• 09.24.13

Nairobi Mall Massacre Inspires A Group Check-In Tool For Emergencies

After a disaster, people need a fast way to see if everyone they know is okay. Inspired by their efforts to contact their team during the attacks at the Westgate Mall, Ushahidi has a simple solution.

Nairobi Mall Massacre Inspires A Group Check-In Tool For Emergencies

Ushahidi, the nonprofit tech company that builds open-source software tools for democracy and government transparency, was founded in Kenya and has a number of its team based there.


So when armed gunmen opened fire and started a deadly four-day siege of the Westgate mall in Nairobi over the weekend, obviously everyone wanted to track down their colleagues and loved ones and make sure they were safe and hadn’t been in the mall.

There weren’t any great options for them to do this easily without constantly texting or calling each person individually until they heard back. This led the team to come together this week and create a tool to allow people to check-in with their loved ones during an emergency. (It turned out everyone on their team was fine, though more than 60 people in total were killed inside).

To some extent this already exists. Over the last decade, since cell phones and then smartphones have become ubiquitous, an unfortunately large number of people have faced similarly terrifying hours of uncertainty–in the U.S., most notably during 9/11 with thousands of people working in and around the attacked buildings or scheduled for flights that morning.

“People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use,” wrote Erik Hersman, Ushahidi’s director of operations and strategy, in a blog post today.

The team slapped together a basic version of a very simple tool that it’s calling “Ping.” Users will be able to create a list of people in a family or organization. During a disaster, a 120-character message can be sent out via text message, email, and potentially other channels that always ends with “are you ok?” The message will continue to be sent out three times every five minutes until there is a response, and anyone can check who has responded. If there’s not a response soon, the software starts texting people’s emergency contacts to see if they know where teammates are.

Ushahidi is asking software developers and designers to help further develop the rough draft of the tool on Github, a site where coders collaborate. If you have the skills, you can help out here. They’ve also created a crowdmap for places where people can give blood in Kenya.

About the author

Jessica Leber is a staff editor and writer for Fast Company's Co.Exist. Previously, she was a business reporter for MIT’s Technology Review and an environmental reporter at ClimateWire.