The iHub

We’re sitting on a blue cloth couch, backs against a glass-fronted wall that bounds the heart of the 21st century here in Nairobi. For the past few weeks, the top floor of the iHub has served as the situation room for Uchaguzi – a home-grown crowdsourced election monitoring and reporting system. Daudi is showing us how the team’s information flow chart maps to the crowded tables arranged around the room, while wall-mounted three monitors display news and commentary on the tensely-anticipated announcement of results.

This morning, Naomi and I wandered the stalls of the city market. She’s got quite a story (doesn’t everyone here?), and her day job is with the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (“Yeah, it’s a mouthful – we’re working on a better name”). Tall, pretty and very not-from-here – you’d think she’d be an easy mark for the hawkers. But when they pounced, the poor fellows found themselves suckered into being subjects for her field work.

“Karibu! Please, look at the carvings – it is free to look.”

“Very pretty. You live here in Nairobi?”

“Yes, yes. You would maybe like a nice mask?”

“Lovely. Where in Nairobi?”

They tell her, and she drills down – what’s the sentiment in their neighborhood? What if things go to a runoff? Does it feel to them like the election was free and fair? What do they think will happen if Raila cries foul? By the time she’s done, she has a new friend. They shake her hand, wish her well, and have completely forgotten that they were supposed to be selling her anything.

I ask what she thinks, and it sounds like the consensus is that everything will be fine, regardless of how the election turns out. The merchants, the taxi drivers – no one with a job can afford to have a repeat of the 2007-2008 violence. They’d all rather have some crook steal the election (which crook is a matter of opinion) than go out of business. Of course, there’ll be some violence in Kibera – that was a given regardless – but it’ll be isolated, contained; the work of angry young men with no hope of anything else to do. But overall? She thinks we’re good.

Back at the iHub, the monitors have switched to a press conference. Conversation on the floor ceases suddenly as strains of music swell through the speakers. Then everyone is on their feet, singing. Slowly and tentatively at first, but then louder, as the national anthem continues. These kids – really, many of them barely out of their teens – face the monitors and sing. They are black, white, Indian – they are all Kenyan. Okay, almost all – Norbert is German, but I think he’s lived here long enough to count.

Uchaguzi sprang out of Erik Hersman’s efforts to use his tech skills to document and help stem the violence of the last election. Beginning with SMS and a hastily-cobbled together online map, Erik and friends invented crowdsourced monitoring on the spot. That effort grew into Ushahidi, now a global resource and household name in any form of crisis management. Erik’s a white African, tall and sturdy, with a clean-shaven head and close-trimmed red beard. He looks incongruously large beside Juliana, Ushahidi’s petite black executive director. Together, and with volunteers assembled in this room, they are a fearsome team.

The anthem ends, and the room erupts in applause. Someone turns up the volume, so we can hear the man at the microphone, but after a few minutes it’s clear that this is just another announcement that there is, as of yet, no announcement. He makes assurances that all votes are being examined, that no valid votes will be left uncounted, and that, when they have something to announce, they will announce it. The room turns back to their tables, to their screens, and work resumes.

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