About Juliana Rotich

African, Kenyan, Global citizen, Co-Founder of Ushahidi & Mobisoko, TED Senior Fellow. Cosmic girl.

What Traversing Africa by Road Can Teach us about Technology, Community, and Impact

Crossposted on the Ushahidi blog

TLDR: The scope of impact in Africa for work is great and an inspiration for the work ahead in 2015. Similar problems exist in various African countries and similar opportunities and the incredible chance to participate in a bolder stake on the future of the continent. Local communities have a key role in shaping strategy and can teach us a lot about what works where. With Ushahidi’s interlocking role of creating software tools for empowerment with its innovation catalyst role, the sandbox for its impact can be expanded.

Market TZ

This is a picture of a market in Tanzania. To the right of this picture is a parking lot with cabs and trucks and as I was waiting for my colleague Mark to register SIM cards, I could hear lectures by Julius Nyerere blaring from a Volkswagen van. In addition, the cab driver was listening parliament proceedings. Coming from Kenya where engagement with government is not as robust as this, it was quite encouraging. (Later found out that there was a major scandal and many were following because of that, but still, the level of citizen engagement in Tanzania is inspiring). The potential to add technology to this engagement equation was inescapable and something we’ll be keen to explore with partners currently working there. The big take away was that because of this variability in citizen engagement, the strategies for implementation and adoption of technology (including Ushahidi’s tools) will need to be adjusted to keep this in mind. What is needed is more connection with the key local organizations and learning how best to serve them.
bongohive

Bongohive

This is a picture of Co-founder of Bongohive Lukonga Lindunda speaking with entrepreneurs outside Bongohive space. Lukonga, his co-founders and team have been in touch with us at Ushahidi for several years now. It was an immense honor to meet them in their beautiful new space adorned with African art and filled with entrepreneurs,volunteers who I recognized from working together on Bantuwatch in 2011 (an implementation of Ushahidi to track the elections in Zambia) and women like Chisenga who’ve been part and parcel of growing Bongohive. This was the location of greatest connection and an important lesson that community is always important, and that with the expansiveness of the continent, it is important to keep connecting with the key drivers in each country who are building ecosystems of opportunity. Communities like iHub and Bongohive are important for building stable and equitable societies and key users of Ushahidi tools.

Route

It is a long game/long road… but when you meet a startup/social enterprise that is less than 2 years and already creating jobs, it just adds more reason to Ushahidi’s role as a catalyst, assisting and supporting (without supplanting) wherever possible. To foster environments that protect and reinforce fundamental human rights, it is going to take engagement on many levels, with various initiatives and partners. In building on the discussions with board of Ushahidi, partners who spent time with Ushahidi in Nairobi this last quarter, it is exciting to envision scaling our work, moreso with communities in Lusaka, Zambia, Johannessburg, South Africa, Harare Zimbabwe, and Maputo in Mozambique. We have the pieces in place with the software development group, the solutions team and Gearbox, iHub, Making All Voices Count partnership on the catalyst end. One of Ushahidi’s spin outs – BRCK continues to provide the hardware that will be useful to expand our work to the edge of the network. That is where even more impact can happen.

Looking forward to the new year with current and new partners engaged in creating more opportunity.

Platforms, Institutions and Ecosystems

It is a crisp early morning at The iHub UX lab in bustling Nairobi. I just finished a meeting with the Gearbox founding consortium and I am about to settle in for a busy day at the Ushahidi office. What is on my mind is platforms, institutions and ecosystems. Literally (Version 3.0 of Ushahidi is baking in the oven plus www.crisis.net is live) and figuratively.

When looking at the technology space, with the runaway success of Apple and its strategy as a platform company that has created a lucrative ecosystem of devices, applications and network of developers, I feel compelled to revisit this important facet of strategy. The platform.

JP Rangaswami aptly put it when he wrote a series on this, beginning with this important observation.

Platforms enable ecosystems. They are “multi-sided” like exchanges and marketplaces, focused on simplifying interactions between participants.
As David Weinberger said recently, the smartest person in the room is now the room.

In our work, be it at a company, non-profit or institution, we have to ask ourselves, how does the strategy we pursue to increase value or impact dovetail with platform thinking? For some guidance on this, again – JP Rangaswami is our man.

We learn from him that
1. Platforms create value by enabling social interactions between participants. This has allowed people to build platforms themselves and sharing applications built ontop of the platform.
2. Sharing also creates value by reducing waste: The efficiency for anyone who has used services like Uber or other paragons of the sharing economy does not need a reminder on this.
3. All this sharing creates big, small and open data: Where it takes machines to filter, and a human to curate or be a skilled creator.

All the above lessons have implications for us on many levels. On a personal level, I ask myself, which platforms am I creating and in turn, which ecosystem am I building and participating in? I am reminded that with the deluge of data and complexity of networks, not to forget that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter. What is my contribution as an individual? What is yours?

For leaders of institutions, what is the implication for you? For your strategy? Do you play the open/closed game? How does it bode for your organization as the world continues its pace of technology adoption, automation and innovation? Where would you like your organization to be in in the arc of progress? Will you be the platform, will you build on the platform and will you have a key role as part of the ecosystem?

For policy makers and government leaders. Do you have a grasp of platform thinking? How do you evolve policies to look at what Fred Wilson aptly calls platform monopolies?

“…the Internet is a network and the dominant platforms enjoy network effects that, over time, lead to dominant monopolies.”

Do you keep up with the technological times and do you strongly insist on companies to provide API (Application programming interfaces) to encourage competition?
What role can government play in supporting and encouraging a healthy tech ecosystem? What does a healthy tech ecosystem even look like for your locale?

One of the people I am lucky to interact with several times a year as part of the MIT Media Lab Director’s fellows program is Joi Ito. Like other products of the periphery like him, I find his guidance, inspiration and example something that speaks to me directly and as I saw when he visited us in Nairobi, inspired us too. I am fortunate that I can answer the question for myself today as to which platform, which organization and which ecosystem and network I have a key contribution to make. That this network is both local and global is something that I am delighted about.

Here is a video of the Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi. We learned together what its like to be part of institutions that think of themselves as platforms and to make together.

MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi from Juliana Rotich on Vimeo.

In Celebration of Teams

I took a short break to unplug. I had limited success with completely unplugging from the internet and from work, but slowed down enough to get some perspective. The main thing that leaped out at me when I thought about the work I am involved in, is the team. You often see lists recognizing individuals (I have been fortunate and honored to be on some of these lists). I think it is time for some lists honoring great teams.
There are many different models to use as you consider your team dynamics and leadership style.

The Ushaverse team

I was asked several questions about leadership and teams, with one of the questions being;
what leadership advice would you give others?

I think It takes humility to listen, to look around and participate with your team. To see potential in others, to support and uplift without supplanting and dictating. As Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab says, compasses over maps.
Your leadership compass will be as unique as your team and you. It takes awhile to figure it out, but once you do, there is much joy in being a leader and being part of a great team. The culture you build is what will continue to inspire and guide you through difficult times. It forms the foundation on which you can build ecosystems, and yes…innovate.

As I get back to work and travel, I want to thank Rob Baker, Erik Hersman, Nat Manning, Daudi Were and the entire ‘Ushaverse’ team for pushing onwards and having my back when I needed to take a quick break. I am happily dialing back in with much excitement for all the work in store.

Lessons from my Grandmother

I learned a lot this year. When things are quite difficult, you learn even more. With loss, you can’t help but reflect and wrap your mind around the fact that someone is not in your life anymore. This is the year our family lost our grandmothers, our gogo. The word gogo means Grandmother/Grammy/Meemaw in Nandi. I would like to tell you about one of my grandmothers – Gogo Martina Chelagat Tum. She came from the edge. She would tell me stories of the migration journey by the Nandi people in Rift Valley, Kenya. My aunt Wilfrida soaked in all that and more and is now the family’s oracle when it comes to our history. Losing her was difficult not just for me but for the entire family. In thinking about her legacy, I realized that there was a running thread between the things she embodied and some lessons I hope not to ever forget.

Gogo grew up in a world that most would say had very little. she didn’t have a brick house, her house was semi-permanent, covered with with a layer of clay found by the nearby rivers. she didn’t have a flushing toilet…an outhouse she and grandpa made, 50 meters from her hut was her only option. She didn’t have electricity…wax candles and kerosene brought light in darkness for much of her life. Her small kitchen was actually a haven for all of us. A utilitarian space that brought us much joy despite the smoke that would get into our eyes while she cooked.
But to my gogo, the ‘little’ she had didn’t bother her…All without a lecture. She embodied such strength, contentment and joy. This is my gogo with my niece. Notice her hand: She is holding a piece of twine that she was going to use for a gift. She was making it into a kind of thread that she would use to weave beads into a gourd, a functional device for storing milk, but later became a sort of memento she would give each of her grandchildren whenever we hit a milestone in life. She was indeed creative and innovative. To look around and use the materials around you to make pots, to line the walls of the houses with mud from the river, to learn the herbs in the forest, and ooh to make the most delicious vegetables. Creation is a selfless task. A task that I have found to be even more enriching when done with others.

She made things. She lived in a time where…you had to make, for something to exist. A time where you had to use your hands.

Make.

My granny used to make beaded jewelry, she was easy going, content and happy. In this world that she lived in, it was also important to fix things. To recycle, re-use old containers, not to waste. It was a hard life for her growing up and how she and my grandfather brought up my father, uncles and aunts is something that I am still amazed at. In her,
My friend Teddy Ruge wrote this post about the need for a fixer movement, pushing back a little on Clive Thompson’s piece in Wired Magazine. As I was thinking about the things gogo embodied, I realized that she showed us the importance of fixing things with whatever you have available.

Fix.

I have come to realize that gogo was not just a grandmother, but a maker, a fixer. In thinking about her life it shows that the story of the maker movement is as old and as intertwined with African culture as time itself. It is not just a movement in San Fransisco’s silicon valley or Berlin’s co-working spaces. It is part and parcel of our heritage. It is important to understand the things that our heritage gives us, the gifts – as part of the continuum of our work and our lives.

Early this year, my gogo passed away, and there was a sudden emptiness. I had lost my gogo, my grandmother. I had lost the woman who made fun of my braces, whose hugs were wrapped in joy, and whose laughter would fill a room. The person whom I felt grounded around. The anchor in my hectic life. It hit me hard. Turns out losing her was not just my loss our family’s loss, but also the loss to a community. During gogo’s funeral, I found out that she was not only my grandmother, she not only fed our extended family, but the community around her were touched by her kindness. She and grandpa provided matchboxes for the nearby Carmelite Monastery (a tradition our family is continuing now). Just as her sphere of influence was wide, Iam reminded that it is really important to help and be helped. It is indeed part of African cultural heritage. To open the door for others to continue the journey.

Help others

In thinking about the gifts left for us, It dawned on me, these three things that she embodied can continue to guide me in my work and be my compass for the future. Iam fortunate to work with an amazing global team that helps me figure out how to embody these ideals on several levels.

No matter the industry… Make, fix, help others.

Transparency in The Extractives Industry: A role for Tech?

On a single day in March last year, three countries — Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique announced discoveries of oil and gas (joining Uganda as possible oil and gas producers.) This was momentous, and according to this article in The East African, there are several major infrastructure projects in the East African region that are unprecedented. With all these projects in the region the question of transparency and engagement with citizens affected comes up.
Why care about transparency in the extractives industry? First and foremost, the numbers. In Charmain Gooch’s TED talk she observed:

The Africa Progress Panel led by Kofi Annan has estimated that the DRC has lost around $1.3 billion as a result, almost twice its annual health and education budget combined.
It’s this flow of money away from the citizens of resource-rich countries that makes corruption so high-stakes. Gooch presents a slide showing how in 2011, natural resource exports outweighed aid flows by nearly 19-to-1 in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That’s a lot of potential hospitals, schools, universities and business start-ups that will never materialize, she says. “That money has simply been stolen away.”

With the recent discoveries of oil, gas and minerals in the East African region do we want that statement (and that incredible ration 19-to-1!) to be true in the coming years, or what can be done differently to ensure that there is transparency that leads to accountability in the extractives sector?

I would be remiss if i did not temper this statement with an observation from Chris Blattman on corruption. That it is an Anglo-American fetish and that Westerners care about corruption far out of proportion to its impact on poverty alleviation and economic growth. More importantly in the context of this post is this statement:

i would still argue, moreover, that if outsiders want to promote prosperity, or get out of a bad equilibria, far better to talk about term limits and strengthening political parties and parliaments. People in poor countries hate corruption too, and will eventually take care of it if they have the means to mobilize and exercise voice, and hold leaders accountable. Outsiders can’t do much about that, but if they speak loudly and consistently on the subject I think they strengthen the people’s hand.

The question I have, is what can the technology community do? The means to mobilize and exercise voice are freely available to us with tools like Ushahidi, SMSsync, FrontlineSMS and others.

https://crowdmap.com/map/oiluganda/

What role can technology play?

Can platforms be used to report corruption close to the location of where it occurs? Are there secure ways BRCK + VPN = A secure blackbox for reporting corruption?

Create a feedback loop with affected community e.g Turkana people in Northern Kenya reporting via SMS about how their community is affected (positively/negatively) I am reminded of the recent announcement by Refugees United, working with Safaricom to launch a helpline for refugees to find lost family.

Could a helpline for affected community in mining areas be a way to not only provide a channel for participation, mobilize and give voice to the concerns of citizens?

Could Crowdmaps like the one tracking Ugandan oil industry prospectus be useful in keeping citizens informed of available information? Can these maps be simple clearing houses of information (the verification mechanism could be more difficult but with collaboration amongst transparency organizations, it is not a far fetched idea)

There is a great series on our blog about Anti-Corruption and transparency mapping: What can we learn and implement in our various countries?

Recent news about the signing of The Open Data Charter point to another avenue for action. What sorts of data sets should be available to help shed light on the extractives industry. Which companies are transparent about the agreements they have put in place with governments, counties, and community? If positive action is being made, are we applauding those companies and shaming the ones engaging in corrupt practices?

Charmain Gooch also noted…
“In a globalized world, corruption is truly a globalized business, and needs global solutions pushed by us citizens, right here.”

Lets have a look at Kenya (Home of Ushahidi, Mpesa, BRCK and Kenyan transparency Champion John Githongo). There are several local organizations working on issues in the extractives industry. Not necessarily the technology bit, but the gamut of concerns.Below are are a few resources, though it appears that there is more to learn and certainly more to do in this regard. If you have more resources and links, please do share in the comments and if you’d like to partner with us, do let us know how we can be of assistance to help answer the above questions.

1. Open Governance in the Extractive sector – Africa. This is in development phase. They would like to create a platform for dialogue and a framework for engagement. (Do let us know how we can help at Ushahidi)
2. Institute for Human Rights and Business – This appears to be trying to influence the decision makers at the UN level. Would be good to know more about how human rights violations are reported and if there is a role for tech and dynamic data collection to feed into the reports.
3. Kenya Mining Licences Map! This is great. Certainly applauding the work of Majala and Kenya’s Ministry of Mining for putting this together. Check it out, dig into the data.

Kenya Mining Licenses Map http://www.flexicadastre.com/kenya/ (Thank you Majala!)

Many thanks to Charles Wanguhu of AfriCog, Majala Mlagui of Thamani Gems and John Githongo for the inspiration.

On BRCK, Ushahidi and TED. Thank you all!

The last couple of weeks have been intense. Preparing for a TED talk is not easy, but with June Cohen, Kellie Stoetzel and Roxanne, I was better prepared and more confident than If I had not rehearsed with them. We had some moments where electricity would go out on my side in Nairobi and I would wish I had a BRCK with me. This is just a brief note to thank them for helping me, especially June for her encouragement, feedback and the invitation to speak.

There are others i did not mention in the talk, including Ory Okolloh,The Ushahidi Board, Reg Orton, Philip Walton, Jon Shuler, Mark Kamau and of course my family. I would be remiss if I did not correct that here at the very least. It is not with any ill intent that I did not include you in the talk, you all have my thanks and appreciation. I will be looking through the many comments on TED.com and also responding to feedback I’ve received directly from friends and colleagues in the tech space.

It is a long journey we are on, and I am especially happy to be part of the arc of technology in Africa. Ultimately, the hope is that we can make more, fix things and help each other. Onward.

Learning from Lagos

Earlier this month I finally got a chance to go to Lagos, Nigeria. It left an indelible mark in my mind. Lagos is a gorgeous city, intoxicating and yes, a little gritty but all in all completely intriguing. Intriguing in its scale, its people, and its location. Free flow of thoughts below on what I learned and observed.

You can either experience the Lagos of possibility or of gridlock. It depends on your mental frame. One of the hosts told me that you can attract your own Lagos. You just need to bring an effortless and authentic personality.

You can either be an Afro-pessimist or an Afro-optimist. Either way, you’d better be hustling.  I see several newcomers in Kenya putting down entrepreneurs and regurgitating old stereotypes, even referring to friends in co-working spaces like iHub as ‘monkeys’. (Whole other story that I won’t even get into right now.)

Being in Lagos, I was quite encouraged and happy to see the forward momentum in service provision, infrastructure and even waste management.
I was part of a small group that was given a tour of the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system complete with NFC technology for easy payment. The BRT system moves Lagosians quickly through the city in a very efficient manner. The fleet I saw was impressive, not in the shiny super new kind of way…more so in a functional, well maintained somewhat old fleet, yet orderly kind of way. The investment in infrastructure is continuing, with a new light rail system that is on course to be opened in 2016.
As you make your way around the city, there are people with orange coats emblazoned with LAWMA. This stands for Lagos Waste Management Authority, which is ensuring that the city is cleaned up and waste is processed. Clearly there is order from the chaos you thought Lagos was wrought and overrun with.

Lagosian

 

The infrastructure of the mind: This is a key idea that I encountered when Moji Rhodes gave an overview of the efforts by the state of Lagos to not only improve the lives of Lagosians, but to empower them. As is similar in most parts of Africa, there is no escaping the colonial baggage that saddles culture, inefficient legacy systems, land allocation problems…the list can go on and on. The infrastructure of the mind alludes to the cultural renaissance that I think needs to be fostered even more. It is as essential as economic growth in the betterment of African cities. Lagos is ahead in this regard.

What remained in my mind most of all is the immense potential to leverage technology in the service of citizens. EIE – Enough is Enough Nigeria, Sahara Reporters, CCHub, Wennovation, and so many other examples of initiatives that will be integral to helping Lagos youth to engage, have a say and to give back.
I am reminded of the seminal quote for 2012
The role of citizen does not end with a vote – President Barack Obama during his acceptance speech.
How can we set up end to end systems that help citizens beyond elections?
In the case of Lagos, there is potential of impacting almost 8 million people with information services. I am awe struck by the immense opportunity and hats of to the people already investing their time and energy to doing this.

The larger question that I think many cities are trying to answer is how can cities provide services in order to draw the creative, maker, entrepreneurial class? Small and medium sized businesses still power many economies. In Africa, it becomes even more important to invest in growing this segment of the economy. I saw many MTN Mobile money ads, this is likely to be a major growth area for Lagos.

I am curious about culture based design in African cities. From architecture of technology systems that can provide utility and help tackle the unique problem sets of Lagos and Nairobi. Perhaps just effective design in a global sense needs to be applied to the many problems of a complex, growing, vibrant city like Lagos. There is lots to learn, but more so, I think there is so much more to do to connect innovators globally to the important problem sets on the ground. The hard work is of course the end to end workflow of making sure we do not just think of the tech, but the Technium and the ecosystems of the future. The most famous example of a truly unique, effective and Lagosian ecosystem is ofcourse Nollywood.

Through music and fashion I saw glimpses of even more ecosystems being redefined right now in Lagos.

Pictures: Lagos on Africa Knows
Follow: Moji Rhodes, Teju Cole
Read: Omoluwabi 2.0 A Code of Transformation in 21st Century Nigeria by Adewale Ajadi
Monopoly Game: City of Lagos Edition
Jam to: Davido – Dami Duro
Chidinma: Kedike,
D’banj – Oliver Twist

Design with the other 90% CITIES

I wrote a piece in the book Design with the Other 90%: CITIES. The book and exhibition was curated by Cynthia Smith. For the interested, there is a traveling exhibition in the following cities.

Sept. 14-Jan. 7, 2013
Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

On view through Jan. 5, 2013
Mercy Corps’ Action Center and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Ore.

Do check it out if it is near your neighborhood.

Old fishing basket, now a lampshade

Speaking of design… This is a fishing basket that Dipesh Pabari repurposed into a lovely lampshade. I think it is pretty cool.

It is not about Technology, it is about People

I am still thinking about Riyaad Minty’s reminder about people. One that I would like to share with you here with his permission

All this talk on the role of social media in times of crisis really gets to

me. We’re not living in 2008 anymore folks. Yes, governments and people use twitter and facebook [and others. Thanks for pointing it out… again. Every news story is about PEOPLE. Real people. Who are impacted by something that most of us can never really understand. We sit and go through a ton of unedited footage of the
direct impact a bomb blast has on community, on a family. It’s shocking. It’s horrific. It’s real. Stop talking about the technology. Talk about the people and the issues – this applies to every story, from war to protests to natural disasters. And I say this as someone who runs the Social Media for one of the largest news organisations in the world.

It is particularly apt for technologists and a very important thing to remember when we talk about the systems that we make. It is just as important to focus on the people behind the stories, the report behind the red dot. A reminder to empathize, and whenever possible to assist in the alleviation of suffering. As humans we seriously need to be reminded what it means to have your life suddenly turned upside down. Whatever form that might be. Be it from poverty, war or natural disaster. We’ve seen so many affected, from Haiti, Cuba, North Eastern America, to Palestine and Israel and in my current location – Kenya. We need to zoom in, care and assist someone. Start somewhere…and as Jen Pahlka of CodeforAmerica recently told me. Lets work on the hard stuff.

Ubuntu

I am getting increasingly interested in Complex systems science, not just to understand our complex world, but also to learn what can be done in terms of collaborative problem solving. The pre-eminent organization NECSI that studies this makes a point that I think bears repeating, and points as to why we should exceedingly care about individuals when systems start breaking.

“Losing pieces indiscriminately from a highly complex system is very dangerous,” said Dr. Bar-Yam. “One of the most profound results of complex systems research is that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter.” According to Bar-Yam, understanding the weaknesses of civilization is critical to our ongoing existence. “Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways,” he said. “This is not widely understood.”

Other resources:
Book: Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron Cohen
Map: War on Gaza by AlJazeera
Follow Red Cross Kenya in covering the grenade attacks in Kenya, Javin Ochieng too