Nairobi mall attack inspires new apps to aid in an emergency

Crowdsourcing project Ushahidi develops tools to facilitate blood donations and help users contact loved ones in a crisis.

The terror attacks by a group of suspected al-Shabaab militants at the Westgate mall in Nairobi shocked residents of the city and placed a heavy burden on emergency services.

Following the horrible attack, Ushahidi has come up with two tools for emergencies. Ushahidi is a non-profit technology company that specialises in developing free and open source software for information collection, visualisation and interactive mapping.

Ushahidi, which means “testimony” in Swahili, was initially developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout in 2007/8.

It’s new app, the Ping is a binary, multichannel tool that will help families, friends and companies to quickly make contact to check that their loved ones and colleagues are safe:

There was a consistent problem in every disaster that happens, not just in Kenya, but everywhere. Small groups, families and companies need to quickly check in with each other. They need to “ping” one another to make sure they’re okay. It has to be something incredibly simple, that requires little thinking to use. People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use.

This is how the Ping works:

1. You create a list of your contact (family, organisation), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc).

2. If a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The app admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end. This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later).

3. The message goes out three times, once every five minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered safe. If no response, then three messages are sent to their other contact.

4. Each response is filed into one of three areas: responded (verified), not responded, not ok.

Another tool is Blood Donation Kenya, which is a crowdmap of all locations of blood drive centres. The map matches blood location centres with people willing to help with donation, medical instruments or medical personnel.

Erik Hersmann explains the logic behind the map:

One of the most amazing guys in Kenya in any emergency is Philip Ogola of the Kenya Red Cross. He’s first on scene with great updates, but there’s only so much that one person can do. Now, the Kenya Red Cross itself has been doing incredible work, but they have a problem with a lot of their stuff still being paper and pen (and there’s another group working on a locally hosted database system to digitize this without putting real people’s names online, run by Nivi of eLimu). Another problem that they have is that the hospitals are running short on some types of blood, and are overwhelmed with others, as the Kenyan population comes out in full force to donate blood.

(We asked) how can this be managed better, so that people aren’t turned away from some places and so that they know where to go for their type?

Hersmann said Ushahidi had set up a crowdmap deployment to map the locations of all blood drive centres, in an effort to match these areas with those willing to help at

– Guardian