BBC News Technology Reporter Jonathan Fildes came up with a fascinating story that (finally?) throws crowdsourcing in the globalized world the Internet has made into a positive light. As might be guessed, however, this story of global consequences had relatively local origins. It concerns Ushahidi, an aggregation technology that was launched in the wake of the 2008 election in Kenya to document and distribute accounts of violence following the election. As Fildes described it:
Ushahidi is an online mapping tool that can be used to collect and plot reports coming in from citizens via e-mail, SMS or even Twitter.
This is not particularly advanced technology, just a means of providing useful visual accounts of "events of interest" and where they are occurring.
Fortunately, for this technology it was a short step from man-made post-election disruption to natural catastrophes. Ushahidi escalated from local to global attention by contributing to the relief efforts following the Haitian earthquake:
"That was probably our biggest success story," said Mr [Erik] Hersman [a volunteer in Nairobi who works with a team responsible for feeding Ushahidi with collected data].
"It proved what we said all along - you can crowd source useful crisis information."
The tool was used to plot thousands of reports, which were then used by organisations such as the Red Cross to coordinate their relief efforts.
The US secretary of State Hilary Clinton said in a speech that hi-tech relief efforts had played a "critical role".
"The technology community has set up interactive maps to help us identify needs and target resources," she said during a speech in Washington on 21 January.
"On Monday, a seven-year-old girl and two women were pulled from the rubble of a collapsed supermarket by an American search-and-rescue team after they sent a text message calling for help."
Ushahidi is now providing the same service to relief workers in Chile; and, according to Hersman, the system was up and running in less than an hour after the earthquake hit.
There is no doubt that this is good news. At the very least it is a source of hard data of instances in which crowdsourcing has been put to beneficial use. However, before the technology evangelists get their teeth into this story and gnaw it to death, we should remember that it does not in any way negate other data that record less beneficial consequences of crowdsourcing, particularly in the social world. I would argue that the success of Ushahidi has less to do with aggregation and visualization technologies and more do to with the seriousness of purpose that motivates the volunteers who keep the system running properly. To paraphrase Number 51 of The Federalist, those volunteers provide an element of governance to compensate for the fact that not all of those "sources in the crowd" are necessarily angels. That is the element that the technology evangelists, particularly those who see the Internet as the ultimate tool of their libertarian beliefs, tend to overlook; but without it the system could easily and quickly deteriorate from a significant instrument of disaster recovery to yet another "fight club" for insecure egos.