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When big data saves lives – And other inspiring stories

Juliana Rotich, Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, reveals how everyone can leverage the power and impact of technological tools to progress.

Juliana Rotich, World Economic Forum Social Entrepreneur of the Year 2011, developed a major tool that leverages big data to save lives in times of crisis. This is her story.

“I’m eternally grateful for the internet,” she says. “It’s probably the most impactful thing that has happened in the last few decades.” 

When she experienced the political, economic and humanitarian crisis caused by the 2007 Kenyan presidential election, she co-created technology software Ushahidi. Ushahidi allowed users to map real-time reports of violence erupting across Kenya. The software is open-source, meaning that users can see, adapt and improve the code behind it to respond to their specific needs. This make Ushahidi “much more than a piece of software. It is a global movement, a global community,” as Juliana stated at the FLI Conference on Achieving True Progress in 2015.

Despite her hopes for the project, even Juliana was surprised how quickly her non-profit tech spread across the globe. It has now evolved from mapping crises in Kenya to mapping elections, corruption and environmental issues across the globe. Ushahidi was used to map hazard zones, good supplies and more following Japan’s 2011 earthquake. It was used to report instances of voter suppression during the 2012 presidential election and to map the environmental impact of the Deepwater Horizon spill in 2010. Today Ushahidi is truly a global movement with 20 million users across 150 countries.

For Juliana, Ushahidi represents her view of progress. By utilising the tool, open-source communities can solve their own problems. The very nature of open-source technologies allows anyone to build upon already existing solutions and to improve and adapt them to suit their own needs.

“I hope that we will see more open-source platforms, where users can get exactly the utility they need, when they need it. A community of problem solvers is a really empowering thing.”   Juliana further notes that technology is merely a tool. Progress comes from the people who use those tools for the better. Technology alone has no impact, there needs to be some kind of force leveraging that power, the users. But how can we improve social and economic progress in general? For Juliana it all boils down to creating economic opportunity.    Of course, the basic needs, water, sanitation, education, electricity and health care, must all be met. But, according to Juliana, people, particularly in Africa, also need “the ability to work and earn a living.” Entrepreneurship could hold the key to creating economic opportunities for a vast swath of people, but it very much challenges the status quo.

“What if Africans were not merely the consumers, but the creators of solutions? What if Africans were entrepreneurs and inventors?”

People should be able to take things into their own hands. This can be enabled by specific eco-systems, like Nairobi’s iHub, a major tech hub Juliana helped to establish which is now home to a wide variety of different entities. Inside there is a co-working space/incubator, two incubators (NaiLab & mLab), a prototyping space and more. The building is packed with entrepreneurial minds and inspiring initiatives, with each being encouraged to dynamically interact with one-another.

One initiative that found its home in this Kenyan tech hub is Akirachix, an organisation that develops coding training programmes specifically designed for women. Arkirachix is one of many hands-on organisations that work to empower people. It trains women how to code, thereby enabling them to develop a skill that is increasingly valued in the job market. These coding initiatives are all the more interesting as they are extremely scalable, tutorials can be made available across the internet and anyone can learn how to code.

As demonstrated by her ability to inspire others to do things in new ways while leveraging the power of technology, Juliana Rotich is the definition of a true thought leader. As co-founder of the open-source software Ushahidi and the incubator iHub, which has spawned 170+ start-ups and created more than 1,300 new jobs in only six years, she has already accomplished a lot. But she’s not done yet as she continues to lead the way for a future in which people are truly empowered.

Veröffentlicht in Leadership Stories am 28.09.2023

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