Ushahidi (Swahili for "testimony") is a web-based reporting tool allowing Africans caught up in political unrest to report incidents of killing, violence and displacement.
It started in May 2008 during the elections in Kenya, was later used during the attacks on black foreigners in South Africa and since November has started to be used in the conflict zones of eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (formerly Zaire).
Its goal is to create a simple way of aggregating information from the public for use in crisis response.
The site is a free open-source mash-up which can be run by anybody, anywhere in the world who at the minimum has access to a mobile phone network to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web, visualise it on a map and/or timeline, call up media reports etc etc
Users can report an incident by filling in a very simple form with a description of what happened, when it took place and put it in a category.
As an example, a Red Cross worker waits to distribute buckets to displaced people. Ushahidi can be used to identify areas where aid is required. Incident data is colour coded on the website into categories for events such as military activity, riots, looting, illness and sexual assault. Or whatever you decide.
Even though it is limited by Internet and, to a slightly less limited extent, mobile phone network access (mobile phone networks are one of the fastest growing markets in Africa) and its still experimental nature, I see its enormous potential. Both geographically (e.g. Darfur/Chad, Somalia etc) and thematically (e.g. medical).
From the Ushahidi website:
"The goal of the project is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up their own way to collect and visualize information. The core platform will allow for plug-in and extensions so that it can be customized for different locales and needs. This tool will be tested and made available as an open source application that others can download, implement and use to bring awareness to crises in their own region. Organizations can also use the tool for internal monitoring purposes.
The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in near real-time. It is being developed by a group of volunteer developers and designers, hailing primarily from Africa. So far there are representatives from Kenya, South Africa, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana, Netherlands and the US.
The private alpha of the redesigned Ushahidi Engine was released in October 2008, and is currently undergoing testing in pilot projects including Peace Heroes, the DR Congo crisis and 4 others.
Ushahidi plans to make the Ushahidi mapping tool available globally for free. After initial testing with NGO's the tool will be distributed to interested parties and organizations, and the Ushahidi team will provide technical customizations and support as needed."
... and it is open-source !
Scroll down to link on right.