For the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, a non-profit dedicated to citizen sourced pollution monitoring, the Ushahidi platform for crowdsourced reporting and mapping was a natural choice for their already impressive toolset. The “bucket” in Bucket Brigade is a low-cost air monitoring tool that citizens can deploy in their neighborhoods to gauge toxic releases from nearby chemical plants. Ushahidi is a free and open source platform originally developed in 2008 for Kenyans to report and map post-election violence via text, email, or web. Now the Ushahidi platform has spread all over the globe in deployments ranging from crisis mapping the Japanese earthquake of 2011 to “improving Beijing’s urban transportation” to providing a platform for the Bucket Brigade to build a crowdsourced pollution map called iWitness.
The Ushahidi powered iWitness pollution map enables citizens to report chemical accidents and pollution related to the 2010 BP oil spill via text, email, or web. These eyewitness reports combined with reports from the National Response Center (Federal portal for oil and chemical spills) are geotagged to an interactive map giving a clear picture of pollution trouble spots. Citizens can also sign up for alerts to warn them when pollution is reported near their area.
Ushahidi is one of most successful civic technology applications with Fast Company naming them one of the World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies. The main reasons Ushahidi has been deployed all over the world and in so many varieties of uses are that it is free to use and adapt to whatever context is needed and it is a solid app. Bucket Brigade’s pollution map demonstrates some of Ushahidi’s key dynamics that have made the app so widely used.
The core focus of Ushahidi is on citizen sensors and location based reporting. While Ushahidi can include reports from government and media, the most notable feature is its utilization of crowdsourced reporting through citizen sensors. Citizen sensors are everyday people who can monitor a situation happening in their environment and report it. With Ushahidi, anyone with a cell phone or Internet connection can be a citizen sensor. The Bucket Brigade writes why citizen sensors are vital to monitoring air quality in Louisiana:
“Community members who live next to oil refineries and chemical plants are constantly told by industry officials that their operations are safe and that the air is healthy to breathe. The Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality and the federal Environmental Protection Agency often lack appropriate and consistent methods of monitoring air quality – their monitoring stations are often sporadic and don’t all test for the same chemicals. Furthermore, the placement of monitoring stations is a decision made in conjunction with industry, which often pushes for strategic locations that see the least amount of pollution.”
The challenges of government led air quality monitoring in Louisiana is a classic gap between the resources required to provide an adequate service and the limited capabilities of government. Monitoring air quality and building an accurate map of chemical pollution is a massive task that requires a massive solution. While federal and state resources were not enough to satisfy the need, the Bucket Brigade leveraged the Ushahidi platform to supply that massively scaled solution by enabling citizens to easily report pollution. This is a great illustration of using modularity to provide massively scaled solutions. Modularity means breaking down a difficult problem, such as monitoring air quality, into smaller pieces (citizen sensors) that can then be reassembled to form an expansive and detailed picture (pollution map).
Another strength of Ushahidi is that it is free to download and open source meaning that it can be adapted for a nearly limitless variety of uses. The Bucket Brigade was able to add a powerful tool to support their efforts because much of the work in creating the platform was already done by other teams using and improving the tool. Open source tools let groups like Bucket Brigade build reliable and custom solutions atop proven platforms at a low cost.