In 2006, Ory Okolloh co-founded Mzalendo.com (“patriot” in Swahili) to keep an eye on the Kenyan Parliament. The site tracks details about MPs, such as debate contributions and attendance history, keeps a record of motions made on parliamentary bills, and makes the bills themselves available, allowing Kenyans to stay abreast of legal developments and discussions as they happen–not weeks or months later when TV and print media finally sort out the mess.
Okolloh’s work is stunning in its singularity of purpose: using technology to ensure that the voices of African citizens are heard. Okolloh represents hope for those that believe the Web can help foster accountability and reform in governments that need it, and by taking on one of Africa’s biggest, she is facing formidable systemic corruption.
Kenya’s history of corruption is so notorious that the controversial 2007 presidential election was met with outbreaks of violence all over the country. In the time of crisis, the Harvard Law alumna co-founded Ushahidi (“Testimony”), a website for citizen journalists to report incidents of both violence and peace efforts they witnessed via the web, mobile E-mail, SMS, and Twitter. The site then uses Google Maps to plot a visualization in a process that has become known as “activist mapping.” When it surpassed 45,000 users in Kenya, the tool’s merits became clear.
Since then, Ushahidi has evolved beyond just one site, and is now a nonprofit tech company that develops open-source software platforms to be customized and implemented for a variety of citizen journalist applications. It’s the kind of technological creativity that can answer critics’ insistence that Twitter is just for Ashton Kutcher to tell people what he had for lunch. Most recently, the Ushahidi platform and its Web-hosted counterpart Crowdmap have been used to launch humanitarian initiatives after the devastating 2010 earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, coordinate volunteer efforts in the wake of Russia’s wildfire outbreak, and to map roadblocks and detours related to snowstorms in Washington D.C.
A regular speaker on citizen journalism, technology in Africa, and the role of young people in activism, Okolloh has spoken at conferences like TED, World Economic Forum, Poptech, CGI, Techonomy, Mobile Web Africa, and the Monaco Media Forum. On December 23, 2010, Okolloh announced on her personal blog, KenyanPundit.com, that she will be stepping down as Ushahidi’s Executive Director to become Google’s Policy Manager in Africa. In the new role, she’ll be working with government leaders to drive the development of the Internet in Africa.
As her influence spreads, so does the potential for her citizen activism to catch fire in other developing countries with Internet access, like Brazil and India, where bureaucracy too often stifles progress. If other major world economies come to expect this kind of accountability from their representative governments, it’s only a matter of time before the U.S. follows suit.