The advent of social media and the access to the internet has been hailed as a step or two in the right direction especially for developing countries. It has also been decried as a bane to intelligent conversation and an avenue for fraudsters to perpetrate their devious devices. Many voices cry for and against, but Ory Okolloh’s ingenuity in utilising internet technology to police the politics of her country stands a head above all.
Ory Okolloh is a Kenyan activist, lawyer, and blogger [Kenyan Pundit is her personal blog]. Born into a relatively poor family, she however had a solid education which she ascribes to the sacrifice of her parents. The 34 year old earned an undergraduate degree in Political Science from the University of Pittsburgh and graduated from Harvard Law School in 2005. She was previously a summer Associate in Covington and Burling, Washington DC and a Chayes Fellow at the World Bank’s Department of Institutional Integrity.
Ory noted the mass corruption that was ongoing in the Kenyan Parliament, especially when Kenya’s members of parliament voted to give themselves a sizable pay rise in 2003, soon after the national elections. In her own words, “They were getting all this money – but we had no idea what they were doing to earn that money. Parliament is not televised. The Newspapers do a lousy job of covering it. We had no idea of what was going on in our own Parliament.”
This spurred Ory to action. She contacted a fellow Kenyan blogger, and under 5 months, they launched a new website, Mzalendo [‘Patriot’ in Kiswahili] in 2006. Its purpose was to keep track of every Bill, every speech and every MP that passed through the House of Parliament. No mean feat for two volunteers with full-time jobs, websites of their own to maintain and little to no start-up capital. As it evolved, volunteer bloggers and freelance journalists started adding eyewitness accounts of debates. Gradually, the Parliamentarians started emailing in to correct their profiles, answering constituents’ questions and joining in the online debate.
The site pioneered a people-politics in Africa. It was a first of its kind site and idea that even developed countries outside Africa do not have in place. Part blog, part massive open database, its closest cousin is the UK website “They Work For You”, which keeps its own eye on the UK parliamentary system.
When Kenya was engulfed in violence following a disputed presidential election in 2007, Ory co-founded Ushahidi [‘Witness’ in Swahili] a website that collected and recorded eyewitness reports of violence using text messages and Google Maps. The technology has since been adapted for other purposes (including monitoring elections and tracking pharmaceutical availability) and used in a number of other countries. Ushahidi, which combines mapping with eye-witness reports, has been used to monitor elections in Kenya, Mexico and India, track violence in the Eastern Congo and map post-earthquake crisis in Haiti.
Ory is part of a wave of young Africans who used the power of blogging, SMS and web-enabled openness to push their countries forward and help Africans to truly connect. “Tools like Ushahidi help to link a people whose tribal differences are often cynically exploited by a small group of leaders. Only by connecting Africans can this cycle be broken,” Ory says.
Ory stepped down as the Executive Director of Ushahidi to take up an appointment as the Policy Manager for Africa with Google. Culled from a Forbes interview, these are the objectives of her job; “I focus on supporting three priorities on the policy and Government relations side. The first is access: getting more African users online. We’ve made tremendous progress in encouraging the governments of African countries to adapt policies or partnerships that can get more people connected.
The second thing I focus on is content. I always ask the question: As more Africans are going online, are they finding content that is meaningful and relevant to them, or are they just consuming from everywhere else. As Africans, we have the capacity to generate our own content. Though we are generating, we’re not putting it up online, so I focus on encouraging Government to put up their content online for transparency purposes as well as helping them with planning. I also help create secondary opportunities for developers and App builders who want to take advantage of that.
The third area I focus on is on the role of technology and what it can play in terms of building an ecosystem. It’s great to say young people should get connected to the internet but with the kind of unemployment we’re seeing, there’s always the money question and we’re focusing on how we can work with policy makers, government, industries on creating a broader ecosystem and making the internet and access to technology more affordable. We are also working on helping small businesses across Africa get their websites online very inexpensively. Basically, I work with Government to ensure they provide regulations that allows technology to thrive.”
Ory is also a World Economic Forum Global Leader, and a frequent speaker at conferences including TED, World Economic Forum, Poptech, CGI, Techonomy, Mobile Web Africa, and the Monaco Media Forum on issues around citizen journalism, the role of technology in Africa, and the role of young people in reshaping the future of Africa. She is also the recipient of numerous awards, including the Monaco Media ForumPrize and World Economic Forum Tech Pioneer prize. She is also a wife and a mother of 2.
On how she manages to get so much done, she says “I don’t sleep much. It helps that I love what I do and I am very passionate about it, so it doesn’t feel like work. Also I work in a flexible environment where the emphasis is on delivery, not on physical presence, and I have a fantastic support system at home. So I think there is a whole set of few things that come together… I’ve also come to terms with the fact that I won’t do everything perfectly all the time. At any one particular time, there is something in my life that is suffering as a result of my many responsibilities; most of the time it’s me. But I try to find a balance between everything I do.”
Ory’s hopes to leave a legacy that is centred around discovering the untapped potential of the African continent and doing what she can to ensure that Africa lives up to its potential. She wants to be known as a person who actually made a difference. At her Forbes interview, Ory stated that she would like to be remembered as “Someone who talked less and acted more.” If I were to have an epitaph, she says, “I would want it to read: “She did stuff.”
A man that is diligent in his ways will surely stand before Kings. What do you have in your hand? Use it! It may not happen in a day or a year, but it will happen. As Ory opined, stop talking and start doing!!!
Interview Source: www.forbes.com/sites/mfonobongnsehe/2012/06/01/