Protesters Are Dodging Sudan's Internet Shutdown with a Phone-Powered Crowdmap

SMS updates allow activists to keep up with protests despite the government's internet shutdown.

Sep 27 2013, 6:40pm
A screenshot of the Abena map

Since Wednesday afternoon, Sudan's internet has been sporadically shut off amid a fifth day of protests against President Omar al Bashir’s regime. Despite the attempt to cut off communications and limit organization and reporting on the ground, a group of tech-savvy people based in Khartoum have developed a map for recording key data about the protests that's powered by cell networks. 

Called the Abena crowd map, the map is the product of Mohammed Hashim Saleh and Abeer Khairy, engineers both, and Ahmed Hassan, the co-founder of Khartoum Geeks. In the short amount of time the internet was on yesterday, they deployed the map, which follows events on the ground in Sudan with direct reports.

SMS messages are connected automatically with the Ushahidi-based crowdmapping platform, Saleh told me. Activists, some in-country (who work when possible) and the rest outside, login and check the messages. They are then doubled checked with news sources and social media before being finally confirmed and mapped. The crew has also been manually updating the platform.

“We have categories,” Saleh said, “Killed people, detainees, fire and deconstruction and demonstrations.” 11 reports have been uploaded since the site went live (three hours ago at the time of this writing).  

The map's report submission system, which is powered by cell networks rather than the internet

When I asked her about the number of deaths since the demonstration began, Khairy responded, “You want the number on the news? Or the number from the ground? Yesterday it was 111.” There is no updated number from today, as of 7:00 PM local time.

The grassroots protests began in Madani in east Sudan, have moved to Khartoum, the nation’s capital, and continued to spread. The lack of localization or steady internet connection, as well as press gags, has made confirming news and getting updates incredibly difficult.

“I am afraid they [the government] will commit crimes against people and we won't know till it is too late,” Azaz Shami said.

This concern is what drove the creation of the map. Saleh, a Sudanese-born activist and engineer, is currently not based in-country, but his pride in the enormity and the spirit of the protests was evident over our Skype chat. 

The protesters are made up of students, activists, the young and old, Saleh explained. They have taken to the street shouting, "We want the downfall of the regime,” and "We came out for those who stole our sweat," Dalia Haj Omar, another Sudanese-born-non-country-based activist, said. She works closely with Girifna, a non-violent resistance movement advocating for a change of regime in Sudan.  

In previous conversations, both Omar and Saleh have wanted to remain anonymous, for the sake of their security, but at this point, they are throwing it all on the line. “We should tell who we are, to show the trust,“ said Saleh.

The main impetus for the protests is Sudan's national economic crisis, combined with the general knowledge of the regime’s corruption.

“In the last weeks the prices of basic foodstuff have plummeted and the Sudanese currency depreciated sharply vis a vis the dollar,” said Omar. Reuters reported that depreciation as a record low. The government's announcement last Tuesday that fuel subsidies will be lifted resulted in an immediate doubling of prices and generated more anger. That announcement came despite the fact that Sudan's government has near-total control of its oil sector, the country's main economic driver.

Add to that al-Bashir's apparent disdain for his own citizens—according to the BBC, a Sudanese paper quoted him "as saying that no one knew what a hotdog was before his rule, while a minister said they were responsible for the introduction of pizza to the country"—and you have a clear recipe for unrest.

But Khairy repeatedly emphasized during our chat that "these are peaceful protests." From the bits of brutal footage that have gotten out of the country, however, the government hasn’t been responding in kind.

“Shooting to kill—including by aiming at protesters’ chests and heads—is a blatant violation of the right to life, and Sudan must immediately end this violent repression by its security forces,” Lucy Freeman, Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International, said in a statement.

Reem El-Radi, another Sudanese blogger, has also taken advantage of the intermittent internet and launched a petition on “The goal of the petition is a call on concerned world citizens to help us protect the protestors in Sudan from police and security forces violence," she stated. "We also call on human rights organizations to investigate the use of excessive force against citizens exercising their fundamental rights.”