Juliana’s Early Life
Juliana Rotich was born in Kenya. During her childhood, Kenya was in a state of rebuilding after years of local wars between different cultures and races. Poverty and sickness were rampant, and most [if not all] of the people in her town were uneducated and had very little ahead of them. Although the country was improving due to various reforms by the government, much of it was still in a sorry state.
This was the kind of environment in which Juliana lived in her early years. Fortunately, though, she was spared from much of the suffering by her parents, who worked diligently to give her a chance for a better life. At some point in Juliana’s childhood, her family took her to the United States and settled in Missouri. Eventually, Juliana’s parents found work that enabled them to support her and her siblings and give them not only the love and care they needed, but also the financial support to enable them to go to school.
Juliana’s parents were significant in shaping her views of life and attitude towards her circumstances. In spite of the hardship and trouble back in Kenya, Juliana’s parents maintained a positive perspective and knew that things would always get better. This was the attitude they instilled in the young Juliana.
Early fascination with computers
It was in school where Juliana began to show her amazing potential and demonstrate her intelligence. Although she had quite a “fish-out-of-water” experience due to being among the few students from overseas, Juliana’s friendly and positive attitude enabled her to make many friends at school. She excelled in her studies, as well.
In her college years, Juliana enrolled at the University of Missouri to study Information Technology. Since she was young, Juliana has always had a fascination for computers, as well as a natural aptitude for programming. During the early- and mid-years of the internet’s popularity, Juliana spent a great deal of time reading about computers and learning about how they work. She often impressed her professors with her speed of learning, and successfully earned her Bachelor’s degree.
Success in the I.T. World
After finishing her studies, Juliana went on to work at an IT company for the next ten years. Her time there was very productive, as she not only became one of the company’s most significant employees, but her work enabled her to improve her networking skills and, with several friends and colleagues, start a project that later evolved into the software she would become known for: “Ushahidi” (which means “testimony” in Swahili).
Social media work
In the early- and mid-2000s, social networks were becoming popular for connecting people from all over the world. As time went by, they not only served as a means for friends and family to keep in touch, but also became the primary method of spreading news and information that the rest of the media is unable to spread.
Juliana actively participated in various forms of social media, particularly blogging. Even in her college years, Juliana was already engaged in writing and journalism, giving her opinions about present matters in both the United States and her home country of Kenya. When she started working, Juliana joined several blogging sites, including Afrigadget.com and Global Voices Online (of which she later became the Environmental Editor), among others.
In an interview conducted years later, Juliana shared her views on how the changes in social media have left some important things out:
“I miss the time when the web felt like it was mine too, that it was my home too, with a door open to the communities I was a member of. Today it feels like there are pre-ordained owners of it in silos that I am just but a very tiny dot in. In the early days I viewed the social networks we created through blogs like how astronauts saw the earth as a pale blue dot. A commons, an organism that intimated unification. Now it is so fragmented that I do not feel like there is a soul to it and its more like shattered glass held together by tiny strands of familiarity/acquaintance controlled something other.”
Although Juliana spent most of her life in the United States, she was never ignorant of the current events in Kenya. Inspired by the stories her parents told her about Kenya, Juliana grew up with an innate desire to help her fellow countrymen in any way she could. With her background in networks and computers, Juliana realized the best way she could help her fellow Kenyans was by providing a method of receiving information and giving them a voice online.
The Birth of “Ushahidi”
Juliana’s passion and dedication for helping her fellow Kenyans drove her to develop the “Ushahidi” software project, which saw its debut during the 2007/2008 election crisis in Kenya. Through “Ushahidi,” ordinary Kenyans were able to stay up-to-date with the latest information and report crises in their communities, enabling government sectors to react in time.
Juliana described “Ushahidi” in an interview:
“Ushahidi provides the tools that will enable citizens to be more effective at telling their story, gathering data about what they care about, and figuring out how to change the issue. Ushahidi addresses the need to accurately share information by creating direct channels for citizens to amplify their voices directly to service providers. By aggregating various streams of data/information, the Ushahidi platform collates information and visualizes it in creative ways that serve to empower and inform any user to act.”
“Ushahidi” has grown to become one of the largest and most important software platforms in Africa, providing people with the ability to report crises and receive important information. As its popularity grew, “Ushahidi” was adopted by many countries, including Australia, Chile, Japan, Haiti, New Zealand, Pakistan and Tanzania.
Affiliation with “TED”
Juliana’s major role in the development of “Ushahidi,” as well as its offshoot programs “SwiftRiver” (a real-time gathering suite) and “Crowdmap,” resulted in her recognition by many international institutions and organizations; these included “TED,” which made Juliana a Senior Fellow and granted her a spot at the TED Global Conference in 2007. In 2011, Juliana was named by the World Economic Forum (which she also joined) as the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year” for her and her team’s success at “Ushahidi.”
There is still much to be done, and there is still much room for improvement, but Juliana never gets tired. She continues to use her talents, time and resources to help people, and hopes that her work will inspire others to do the same. Juliana is a true role model for those who want to change the world in some way, and her remarkable story of using her talent to help others serves as a great reminder that we have the power to change the world:
“The web affords me the chance to answer these questions with an amazing global team of software and hardware engineers. I hope it can be a source of collaboration for others who are not part of an open community, to consider joining/supporting something that gives back to the world.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- World Economic Forum
- Global Voices Online
Awards and Achievements
- 2011: Included in the “World’s Top 100 Women” and “Top Women in Technology,” both by The Guardian
- 2011: Named as the “Social Entrepreneur of the Year in Africa” by the World Economic Forum
- 2013: Received the “DLD Women Impact Award”
- Conferred Senior Fellowship by TED
- Conferred a Director’s Fellowship by the MIT Media Lab