Yesterday’s mail delivery brought my pre-ordered copy of Clay Shirky’s volume Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age. Having learned a good deal from Clay’s writings, lectures and interviews, I’ve looked forward to reading another book-length offering. Sure enough, I was rewarded (almost in passing) as early as page 15.
In the context of my efforts to bring an “epistemology of media lag” argument to bear on contemporary claims for the so-called “real-time” Web, I was particularly gratified to read, in the book’s first chapter, Clay’s account of one example of individual members of society “voluntarily making and sharing things” by way of social media.
To pick one example, a service called Ushahidi was developed to help citizens track outbreaks of ethnic violence in Kenya. In December 2007 a disputed election pitted supporters and opponents of President Mwai Kibaki against one another. Ory Okolloh, a Kenyan political activist, blogged about the violence when the Kenyan government banned the mainstream media from reporting on it. She then asked her readers to e-mail or post comments about the violence they were witnessing on her blog. The method proved so popular that her blog, Kenyan Pundit, became a critical source of first-person reporting. The observations kept flooding in, and within a couple of days Okolloh could no longer keep up with it. She imagined a service, which she dubbed Ushahidi (Swahili for “witness” or “testimony”), that would automatically aggregate citizen reporting (she had been doing it by hand), with the added value of locating the reported attacks on a map in near-real time [emphasis added]. She floated the idea on her blog, which attracted the attention of the programmers Erik Hersman and David Kobia. The three of them got on a conference call and hashed out how such a service might work, and within three days, the first version of Ushahidi went live.
Mindful of Clay’s own creativity and generosity, I would humbly propose an amendment to the final clause: make that near-live.
Postscript: The bio on the jacket-flap enumerates Clay’s consulting gigs, which include BP, for whom he did work on “network design.” On day 57 of the spill, with a newly publicized flow rate of 35,000-60,000 barrels per day, as Obama is about to address the world from the Oval Office on events unfolding in the Gulf, it would seem that someone missed the boat.