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From Libya to Japan, a Web-reporting platform called Ushahidi has helped human rights workers and others document and make sense of fast-moving crises. The platform allows reports from cell phones and Web-connected devices to be collected and displayed on Web-based maps.

Now Ushahidi is adding a concept borrowed from location-based social networking, as well as layers of private access—functionality that could make the service more efficient and useful in politically charged circumstances. It could allow groups like aid workers or election monitors to keep track of one another, note their progress in deploying resources, or enter notes that can be formalized later, without making that information public.

The new feature is known as "check-in," also used by social sites like Foursquare—in that case as a way of alerting friends to your presence at a particular location. For Ushahidi, this is "a pretty powerful step forward," says Ethan Zuckerman, a board member of the nonprofit, and a senior researcher at the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University. "Adding check-in to this equation allows me to pull my data apart from the whole. That makes maps usable for multiple purposes—group reporting as well as tracking of my own movements."

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Category: Science