This is the ninth conversation of the 100+ Conversations to Inspire Our New Direction (#OKFN100) project.

Since 2023, we are meeting with more than 100 people to discuss the future of open knowledge, shaped by a diverse set of visions from artists, activists, scholars, archivists, thinkers, policymakers, data scientists, educators, and community leaders from everywhere.

The Open Knowledge Foundation team wants to identify and discuss issues sensitive to our movement and use this effort to constantly shape our actions and business strategies to deliver best what the community expects of us and our network, a pioneering organisation that has been defining the standards of the open movement for two decades.

Another goal is to include the perspectives of people of diverse backgrounds, especially those from marginalised communities, dissident identities, and whose geographic location is outside of the world’s major financial powers.

How openness can accelerate and strengthen the struggles against the complex challenges of our time? This is the key question behind conversations like the one you can read below.


This week we had the opportunity to speak with Angela Oduor Lungati, Executive Director of Ushahidi, a global not-for-profit technology company based in Nairobi, Kenya, that helps communities collect and share information.

Angela is a technologist, community builder and open-source software advocate who is passionate about building and using appropriate technology tools to create an impact in the lives of marginalized groups. She has over 10 years’ experience in software development, global community engagement, and nonprofit organizational management. She is also a co-founder of AkiraChix, a non-profit organization that nurtures generations of women who use technology to develop innovations and solutions for Africa.

Like the Open Knowledge Foundation, Ushahidi is a member of the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), having their software recognised as a Digital Public Good. In December last year, our organisations jointly delivered a workshop on information pollution during elections in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

This conversation took place online on 12 March 2024 and was moderated by Renata Ávila, CEO of OKFN, and Lucas Pretti, OKFN’s Communications & Advocacy Director. 

We hope you enjoy reading it.


Renata Ávila: One of the memories of the early days of the open movement is how strongly it rallied around a positive agenda, rather than just opposing everything. It was this spirit of “I can do it myself”. If I’ve got a computer at home, access to the internet and some skills, I’ll do it. Looking back so many years later, I define them as very privileged compared to so many people who didn’t have those resources. I wanted to do this little introduction to ask you to tell me the story of Ushahidi. How was it born? How long ago?

Angela Oduor Lungati: Ushahidi is a Swahili word that means testimony. The company was born out of a very dark time in Kenya’s history. The background is the 2007 elections. There were some really strong tribal tensions, a lot of mistrust and people were very resistant to the election results if they weren’t the winners. So when the results were announced, violence broke out in all parts of the country. One of the main problems at the time, apart from the violence itself, was that there was a nationwide media blackout. This meant that not everyone in the country was fully aware of the extent of the situation because the media wasn’t able to cover it. There was a huge information vacuum, whether it was for people living in Kenya at the time or people in the diaspora who were worried about their families and the country.

So a group of five Kenyan bloggers got together and decided to find a way to let the world know what was happening. It was a way of bearing witness, sharing testimony. A platform was set up very quickly and people were able to share news of what was happening around them. It could be the riots, or information about people invading a particular place, or the opposite, reports of a largely peaceful area. All very easily via text message, email or Twitter. This information would be pulled into the platform and then visualised on a map. In this first instance of Ushahidi, it was possible to get a very quick visual representation of the pockets of violence in each region and a very quick situational awareness of how deep the problem was.

It’s a context that’s probably common to a lot of other African countries: bad governance and low bandwidth at a time when social platforms were emerging and people could be a bit more vocal about their opinions. So the founders of Ushahidi were able to build a tool that changed the way information flows, because it wasn’t trickling down from official sources, it was more of a bottom-up approach

They quickly realised that a tool built for this kind of situation could be useful in other places. How can we make it easier for people to replicate this? And that’s the origin story of making the Ushahidi platform open source, making sure that it was easy to download or that people could sign up and get it up and running quickly. Something similar for them to be able to engage with disenfranchised communities and see how they can come together to be part of the solution rather than passive recipients of information.

Renata Ávila: How did Ushahidi develop after that initial spark?

Angela Oduor Lungati: Over the last 16 years, Ushahidi has been used in several categories of social impact. The main one is crisis response. If you think about the Kenyan elections, the Haiti earthquake, the Nepal earthquake, COVID-19, etc., the platform is a very good way to engage with people affected by crises and then have that feedback directly influence humanitarian response and human rights protection. 

One of my favourite examples is HarassMap in Egypt. They started by just documenting cases of sexual harassment of women in Egypt. Over time, they built a model that has inspired 20 other different harassmaps around the world. With this initiative, people are not only collecting data and raising awareness, but also thinking about how to use data to influence behavioural and political change.

In Kenya, we’ve used Ushahidi in every single election since 2007. In 2010, during the constitutional referendum, the general elections in 2013, 2017, and 2022. Nigeria communities have also used it extensively. I know it’s also been used in the US and many other spaces. More recently, we’ve been reaching disenfranchised communities to centre the citizen voice in the conversation around climate change.

Renata Ávila: In the beginning, openness was a very technical thing, basically referring to rules in the boundaries of mainstream systems. Open code and open licences, for example, refer to restrictions on the ability to share. So activists were dedicated to opening little windows and cracks in the system to allow better sharing. I’d like to explore the different perspectives of openness today and the different degrees of openness – like the community aspect, participation, governance and accessibility. What role do these elements play in keeping Ushahidi going?

Angela Oduor Lungati: Before I get into the context of Ushahidi, I want to answer this from a conceptual perspective. If you don’t have a community around a tool that you’re trying to make open, that might be a sign that there’s a challenge to openness. A classic example is, if you don’t have people contributing to your code, you start to wonder, is there a challenge with them installing the software? With them understanding how to contribute? With the language that they’re interacting with? I think a great indicator of openness might actually be the size and health of your community. That could tell you how open you are. 

If you think about it in the context of Ushahidi, from the moment we open-sourced the platform, the founders were very intentional about being inclusive. We wanted to make sure that anyone who needed the tool could use it, by lowering the barriers. In a time of crisis, there are people who do not have the technical skills or resources to set up a self-hosted instance and keep the technical infrastructure running smoothly.

One of our strategies was to focus the developments on the mobile aspect, that was the lowest hanging fruit to make sure that people could be involved. Mobile phones are the most ubiquitous device, even my grandmother will have one, whether she has access to the internet or not. Another strategy was to recognise that not everyone in the world speaks English. So the logic is, how do we make it easy for people to interact with the tool in a way that they already can? And then, most importantly, how do we facilitate the connection between people to ensure that they can share their learning with each other. If somebody in Kenya is doing an election project and they learn something from it, how do they share that with somebody else in Nigeria, or somebody else in Congo, somebody else in Zambia, so that they can pick it up and build on it and build on it. A lot of the growth we’ve seen has come from making sure that there are structures in place that invite people to participate.

Over time, of course, and this isn’t just Ushahidi, it’s many other non-profits, we’ve had to think about how to sustain this and keep the lights on. That is the sustainability aspect of openness. There’s been quite a bit of friction between the need for openness and maintaining an open community and meeting the needs of the places where the revenue comes from. That’s what we’ve been dealing with for a significant part of our journey.

In the last five or six years that I’ve been executive director, it’s been about how do we get back to our roots and nurture that open source community while making sure that there’s a business model that can still support all of that to keep the lights on.

Renata Ávila: We share the same challenges with CKAN, a software managed and held in trust by OKFN. How should we spin while nurturing the community? How should we invest in governance? How should we invest in translation and localisation? Compared to 20 years ago, societies all over the world have become more precarious, which means, for example, that a student or volunteer who used to be able to devote time to a project now has to work three jobs to pay the bills. On the other hand, there’s basically no public funding that’s really willing to contribute. So these new austerity measures have undoubtedly had an impact on our communities. Today, bodies like the Digital Public Goods Alliance (DPGA), on which we both sit, are opening a very interesting door for collaboration on projects like ours. 

So what are your thoughts on how to keep communities alive? How can we keep people coming and nurture the open communities to create value for the public good in such an unfavourable context?

Angela Oduor Lungati: The short answer is that we are still trying to find out. I can give examples of programmes that have been broadly useful in acknowledging the economic challenges while still being able to demonstrate value.

I took over Ushahidi at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis. Surprisingly, the pandemic was a silver lining because the use of our platform skyrocketed, proving its usefulness. There was a group in Spain, Frena La Curva, who set up the platform to create a kind of mutual aid functionality. They documented that model and shared it with 22 other Latin American and Spanish-speaking countries, and it ended up being used. It’s been very helpful because we’ve been able to communicate the value of the platform in this day and age, while showing the challenges in terms of resources. Our messaging was around ‘we are a small team’, ‘here are ways you can get involved and help’, ‘you can start an instance’, ‘you can share some of your feedback’, etc. Then we combined that with participating in programmes like Google Summer of Code and Outreachy.

I mention that because we got over the barrier of entry on the first point. We’ve managed to get the volunteers paid, thankfully, through the support of the Outreachy structure programme, and I’ve actually been able to hire two people who have come out of the community. That’s all well and good. I don’t know what will help us to grow, but it’s a first step.

I think that’s why we have programmes like the Digital Public Goods Alliance. I really appreciate the wave of awareness among funders to see the value of these tools in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, and to understand that there’s some maintenance that’s required, not just on the technical side, but in the communities that are the backbone

I think the other part might actually be in reinventing or rethinking our engagement strategies. The way we engage, the way we motivate volunteers now is very different from the way we used to do it. 

Lucas Pretti: Let me build on this question of motivation. The spirit of the open movement that Renata talked about at the beginning came with a hacker component. We used to create our own tools, but we also hacked all the other tools available, whether mainstream or not. Recently, with the growing hegemony of Big Tech and the concentration of power around them, that hacker motivation has diminished considerably. At the same time, I feel that this hegemony has passed its peak, and there is considerable awareness that the software produced by Big Tech is harmful.

At OKFN we’re constantly asking ourselves what kind of software we need to develop. What advice would you give us? How can we motivate developers to be on this side?

Angela Oduor Lungati: When it comes to the contrast with Big Tech, I think we will always be playing catch-up. The Big Tech companies have all the resources, all the manpower and, to be honest, they’re taking all the talent because of the same economics that Renata was talking about. People need to be able to put food on the table and take care of their families. 

Right now it feels like we are in competition or we have to build tools that can be on par with big tech, but we don’t have the capacity, the talent or the funding to be able to work at that level. I wonder if there’s complacency or just acceptance of a fact. We may have people who are driven by passion to change things, but who have to rely on the fact that they still have to put food on the table.

But sometimes there’s an alternative view. In the Kenyan context, I see developers saying, “I’ll come in for a while, get the resources I need for a while, and then come back.”

Lucas Pretti: That would be a kind of hacking.

Angela Oduor Lungati: It could be. But I’m still waiting for that comeback. Because what I’m seeing now is a huge avalanche that’s just sucking the talent out of the non-profit sector and it’s all going into Big Tech. I know there are people in there trying to fight the good fight. But I wonder if it’s going to be a lasting game.

Renata Ávila: Absolutely. One of our hopes is that the open movement will sit down and discuss these difficult questions together, because there is part of the answer in every community. We need those answers to understand what unites us to move forward.

We’ve also had a lot of discussion at OKFN about openness as a design principle. In conclusion, I can confidently say that Ushahidi is a perfect example of an open-by-design effort from day one. You’ve been true to openness in the design of the practices, the platforms, the governance system, and so on. It is such a privilege to see a real, tangible example of what openness as a design principle can achieve in institutions, communities and as a global effort. I learned a lot from this conversation. 

Lucas Pretti: Absolutely. On that note, Angela, perhaps you could say a few final words. Maybe starting with what’s next for Ushahidi?

Angela Oduor Lungati: We feel like we’ve got to a point where there’s a lot of data, I mean the butter is on the bread, but what’s the data saying? What stories are we telling? How do we make this emergence or this resume of voices more meaningful? We realised that there’s a gap between the point where you get data and the point where it actually influences change. When we try to think critically about what role we can play in that, we have to think about whether the data we have is actually representative.

When we say we are working with disenfranchised communities, can we actually attribute what disenfranchisement means? Can we break that down by gender? Can we break that down along geographical lines, social lines, economic lines? And for somebody who’s a decision-maker, it could be somebody in government or a donor, how do we make it easier for them to gain insight and make sense of the situation? Are they able to draw comparisons or similarities between some of these different areas? 

We have some hypotheses about how we might do some of these things. One of the biggest is to think about creating this federated knowledge hub of Ushahidi instances, putting the data from all those instances in one place that anyone can query, but in a way that protects cultural appropriation, that takes ownership into account and makes sure that it’s not extractive, that it’s engaging and that that consent is built into it and that local laws are respected. That’s going to be very interesting to watch. 

Another very big question mark is what role can we play in continuing to foster a thriving open ecosystem, when new technologies are moving at such a fast pace. That’s basically the conversation we just had. How do we also contribute to building a responsible ecosystem while all this is happening? We know that a lot of the knowledge that’s out there right now is because of all the work that’s been done by the open movement, but that’s all going into proprietary models, which can have a direct impact on motivations.

It’s still a complex challenge, but one that we’re really thinking critically about.Renata Ávila: I think we will continue the conversation because our community is very interested in that. We are very keen to help in any way we can.