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.


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

The Internet of Things, meet crowdsourcing

Over the last year I have had the great fortune of mind melding with various people with incredible ideas. As some of you may know, I am involved in Ushahidi, an open source platform for data collection, visualization and interactive mapping. Ushahidi has gotten its notoriety in the crowdsourcing sphere, with growing adoption around the world. From Kenya to Russia, Poland, Mexico, South Africa, Italy and countless other countries; it is something I continue to marvel at while enjoying the ride of learning; with a global community of hackers from Ghana, Malawi, Netherlands, US, Kenya, Poland etc, I marvel even more.

The idea behind the platform is simple. That anyone, given a channel to say ‘This is what I see’ and send that information via SMS, email, web and twitter. With Ushahidi’s plethora of mobile apps, reporting via smartphones can also be done quite seamlessly. With the Android app SMSsync, you can be your own SMS gateway. What this means is you can run a hub from your Android phone, such that any sms’s sent to you get sync’ed with a call back URL which can be an Ushahidi deployment or another server based application. So with the channels of data collection sorted, you of course have the processing capability that is available on the cloud (Think SwiftRiver), and the visualization component which can help convey the data in a compelling way.Maps. Things are getting even more compelling with plugins such as Cloudmade (Think preety, preety maps), and bookmarklets that can overlay Ushahidi data with other data available in the open layers format. Point is, the tools to create a visual from the collected data is also sorted. Beautifully too.

Now to the Internet of things. My first encounter with this idea was from listening to Elder of the Internet Vint Cerf at Lift09. He mentioned how you can have sensors in your cellar that make sure the temperature of the wine stays constant, and does some automatic reporting via internet to you if there is an anomaly. Those sensors have IP addresses and are nodes in your network. I did not think of it in terms of ‘Internet of Things’ at the time, but looking back now, that is exactly what he was describing. Other sensors abound, from the innovative Enphase inverter for giving you information on your energy generation from solar panels to the trash tracking devices used in the MIT Senseable City lab projects. Another great way to grasp this concept is to check out the twitter account of London’s Tower Bridge, and read this account of how it was set to tweet.

Now take these two ideas and meld them in different ways. Allow me to use the word holistic. As in holistic near ‘real time sense-making‘, incorporating the internet of things, with crowdsourced data delivered through channels that encourage participation. There is an opportunity to see things dynamically and not just do after-the-fact post mortem. This could work for flash point events like the Haiti earthquake (taking data form Geiger counters etc + crowdsourced data like that available on the haiti deployment run by It could also work for longer term events such as the BP Oil spill in Louisiana.

…the closer to real-time one can get the right answer and respond, the better. And milliseconds matter.

-Jeff Jonas on a smarter planet

– Data from things/sensors can trigger a report online if a tracked value reaches a certain threshold or meets certain criteria. For example, the Copenhagen Wheel by MIT Senseable lab. The wheel contains sensors that monitor carbon monoxide levels in the air,NOx/Nitrogen Oxides, a measure of air pollution, noise, ambient temperature and relative humidity. The data is accessible on a mobile phone app and can be shared with friends or even the city.

– Data from people filling out a form, sending an email, SMS or twitter message. This can be qualitative in nature, and use of the Ushahidi platform provides a way for citizens to participate in data gathering, plus sign up for alerts that are relevant to their concerns. An example that can be useful to check out is the Where Are The Cuts map from The Open Knowledge Foundation in the UK.

Combining the various sources of data (Open layers can be used to distinguish various types of data/color coding points of data can help to differentiate between sensor data and crowdsourced data). A dynamic map of information can then emerge that is not so much a snapshot, but an animation.

Cue: Augmented Reality (AR).
The Mobile Individual Measurements of Air Quality (MIMAQ) project out of Netherlands gives a perfect example of combining sensors, air pollution information and AR.

This wired piece on ‘When augmented reality hits the Internet of Things’ is also instructive and interesting.

Max Planck quote

Change is at times compelled by insight. The insight from using technologies/ideas outlined above could lead to behaviour change if we can make data relevant to an individual. Relevant to the decisions they have to make based on the information they have at the time. For an idea that mixes some of the above ideas and adds relevance, have a look at Mapnificent.

Mapnificent from Stefan Wehrmeyer on Vimeo.

[Mapnificent] …allows you to set a point in your chosen city and a map will display the entire area over which you could travel by public transit in a given amount of time. It also allows you to see an area that is both 15 minutes away from yourself and 15 minutes away from a friend by transit, and since it is integrated with Google Maps, allows you to search destinations within that specified area.

The recent deployment of the Ushahidi platform by The South China Morning Post is one to watch. “CitizenMap starts with environmental issues, focusing on the destruction of natural beauty in Hong Kong – from illegal dumping to unauthorized development, from vegetation removal to columbarium construction.”

Citizen map Hong Kong

The reason why this could be interesting, is that it has the potential to give journalists leads that they can follow up on and gather more facts on issues such as toxic waste dumping. It is harnessing the power of the people to help make Hong Kong a better place. This feeds into the idea of changing behaviour. If individuals/corporations realize that the public is watching and able to report incidents, would they still engage in such activities?

Say we had near-real time crowdsourced data from the public, and data from sensors all in the public domain; what could we do? What kind of projects could we come up with?

During TEDxNairobi, Erik Kigada an architect with Planning Systems shocked many of us in the audience by revealing something we did not know about. The city of Nairobi does not have a coherent master plan. The city is using 1999 plans to build in 2010. This presents myriad problems for businesses and individuals who need to plan. His point was made stark by the road construction happening while the event was going on. If a master plan existed showing that a bypass was planned, the architect who built the auditorium would not have put it near the road. There is an opportunity for emerging economies, rapidly growing cities to become smart cities. They can do this by taking a cue from the Senseable city projects. Current, near-real time data can be gathered with the help of the crowd, to provide pertinent information to urban planners, academics and leaders. The hope here is that they can make well informed decisions that take into account the flowing reality of the city.

Insight from data can be used to leapfrog.” -Assaf Biderman

There is also the opportunity for education and academia to use participatory systems to link science, data and student participation. Relating the exploration of built/urban environment to the scientific method of observation, data collection and analysis.

I am interested in your ideas on how we can use these technologies and ideas to address the many challenges facing our world in Health, Education and Environment. I am particularly interested in figuring out a joint project in Kenya, please leave a comment or contact me to explore and collaborate.

Events to check out if you are interested in this topic:
-The Urban Internet of Things Conference Tokyo Nov 29th – Dec 01
– Vlad Trifa’s Lift@home workshop ‘Hack your city – Urban IOT after party’ Nov 29th Tokyo
– Open Data Hack Day Dec 4th all over the world
Workshop on Applications of Wireless Sensor Networks for Environmental Monitoring in Developing Countries to be followed by Conference on Wireless Sensors Technologies for Environmental Monitoring 28th February – 11th March 2011 Trieste, Italy.

Additional resources/reading
MIT Senseable City site and twitter @SenseableCity
– Peter Hirshberg’s blog
– Free M-science book Sensing, Computing and Dissemination
– UCLA Center for Embedded Network Sensing CENS
– JP De Vooght blog and twitter @jdevoo. This post titled ‘Arduino Meets Ushahidi’ is particularly fun.
– The Economist special report on smart systems
Jeff Jonas blog IBM

Land Grab Right on The Green Belt?

Spring Valley Nairobi – An area that was supposedly protected by the Green Belt Movement is now being built up by a developer. The Green Belt Movement is the organization founded by the venerable Prof. Wangari Maathai, a nobel laureate and actually a heroine of mine. I ask about this because there are more questions than I have answers, when I drove by this area in late 2006 and late 2007 my impression was that the whole valley around the signboard was part of the Green Belt Movement protected area. At the time the whole place just had trees and a few vegetable gardens. Am I mistaken?

Land grabbed or not?

The sign board is now an exercise in utter irony

Land grabbed or not?

Fence around the property

Land grabbed or not?

view from the road

Land grabbed or not?

view from the side.
All pics taken June 28th 2009.

Anyone with more info, please comment.

Milking The Rhino – Screenings in Africa

Happy New year!

Late last year, I wrote about the film Milking The Rhino, and promised to update once a screening of the film is confirmed in Nairobi.

Milking The Rhino

I am pleased to invite you to the premiere film screening of Milking The Rhino

Tuesday January 13th 2009 at 5 p.m

Goethe Institut – Corner of Loita/Monrovia Street Maendeleo House

Cost: Free

The film will run for 85 minutes and there will be time for discussion following the screening. Some special guests featured in the film will likely be in attendance, Dr. Helen Gichohi, President of the African Wildlife Society in Nairobi and if possible, a representative of the Lewa Conservancy. Do join us for a discussion on community conservation, environment and film.

I will have some cool MTR buttons to hand out, and believe me, it would be well worth your evening to attend this screening.

You can RSVP on the facebook event page if you will be there.

January 28th 2009 – Accra, Ghana

EcoLab Conference
Hosted by The Society for Conservation Biology and Ecological Lab Unit of University of Ghana. MTR will be screening with a reception to follow.

*Many thanks to KikuyuMoja, Barbara Reich of Goethe Institute, Xan Aranda of Kartemquin films, William Deed of the Mara Conservancy and last but not least Jeannie Magill the executive producer of MTR for making this happen.

Do come and milk the rhino! 🙂

For info on other screenings in US and the rest of the world, please check the MTR website.

Milking The Rhino: Conservation, Community and Empowerment

Last month, I was very fortunate to attend the premiere of the film ‘Milking The Rhino’ at the Gene Siskel Film center in Chicago.
Milking The Rhino

This film left an big impression on me. Long time readers of this blog know that I do have granola-head, green thumb, renewable-energy obsession, tree-huggery tendencies, so no surprise there eh.
Without giving too much away…the film opened my eyes to the link between Kenya’s history and our attitudes towards conservation. Before the British came, Kenyan communities had traditions around hunting wild animals (These traditions and folklore still persist – I visited
Samburu in 2006 and learned a wee bit about this). I would posit that it was sustainable, because there was some balance between the hunting that was done and the populations of wildlife. When laws were enacted to forbid Kenyans from hunting…something they had been doing for millennia, that relationship with the natural world was broken. Why would one want to protect something that they are not benefitting from? Wildlife started to be seen as a nuisance. Granted that there is demand for ‘exotic’ skins, tusks, and bone from wild animals particularly in Asia; one of the factors behind poaching in the parks, there are instances of communities killing wildlife because their crops were destroyed by animals such as Elephants. Still, our attitudes towards conservation and environment bear some reflection.

The film profiles two communities, one in Kenya, at the Il Ngwesi lodge and the Lewa Conservancy, and another in Namibia. The narration is brilliantly voiced by a Kenyan Munyikombo Bukusi, a very talented guy. This film had me making plans to visit Il Ngwesi Group Ranch, if you need a place to get away and relax your cares away…Il Ngwesi lodge looks like just the place to go.

The blurb from the film’s site gives you a glimpse into the documentary…

A ferocious kill on the Serengeti, warnings about endangered species
These cliches of nature documentaries ignore a key landscape feature: villagers just off-camera, who navigate the dangers and costs of living with wildlife.
The Maasai of Kenya and Namibians Himba two of Earth’s oldest cattle cultures are in the midst of upheaval. After a century of white man conservation,which displaced them and fueled resentment towards wildlife, they are vying to share the wildlife-tourism pie.
Community-based conservation, which tries to balance the needs of wildlife and people, has been touted by environmentalists as win-win. The reality is more complex. Charting the collision of ancient ways with Western expectations, MILKING THE RHINO tells intimate, hopeful and heartbreaking stories of people facing deep cultural change.

The film will premiere on PBS Spring 2009, hosted by Terence Howard (the famous actor – Crash, Hustle & Flow etc)
Till then, the following festivals and screenings are your best chance of watching it. If you cannot wait, you can purchase the DVD for $25.00 from Kartemquin films, just contact Xan. I would highly recommend the DVD.


November 2nd 2008 3pm: Chicago Humanities FestivalChicago Cultural Center

International Premiere
International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA)
November 2008

Washington, D.C. Premiere : D.C. Environmental Film Festival
March 11 – 22, 2009

*I will update this post if there will be screenings in Kenya. (I am asking about this and hoping we can arrange one soon)

Geo-Engineering – A Big Ridiculous Idea?

In the September 10th 2008 issue of the Economist, there was an article about Geo-engineering, describing the ‘Transactional Analysis’ document from the Royal scientist
In the paper, the idea of planting trees was was ‘alluded to but not discussed’.

A second idea for scrubbing excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, alluded to in the Transactions but not much discussed, is to plant more trees. In principle, any old trees would do—although they die and rot, more forest cover would lock up more carbon dioxide. However, genetically modified trees might grow faster. Such trees are being developed to help the lumber, pulp and biofuel industries. But fast-growing forests could also be planted in order to capture carbon dioxide quickly.

Funny, this is the idea that seems doable yet it is not given much attention. Amongst other benefits, trees would help reclaim water catchment areas that are dwindling as we speak, and while we are at, why not encourage planting indigenous trees to enhance plant diversity?

calmly rolling

It warms my heart when right wingers like Pat Robertson can sit with Al Sharpton on a setee by the beach, and proclaim that they see eye to eye on the climate crisis. The ads just point people to visit A website will not a crisis avert. Granted they are are trying to create a community/movement, but that wont do much in my opinion. The ads would have been more effective if they pointed out one demonstrable action that people can take (I’d suggest urging people to plant trees) AND visit Al, I love you, but please find a more practical way, or change ad agencies.

Planting trees; though quite obvious seems to make much more sense to me than giant rotating cylinders that create the ‘magnus effect’. It makes more sense that putting sulphur in jet fuel, flying in high altitudes and polluting the atmosphere so the sulphur crystals can reflect the sun’s rays off the earth. Don’t get me wrong, I would really like to believe that I am open-minded the big ideas put forth in the transactional paper. I do agree that the climate crisis is one big ginormous problem that threatens the future stability of the world, heck my grandma told me climate change is real. What is being done NOW to adapt to climate change? What are we doing to reclaim our rapidly deforested areas? Big questions. Yet, we can start with simple, yet obvious actions like planting trees.

In the quest to make it a cool thing to do (Gardeners and tree huggers are hardly rock stars) perhaps borrowing an idea from Joi Ito, he tags photos on his flickr stream with ‘freesouls’ How about we begin a tag ‘greensouls’ where you take a picture of someone/yourself planting a tree, upload to flickr, tag it and if you can, geo-tag it as ‘greensoul’?

Oh, if you can find a trader who can help monetize the tree planting to carbon credits, I would very much like to assuage my carbon guilt. I seem to have added it to my catholic guilt so now I have much more guilt than I know what to do with. It does not help that some friends keep chiding me about my carbon footprint.

Connecting Green Dots in Capetown SA

Last Saturday I had the privilege of meeting with the green bloggers in South Africa. Rafiq Phillips was the best guide anyone could ask for, a TEDster, blogger and twitterer extraordinaire I am thankful to h

im for showing me around Cape Town.

Blogging about the environment is a multi-faceted endeavor, because it is such a broad topic. This was reflected in the concerns brought to the table by bloggers, and when you visit their blogs, you will see that each of them writes about the environment with a different style, and that they have varying concerns. From Green building techniques and green-tech on Carbon Smart, to reviews of eateries and films on Relax with Dax…The South African bloggers have passion for the environment and are part of the ‘green movement’ happening world wide. The question I was asked was, how come the bloggers in South Africa are the most active African writing about the environment? Part of the reason is the digital divide. The internet penetration rate in South Africa is relatively higher compared to other Sub Saharan countries. We have not seen more ‘green bloggers’ emerge in other parts of Africa in as big a way as they have in South Africa (particularly Cape town) I am no social scientist, but I do hope that as internet penetration rates increase in Africa, that we have more people writing about issues relating to the environment.

We discussed the business of blogging briefly, particularly whether to accept advertising on your site, particularly whether you can do this effectively without compromising your ‘voice’. For example if you do not condone the actions of a multinational company, yet when you have google ads, their ad could appear on your site. How do you manage that effectively? This remained an open question, though Wanda of UrbanSprout suggested having control over which ads can appear on your site with whichever method of ad service you pick.

Another issue was brought up by Rafaela of greenflavour, about using blogs for environmental activism. The resulting actions such as cease and desist letters from companies that try to sue you for stating an opinion. I did mention as a resource, and checking the Berkman Center for Internet and Society on guidance in terms of law and free speech online.

Rory of Carbonsmart challenged all of us that we need to show transformation, to show that the environmental movement is happening, and that people are thinking about their impact on the environment and doing something about it. To this end, Rory has began a mapping project called ‘Greening Africa’. The map was mentioned on an earlier post on GV enviro.

Glen of Urbansprout is considering creating a map of the information contained in the exhaustive directory of green businesses. He and Wanda created the directory from scratch and it is currently part of the Urbansprout site. It is a good resource for the many football fans flocking to South Africa in 2010 for the the world cup. Do bookmark, as he gets this project together.

There were so many other great conversations, but the consensus was that this was the first of many such gatherings for bloggers who share a concern for the environment to meet, exchange ideas and collaborate on various initiatives. I would like to thank each and every one of the bloggers who attended. I hope that this is but the beginning of many more meetups. I left encouraged, and inspired by the environment bloggers of the Mother City.

South African Green Blogger Meetup

Links to their blogs are listed here (in no particular order).

Rory Carbon Smart

Dax Relax with Dax

Glen urbansprout

Wanda Urbansprout

Cecile Dream in Green

Candice Aspirant Locavore

Raffaella Green Flavour

Tracy Capetown Oracle and EcoStreet

Update: One more link…Ian ‘GreenMan’, I have been reading his blog for years and can’t believe I forgot to include a link.

The wiki is available for future meetups and as always if there is a blogger interested in joining the Global voices team for enviro-bloggers, please let me know.

Pictures of Capetown are posted on the flickr set ‘I love Capetown’. Thanks again to the enviro-bloggers in South Africa for their time and for their hospitality.

Nairobi: Recycling center overwhelmed

The Karen Langata District Association (KLDA) runs a bottle bank at the Langata Link complex where residents of Karen and Langata can drop off empty glass bottles for recycling. Lately they have been receiving huge amounts of bottles and the glass company responsible for collecting these is not able to cope. They are looking for groups / organizations interested in collecting the bottles to contact them on tel. 891784 or 020-2304844.

(Hat Tip B – From Kenya Buzz)

Film Competition by World Bank – Social Dimensions of Climate Change

Crossposted on Global Voices.

The world bank has a call for submissions of short 2-5 minute documentaries that show the social effects or aspects of climate change. The deadline for the competition is October 24th 2008. They would like submissions from developing countries (particularly from the youth), covering any of the following categories.

Conflict: As climate change results in scarcity of resources and economic and, in many cases, political instability, how may it lead to social unrest and armed conflict?

Migration: Are there any links between climate change and population migration?

Social Policy: How do governments prepare effective social policy to meet climate change challenges?

Drylands: What is the social response in drylands related to climate change?

Urban Space: How do climate change adaptation measures take into account the needs of the poor in the urban environment?

Rural Institutions: How do local level institutions in agrarian societies build capacity to handle risks associated to climate change and deliver solutions?

Indigenous Peoples: How are Indigenous Peoples responding and adapting to the impacts of climate change?

Gender: Are there different implications of climate change for men and women, boys and girls? How or where can instances of this be seen?

Governance: How can social accountability be promoted in climate action?

Forests: What are the threats and opportunities for local communities in efforts to reduce emissions from deforestation and degradation?

Human Rights: What are the human rights implications of climate change?
More information about the competition is available here.
Below is the call for submissions video.

Monday Inspiration: Corneille Ewango

The botanist Corneille Ewango talks about his work in the Congo to protect the forest giraffe or ‘Okapi’. He touches on the effect of the war, mentioning the mineral coltan which is used in electronics like your cellphone. Do note that coltan has fueled the war in the Congo for many years.

He also goes over his life story, which personifies courage and endurance in the face of difficult circumstances.
If you are not able to view the video, you can read a summary by EthanZ.