• Photo: flickr/Number Six (bill lapp)

Build it and they will come was Laura Madison’s hope when she created an online mapping tool to display real-time data about this year’s destructive spring floods in Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Originally created to map post-electoral violence in Kenya, Ushahidi — Swahili for "testimony" — is an online crisis mapping platform that was also used to map the protests in Egypt and the ongoing battle in Libya.

Madison discovered the tool before becoming a member of the Crisis Mappers' Stand-By Task Force, a volunteer-based network that assists crisis affected communities through co-operation with local and international responders.

However, with family and friends living on the banks of Manitoba’s Red River, she was motivated to apply this technology within Canada for the first time.

"It was a matter of knowing ahead of time that the floods were coming," Madison says. "Of having that idea of preparedness and using the skills and knowledge of a crisis mapper to get set up and go."

Ushahidi allows citizens to submit incident reports, pictures and video via email, Android or iPhone app, text message or Twitter. These reports then appear on an interactive map updating citizens about the latest developments, such as road closures, power outages, damaged property and evacuations.

Photo: Ushahidi

This winter, Madison approached long-time Ushahidi developer Dale Zak to assist in the set-up and management of mbfloods.ca and skfloods.ca. So far, the sites have received more than 1,100 reports.

"The system can engage citizens because they’re the ones that know what’s happening on the ground," Zak says. "They’re the ones that know what the water level is in their backyard."

Both collaborators have even received emails and calls from residents asking them what the current water levels are, or if a certain road is closed. But Zak says he doesn't have the knowledge or capacity to respond to these people and can only direct them to government services.

Therein lies the problem. The Saskatchewan government has created an informational website at saskflood.ca. However, its data is not up-to-the-minute, has no mobile smartphone access and no way for citizens to contribute, Zak says.

Despite the potential of Ushahidi to address the shortcomings of the government website, Madison and Zak have acknowledged that there are other challenges.

The technology is actually only about 10 per cent of the solution, Zak says. "The other ninety per cent is about the process of marketing and promotion, and making people aware of the map."

According to Madison, the media in Manitoba didn’t pick up on what they were doing for the first two or three weeks. "When you’re managing a crisis map, it’s difficult to be a PR machine whilst simultaneously dealing with the volume of the reports that you get," she says.

And while the sites have been a moderate success, Madison and Zak say they need access to provincial resources and data for the platform to reach its full potential.

To date there has been only speculative interest from the provincial governments, says Madison. "I think we have a long way to go in the next year to get people more interested."