanized ways of sorting through the thousands of messages and updates that can come pouring in after a disaster. In a couple of years, human rights workers might be able to set up a Crowdmap map of an area hit by political violence, and use additional to scan incoming SMS messages to determine whether a message is just an update, or an actual emergency.

One of the hallmarks of good human rights software is the willingness of creators to admit what its shortcomings are. Meier was very open in his presentation about how Ushahidi software can be gamed by repressive governments or spammers. He admitted that if a repressive government wants to shut down an Ushahidi map effort, it can - and they have, in fact, been shut down before. In the future, filtering software from Swiftriver could help if the map got spammed, but for now the map-makers are trusting people to send legitimate data. And they're being open about the fact that they can't prevent bad actors from poisoning their data, too.

When software fights for human life

You can see a similar openness in the group that runs the Tor Project, which produces software that protects people's anonymity online. Tor's creators have made all their software open source, so that experts can examine how it works. They also don't guarantee that your anonymity will be protected from groups like the NSA, or other government intelligence agencies.

Contrast Ushahidi and Tor's software with that of the group Haystack, which promised to protect the anonymity of people posting political information in Iran. The group refused to release its software for examination, and made outlandish claims about how brilliantly it could protect dissidents from government snoops. Unfortunately, as journalist and activist Danny O'Brien revealed recently, Haystack did nothing of the kind. Though its creators were well-intentioned, their product did not work and actually put people who used it in danger.

So can software help with human rights? Yes, but only if you're savvy about which kinds of software you use, and don't expect it to be a silver bullet.