The world, and in particular Africa, needs more women social techpreneurs like Juliana Rotich who can identify a major challenge or need and develop effective, accessible technologies and software to provide a solution.
Juliana’s interest and indeed passion for technology started at a young age, whilst still at school where she chaired her high school computer club. After school, she relocated to the United States to study computer science at the University of Missouri. After a successful academic study period, she took a job at US telecommunications operator Sprint in 1999, setting up routers and undertaking other hardcore techie projects, before eventually becoming a coder and project manager in Chicago. As she still wasnt earning a big salary at that point, she supplemented her income by working as a network operations engineer for a small data centre. There she had the best access to the Internet and felt a direct connection with it, something that was to inspire her for years to come. In 2005, she made a career move to become an Expert Accounts Specialist at Intercall Inc., eventually switching to work for the National Seminars Group (RUCECI) as an Email and Database Specialist. From 2007 to 2008, she worked as a Data Analyst for Hewitt Associates, and after a decade of garnering multi-faceted experience, she finally felt she was ready to take on another major challenge in her career.
“There is a link between increasing connectivity and GDP. If you increase broadband by 10%, it corresponds to 1,163% increase in GDP. Investment in connectivity is worthwhile. We've only got 15.6% penetration of the internet in Africa – there is so much more to do.”
Juliana was in Western Kenya in 2008 when election violence broke out. It was almost impossible to get accurate and timely information. It was because of this that the impetus for her new venture, Ushahidi, was born. Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, began as website, a collaboration between Kenyan citizen journalists, bloggers and the tech community during the post-election crisis in Kenya at the beginning of 2008. The site mapped incidents of violence and peace efforts throughout the country based on reports submitted via the web and mobile phones. Its success, which gathered 45,000 users in Kenya, catalyzed the realization that the platform had potential beyond Kenya’s borders and could indeed have relevance and use for others around the world.
Today, Ushahidi is now a non-profit technology and data company. Ushahidi creates platforms which provide services, tools and strategies for crowdsourcing and data flow management. It uniquely focuses its attention on harnessing a vibrant global community of mappers, and an ecosystem of open source experts. Ushahidi demonstrates how free and open source software empowers organizations and communities. It helps them to improve their collection of data, contextualize issues they care about, and create effective information flow of stories and engagement into localized action and change. It is the catalyst for many initiatives and communities in Africa and around the world, providing support to those who are trying to change the world through technology. International relief organisations are using the open source Ushahidi platform in various situations such as the Haiti and Chile earthquakes, the Palestine conflict crisis, Japan’s Earthquake and the Lybian conflict.
Essentially, Ushahidi builds tools to democratize information, increase transparency and lower barriers so individuals may share their stories.
Since 2008, Ushahidi has grown to nearly 2 million users and has 17,000,000 unique visitors. With Ushahidi, an individual with a cellphone can be instrumental in enhancing the availability and accuracy of information that makes governments more transparent, responsive and accountable, and makes markets more efficient. It has strengthened democracy and economic development, such as verifying election results across Brazil or tracking teacher absenteeism in Uganda. It has facilitated market efficiency, through mapping biogas markets prices and production across six countries in Africa. And, it has helped aid workers in Haiti and Japan reach those affected by natural disasters.
Chairperson of Ushahidi, Hilde Schwab, said, “Ushahidi is one of the few social enterprises that has, in just a few short years of existence, dramatically changed the face of how individuals and communities can influence democracy and economic development around the world. Ushahidi is a social enterprise that was born out of the frustrations of what was not working in the world and it was started by a team of young, driven and passionate African professionals. It serves as a superior example of how social entrepreneurship can and will change the world.”
The vision for Ushahidi is to encourage people to truly be able to collaborate and change the status quo of where they are through collaborative problem solving. Using Ushahidi’s tools, individuals, groups, & organizations will be fully able to participate in their democracy, and to have their voices heard. Citizens will be able to collect and contextualize information and change the way information flows in the world, becoming change agents globally in the process. Ushahidi’s mission is to change the way information flows in the world.
"Ushahidi, the software, allows citizens to share their story, participate and report what is going on in their area using the device they have in their pockets"
Recently, Ushsahidi has developed a new device, the BRCK, which has been billed as a “backup generator for the Internet.” The device, shaped like a brick but not quite that large, is designed to provide both backup power and connectivity along with the sensors needed to serve as a weather station as well as room for future expansion. The idea for BRCK was birthed from an offshoot of Ushahidi; the iHub, a technology co-working space in Nairobi described as “part open community workspace, part vector for investors and VCs, and part incubator.
Today, Ushahidi has a footprint in more than 150 countries with its software. One of the longest-running users of Ushahidi’s platform is LA Bucket Brigade, a Louisiana-based organisation that creates an “eyewitness pollution map” by monitoring pollution levels in the southern US state in the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. “The amazing thing about that map is the ongoing involvement of citizens in providing information about a situation,” Rotich says. “It’s not just about saying ‘this sucks’, but rather, ‘this sucks, and this is how and why it sucks’. It’s building an archive and, as a result, a body of evidence.”
These days, Juliana calls Kenya home again, but she still travels extensively. This includes frequent trips to the US, where she’s a Director’s Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston. A global perspective is essential when running an entity with global interests and reach. Her day-to-day job involves 25 people in eight time zones, yet she feels fortunate that the Ushahidi board of directors is so supportive of the work she and her team does. This support has also led to recognition. Ushahidi recently won the MacArthur Award for Creative & Effective Institutions.
Juliana is also concerned about empowering a new generation of young women from Africa to enter the technology field and is actively involved with various initiatives to encourage women to consider careers in technology. These include Akirachix, an initiative headed by Linda Kamal, an Ushahidi developer. The initiative encourages high school girls to look at technology as a potential career path, and runs training classes to show them the options that the tech industry offers, whilst at the same time trying to instil a love for technology in them at an early age.
Ushahidi Website: http://www.ushahidi.com
Personal Website: http://julia.na
Why LoA loves it....
There is no doubt that Juliana Rotich has blazed a trail for other women techpreneurs to follow, not just in Africa, but around the world. She is an inspiration, creating a powerful platform that is capable of changing the way information flows in the world. Because of her vision, and the collaborative platform that is Ushahidi, Juliana is actively providing the tools that encourage citizens to fully participate in their economies, have their voices heard, and make the right decisions during disaster situations. --- Melanie