Ushahidi is an open-source platform that aggregates user-generated information in a crisis. The original use was to catalog and display complaints/alerts of voting rights violations in Africa, but one could set it up to display user-generated content (UGC) in any type of emergency:
Ushahidi has been around since early 2008, and has been mentioned in the New York Times. I ran across it while surfing for information on the Haiti Earthquake of January 12, 2010, where it was being used to post calls for help and notices of hazards. What makes it extraordinary is that the Ushahidi engine is open source, such that anyone could set up a mashup for an unfolding disaster or event; just download and install the current distribution on your server, similar to a WordPress Blog (provided your webhost has/allows MySQL, PHP).
It is easy to see how this would be useful for disaster assessment in general, where damage reports and information from the field could be sent via cell-phone text, email, or posted directly to the web site. One limitation I can see is that, similar to most blogs, a moderator is required to filter the incoming posts – that is, a mechanical turk is necessary to screen the UGC for bogus/redundant entries. In a large disaster, this might be quite a task…
Access to the distribution of Ushahidi is restricted to crisis responders with a legitimate need, but I’ve requested and have been granted a copy to experiment with. I’m gonna have to build one of these for my local chapter of the Red Cross!
Feb 2, 2010, 0052 CST: Updated the last 2 paragraphs – ddw
Feb 17, 2010,1101 CST: embedded the CNN video below – ddw