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Madagascar: Behind the Scenes of Foko Ushahidi SMS Alert System

A growing community of bloggers in Madagascar have been helping a global audience understand the political struggle between a former mayor and a president that recently drove their country into national disarray.

A new initiative led by Malagasy bloggers captures witness accounts of social unrest via SMS text messages and Google maps using the Kenyan web interface, Ushahidi.

They have been interviewed widely by world media, and many have applauded their efforts.

Tahina

Tahina

One of the bloggers working behind the scenes in this effort is named Tahina. About a year ago, he was invited to start blogging with Foko Madagascar, an organization co-founded by the Malagasy bloggers Andriankoto, Lova, Mialy and Joan to empower Malagasy citizens to work for their own environment and economic development.

In 2007, Foko received a micro-grant from Rising Voices for The Foko Blog Club which has trained several dozen bloggers around the country. They have developed a community that encourages citizen journalism at a time when mainstream media is lacking or unreliable at best.

The country, not the movie

When a devastating cyclone hit Madagascar last year destroying thousands of homes, online news searches for “Madagascar” were still more likely to turn up news of a Disney movie about animals escaped from a New York zoo.

Tahina named his blog Madagascar not the Movie, because his main objective was to show an English-speaking international audience that life in his country has nothing to do with the movie of the same name.

“It can change how people from outside see Madagascar,” says Tahina. “I try to find things that can be related to Malagasy people's daily lives, what problems they encounter and so on,” he says.

But over the past months, his blog and Twitter stream became an almost blow by blow account of a political struggle that he himself worried could lead to civil war. “I didn't really want to blog about politics, but since there is this turmoil here I feel that I have to say something about what is going on,” says Tahina.

SMS alerts to the world

Foko's newest initiative is the launch of an SMS citizen reporting and online mapping tool. It is based on a system called “Ushahidi” developed by Kenyan bloggers in 2007 to map post-election violence in their own country. The software has since been used in many other news and crisis projects. On the Rising Voices blog, Rezwan has written of the dramatic events that led to Foko's adaptation of Ushahidi's platform.

Screenshot of Foko Ushahidi in May 2009

Screenshot of Foko Ushahidi in May 2009

With Foko Ushahidi, ordinary citizens can now upload reports of unrest around the country and have them added immediately to an online map. Tahina installed the system himself with technical help from abroad and is in charge of managing the hub through which the SMS messages pass.  A team of bloggers, including Lalatiana and Stephane (known as Pakysse), check reports for accuracy after they have been posted.

Technical challenges

Tahina describes Foko Ushahidi as “a kind of platform where everybody is invited to submit reports. The main objective is to find real facts, and to distinguish rumors from truth.”

Q: What has Foko done to promote this platform to citizens?

Tahina: We are just starting the promotion. In fact, we just set it up and tested it during the last few weeks. The plan is to promote it within Foko first. Later, Lova plans on getting in touch with the mainstream media here.

(Update: Madagascar-Tribunen ewspaper has already published a story.)

Q: What have the challenges been in getting the system up and running?

Tahina: Our main problem was finding the right phones that could work with the Frontline SMS software employed by Ushahidi. We really wanted to use SMS because it doesn't require an internet connection. But FrontlineSMS needs a type of phone that is not easy to find in Madagascar. Plus all mobile shops were closed due to the unrest. Pakysse and I both went from shop to shop to find a phone, and tested and tested. Lova backed us up from the USA.

In the end we couldn't get it to work. So Ken Banks and his team at FrontlineSMS suggested we try IntelliSMS gateway as a way to send and receive SMS via the web. FrontlineSMS hurried a new version of their software to help us out with our issue, and for that we are very grateful.

The internet connections here make it a little slow – it can sometimes take 15 minutes for the message to reach the Ushahidi platform. You can either upload a message via the web, or send a text message to a UK phone number (+447800000197) that gets relayed by email to the system. Here is a chart that shows how it works.

We also got help getting #madagascar Tweets listed automatically on the Ushahidi website, which has substantially increased our ability to gather data.

Q: Why do you think using a system like Ushahidi is necessary?

Tahina: We need it to offer more details about the things citizens see themselves. There will be lots of information here that you can't find anywhere else. Just like with any citizen media. Frankly, mainstream media is not reliable here. They are really biased. The reality is, they often end up misinforming people. Foko has a lot of bloggers based on each corner of the island who are ready to report, and we think they'll do a great job with Ushahidi.

We're also going to keep the platform open for other types of crises because unfortunately, cyclones and environmental disasters are recurring events in Madagascar and we can also benefit from a crowd sourcing type of data collection in these cases.

Q: How does the Foko team plan on organizing the “verification” of messages?

Tahina: As I said we have bloggers on the ground and will be counting on them. But we will also use all media – newspapers, television and radio to help verify. We also have Twitter now, where we can compare and contrast information. We won't verify reports unless we are sure of them.

It's going to be a lot of work, but we like challenges!

See Global Voices special coverage of Madagascar's power struggle in 2009.

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