We see this time and time again…Oil spills, earthquakes and more…social entrepreneurs are modeling how to hack the system.
Here’s an example that dates back to 2008: Violence erupts in Kenya as the Orange Democratic Movement alleges electoral manipulation in the reelection of President Mwai Kibaki. Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan eventually brought both sides to the negotiating table. But in the meantime, people were dying.
Erik Hersman’s Ushahidi.com is a perfect example that hackers’ use of Web 2.0 crowdsourcing tools are already solving ground-level problems that centralized processes (in this case, how aid gets delivered in times of crisis) just can’t address.
Says Hersman, “A game ranger up country was hiding and protecting 60 women and children in the forest. The crisis just erupted, all the official channels were still trying to figure out what’s going on, and he needs food, water and supplies for these people — fast.” The ranger knew that official organizations, like the Red Cross, couldn’t solve his immediate needs while everyone was still in hiding. So he contacted Ushahidi’s social network using his mobile phone — the network quickly found volunteers who could deliver the much-needed food and supplies into the forest.
Hersman then describes the relevance of his tool to hacking work: “We didn’t see what we were doing as revolutionary. All we tried to do was create a better way to share information — in our case, about violence and deaths. But changing how information flows will always undermine hierarchies. Either because those in power want information to flow a certain way — ways that ensure their plans are followed — or because you are exposing something they’re not focused on. The best hacks are to build information sharing systems that aren’t concerned with who controls the purse strings behind that system.
“It always comes down to money,” says Hersman. “For example, the Red Cross doesn’t share specifics on what they see during crises, because nobody’s paying them to gather and distribute information about the conditions they encounter. The same applies to the need to hack work. Nobody in business is getting paid to track what centralized processes do to each person.”
Unless you are blessed with exceptional senior management (e.g., Tony Hsieh, Zappos), don’t look to mainstream business for successful case studies. Most of those in power still see working around their systems as a threat.
Ushahidi and other social entrepreneurial solutions are great templates to study for two reasons:
1. Changing the relationships between people — Soft Hacks — and how they share their own information will be easy places for you to begin, and
2. Because their business models are based on providing bottom-up solutions — meeting crucial needs that are bypassed by typical top-down processes and structures.