‘A New Frontier of Innovation’

March 28, 2010

Concerns about the security of Internet networks and the business advantages of producing tethered devices like the iPhone are threatening the generativity of personal computing and Web technologies, writes Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain in “The Future of the Internet — And How to Stop It.

Generativity, as Zittrain defines it, is “a system’s capacity to produce unanticipated change through unfiltered contributions from broad and varied audiences.”

Less generative devices, though not necessarily a bad thing, lessen the control of the end-user and limit innovation opportunities. Most alarmingly, they streamline the work of would-be government censors.

In the United States, the tech industry is clearly trending less generative. But what about in less developed countries? A recent New York Times piece about Ushahidi, the Kenyan-developed map wiki heralded for its life-saving role following the Haitian and Chilean earthquakes, paints a decidedly generative picture.

Reporter Anand Giridharadas says open-source Ushahidi, which aggregates mobile messages and plots them in virtual real-time on an interactive online map, “represents a new frontier of innovation.”

Silicon Valley has been the reigning paradigm of innovation, with its universities, financiers, mentors, immigrants and robust patents. Ushahidi comes from another world, in which entrepreneurship is born of hardship and innovators focus on doing more with less, rather than on selling you new and improved stuff.

Because Ushahidi originated in crisis, no one tried to patent and monopolize it. Because Kenya is poor, with computers out of reach for many, Ushahidi made its system work on cellphones. Because Ushahidi had no venture-capital backing, it used open-source software and was thus free to let others remix its tool for new projects.

Citizen journalists created Ushahidi — Swahili for testimony — to track violence in the wake of Kenya’s disputed 2007 election. The tool has since been used to track unrest and medicine stockouts elsewhere in Africa and to monitor elections in India, Mexico, Lebanon and Afghanistan.

Ushahidi could revolutionize humanitarian and military efforts. The world saw what it can do after a natural disaster. Giridharadas hypothesized about using Ushahidi to find Osama bin Laden.

Journalists are sure to find innumerable uses for the tool. The Washington Post has already used it to map snow-removal. It’s easy to see how it could be used to cover crime, the environment, large festivals like SXSW and a host of other topics.

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