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

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

On Innovation

There are many tomes, missives and observations on Innovation, that it demands freedom, that it is evenly distributed and should be fostered organizationally and even on a country level

 

Allow me to add one.
To be innovative, you need a healthy modicum of humility. Many a conference has the theme of innovation as part of discussion in almost anything. Innovation in technological context, in development and most recently, innovation in philanthropy. Innovation is something many technologists, futurists and business leaders are in search of. It is like the modern day holy grail in the face of disruptive tech trends that usurp business models, not to mention Moore’s law being ever more apropos with every product launch cycle.

 

As part of the Co-Founding team of Ushahidi, I have the privilege of working with an incredible team that is globally dispersed, with our team call every week encompassing 7 timezones. I mention this because as we have built platforms and tools over the past 3 years, I am continually learning about what it means to innovate. I say continually, because it is a process that is ongoing and does not stop at having a cloud based service (Crowdmap) mobile applications and a semantic data collection curation tools in the pipeline (SwiftRiver). One of the key things I have learned about innovation is that it takes humility to get on the ground; sometimes quite literally, to appreciate the view of an issue or a problem or simply someone else’s story. This became quite clear to me when I was in Zambia last September for the elections, the Ushahidi platform was used to crowd source information about the electoral process. Problem: Being surrounded by rowdy youth, as we approached a polling station; this after checking with the police station and being told that all was well. I did not sign up for alerts from Bantuwatch.org. If I had done so, I would have realized that the reality on the ground was quite different. The view from the ground or the crowd is one you need when assessing any situation.

 

 

As part of the Ushahidi strategy we started an innovation hub in Nairobi. My colleagues and I agreed that we needed to give back to the tech community that helped us get to the global stage plus, we needed a base and office in Kenya. With generous support of The Omidyar Network and Hivos we set out to create a space for technologists, business leaders, developers, designers and the larger tech community. The space helps us convene, collaborate and celebrate this narrative of African tech. Each day, developers congregate, work through their vision of what utility they can provide, we hack, play foosball, have coffee and hack some more, get on Skype calls at odd times of the night, then yes…hack some more after that. Ushahidi is still largely virtual, it is in our DNA after all; the iHub is one of those nodes of communities that is a key part of our interactions. Other nodes are the offices of our partners in the bay area, Mozilla who let us organize meet ups and the countless coffee shops and co-working spaces that cater to the modern day location agnostic web worker, volunteer or simply…geek.

 

Being on the ground, connecting with each node in our global interconnected community is something I can honestly term a gift. In September I travelled to Lusaka, Zambia on the eve of elections. There, I got to see first hand how our platform was being deployed on the ground, publicized over radio; to give citizens a voice during the elections there. While I was there, I met with a group of young developers, volunteers and journalists who were exploring how to grow the nascent tech community in Lusaka. It reminded me of the early days pre-Ushahidi, where Erik, myself, Jason Mule, Shashank Bengali, Brian Muita and others would meet at restaurants that had wifi, to connect. To share, and later, to collaborate. That network that exists in real life and virtually, is one that is without the brick and mortar of co-working spaces and set the foundation for what happened after. I think that is what I helped us innovate. A mix of on-the-ground reality, David Kobia’s coding jujitsu and most of all the open source community online. This is a mix that works for us and we learn together to build the global Ushahidi community. It is not easy. One thing is that when people are gathered based on passion for what they do that is when you see innovations. When there is a direct correlation between the problem and the possible solution, the promise of the tech entrepreneur or mobile developer is to architect the avenue. Pierre Omidyar observed this at ONEF 2011 and I see it in Africa’s techies. We have a long way to go, but we can imagine the world differently and go about building out our vision. Having the tools and the team to do this is like being handed Thor’s hammer.

 

I notice the growth of similar spaces like the iHub in Africa (with glee!) and I notice that countries and philanthropic organizations are setting up self styled tech cities. Some will work, some will not work. In Kenya there is the idea of Konza City. While it looks great on paper and I really would like to see it happen, but I am cautiously optimistic. Why? Partly because of what Roger Malina’s analysis, that most governments haven’t a clue how to innovate, much less foster it. He included much more than I can add here, if you have 21 minutes, definitely watch his talk.

 

For nations and Foundations; If the goal is to spur innovation, it takes humility to listen, to look around and participate with innovators wherever they may be first. To see potential where others see trash, to support and uplift without supplanting and dictating. To connect with others based on passion, that is where where the most influence happens. There is a need for acknowledgment that innovation is a culture with a thumbprint that can be unique, dynamic and most of all long range. One has to think about social Impact, philanthropy or investing. To see solutions where others see problems you have to get back on the ground and listen. This is something we are striving for as we grow Ushahidi around the world and invite others to join us in translating, localizing and Crowdmapping the issues you care about, build communities around the issues and explore solutions collaboratively.

 

PS: Currently heading to Davos from DLD2012 if you’d like to collaborate on Innovation, Tech, Africa, ping me using the contact form above or @afromusing on twitter.

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 Noula.ht. 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

Nerds Need Art

Digital art.
At Ars Electronica in Linz, I was struck by the amazing pieces exhibited, and more so by the Ars Electronica center. It is set very near to a bridge on the Danube river.The Exhibitions archive page uses a schematic of the center to give you an idea of what is curated where.

Ars Electronnica Center Schematics (roughly)

The outdoor space atop the main gallery and before the future lab space seems to tie the old architecture of the church to the futuristic style of the Ars Center. Click on the image below for a larger size, the church is to the left of the future lab stairs.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

It is one of those buildings that people either love or hate…I loved it. At night, the LED lights that line the outer glass wall change color. Something like a nocturnal visual surprise every time you glance at it.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

The festival itself is something to experience. Since its now over, i would highly recommend visiting the Ars Electronica center to see some of the pieces that formed a benchmark of the festival. Besides, I am convinced that Linz would make a perfect location for any techy, futuristic or even a good action movie. Be it Minority Report 2 or next Bond 007, I can totally vouch for the stunning imagery it would evoke if someone like Daniel Craig would rappel down the Ars Center and straight into a boat on the Danube. (Spielberg, Soderberg, Wachowski brothers and whoever produces 007 – you are welcome :-))

Ahem, pardon my digression. Back to nerds needing art.

This has admittedly been a very busy year for me, and I have to admit that I did not expect it to be. With time, I’ve realized that being in the tech space can sometimes sap your sense of wonder. Or maybe its just me. If you are one of those people who feel mired in tech and sometimes feel like the ‘wow’ factor is gone when you see new innovations…and it elicits a bland ‘hmmm’ reaction and god forbid ‘meh’ – Well you need a healthy dose of art. Attending Ars Electronica helped me marvel again at what artists, architects, performance artists and idea mongers have to share. Below I will share afew of the pieces i particularly enjoyed, and provide some links to blogposts by the other wonderful speakers and friends from the Cloud Symposium.

Quartet.cc

Quartet is a Web-interactive robotic music installation. The machine you see in the live video feed is housed at an innovative museum in Linz, Austria, ARS Electronic. Seeing the machine live, inches away is an visceral experience that shows the real power of live music… and that robots can be a part of that experience. Visitors at the museum are able to enter melodies from a laptop in the museum for immediate interactivity

You play a short melody on the site Quartet.cc then you see the music interpreted onto the machine. Try it…

Since I have a thing for mobile phones (Nokia) I greatly enjoyed the robot controlled by bluetooth.
This is a picture of the phone.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

This is the little robot it controls. How fun!

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

The Anoto pen

This is basically the livescribe pen on steroids. You can write and record audio which is digitized and transferable pdf docs or uploaded online. The steroids bit: The Anoto pen can be used to navigate a map, displaying relevant data on a big screen. For example, if you click on a specific point on the map of Linz, and would like to know the demographics of the region, you can tap on the legend provided on a page to give you stats on number of divorced people between the age of 21 and 45. This was preety cool because it combines maps, tactile input of using a pen and a digital display to add more data.

Ars Electronica - ArsCloud

I got to play the loopscape game with the renowned tech journalist Cyrus Farivar. I really could claim victory, but really…it was a draw.

“loopScape” is an innovative video game for two players that blurs the conventional distinction between good and evil, between “my side” and “the opposition.”

The action does not take place on a flat display but rather on a 360 degree band arrayed around the edge of a ceiling-suspended metal doughnut circumnavigated during play. The object is to shoot down the opponent. But be careful! If a fired missile misses its target, it continues on its trajectory and threatens to strike from behind the game figure that launched it.

This loopscape game is a form of interactive device art, and for some reason, it brought to mind the idea of participatory art. Something that Wambui, Sciculturist and I were discussing at RAMOMA gallery in Nairobi. Check out this ‘Watoto Wa Kwetu’ piece by Wambui. More pics are on this flickr set. I think the loopscape game has participatory qualities just like the Watoto wa kwetu paintings, because both pieces are best experienced with others. There are some observations that Wambui made on the Watoto wa kwetu paintings that I would not have noticed. Do note that the paintings are done by a group of children, and not one artist. So, there is that aspect too.

This is just but a sampling of what was in store at Linz. I havent even touched on the animations. I hope you enjoy the perspectives shared by the others on the Cloud Symposium blog, videos posted there and the following links too.

Kristen Taylor – Mosaics, food and the cloud If you are wondering about her cool dress, its vintage. I had to ask :-) I am not much of a beer drinker, so her suggestion to get some Secco (Austrian white sparkling wine) with our dinner was just invaluable.

David Sasaki – An outsider’s guide to Linz Indispensable. His talk about cloud intelligence provided the framework for discussion that day.

I keep digressing from this nerds need art theme, but hopefully i can tie it all together.

In the quest to not lose your sense of wonder, sometimes you need to look inward, be quiet and just think about the bigger picture. To find the creative place. If you’ve ever used the words ‘code is poetry’ ‘Math is elegant’ or ‘no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should’. There is this need to look inward, to find that inner muse and embrace the imagination. I think whenever you need to go to such a place, art can provide that gateway.

The Thinking Chair by Arthur Ganson

Where does inanimate material end and where does life begin? Arthur Ganson lets his “Thinking Chair” straddle the boundary between those two states. Through its movements—which resemble the gait of a human being walking on two legs—the chair exhibits animate traits. Arthur Ganson had the idea that led to this work while taking a walk. Near his studio, there is a small rock outcropping on a trail, which he likes to walk around in slow circles, deep in thought. During this walking meditation, each cycle finds him back in the same physical place but in a slightly different emotional place

Africa popping up in Trend Watch

Now this is positively surprising, though not to many Africa-watchers…
Africa is hot for business now, and its popping up in Time Mag’s trend watch. Great to see that ideas espoused at TEDGlobal Arusha 2007 are reaching the ‘center’ from the fringes.

It’s great to see Time magazine present some trends that are not obvious, well-worn, are already over. They take a chance in this list of ‘10 Ideas Changing The World Right Now.‘ The line up includes not your usual suspects. With any list like this, there is no telling which are likely, but they are at least plausible. Two extra points for a positive African scenario. The ten trends are featured in the pic below; details at the link.

Picture 38

(Via KK Lifestream.)

In the back of my mind I couldn’t help but wonder…what of the global economic crisis? Wouldn’t that put a dent in this positive outlook? Oz has a great run down of how the global crisis affects Africa.

Blurb:

1. A slump in external demand affects exports and remittances.
2. A slump in external demand lowers commodity prices. Oil producing nations such as Nigeria are particularly vulnerable.
3. Lack of credit is stifling capital inflows and trade finance in the more advanced markets like Nigeria, Botswana, Ghana, Kenya, Mozambique, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zambia.
4 The region is not immune to financial problems of its own. Credit has ballooned in many countries. Banks’ loan books are often concentrated in commodity-related industries.
5. Some retail investors borrowed heavily to punt on local stock markets.

You can also follow OZ on twitter.

\o/ Data Gathering With Mobile Phones

For those in the African technology space, the challenges of gathering data from the field in areas that are not quite ‘on-the-grid’ are apparent. Let me just keep it short by saying ‘Houston, we have a power problem’. Charging laptops when you are off-grid is not easy, but if you have a Nokia E71 that can stay for 3 days without needing a re-charge…well, you get the idea.

Last October I excitedly proclaimed just how much I loved Nokia because they had a data gathering app for E71′s, which they were making available for NGO’s to test out. Please forgive me for not blogging about it. but you can find more info on the mobile active wiki, or watch this 2 minute you-tube clip on tracking the Dengue fever in Brazil.

This brings me to the latest news from FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS forms provides a killer functionality of basically using SMS as the data carrying pigeon. This is how it works. The person running the FrontlineSMS hub creates forms with questions for the person in the field to fill in with information. The field agent only needs to have downloaded the forms client from http://forms.frontlinesms.com/, this will work on any Java enabled phone, which is preety much a whole lotta phones. They can then receive a form from the hub via sms, fill it in and send it back again via SMS. Hmm I like my data-pigeon metaphor! This eliminates the need for a GPRS connection. If the person is entering the data at a place with no mobile signal, the information is still saved in ‘offline’ mode until the phone has a mobile signal. I do have to point out that with \o/ forms you do not require an E71 or high end PDA like with the Nokia data gathering tool. I still heart Nokia, and would highly recommend the E71 if you need a smartphone.

formsclient.jpg

Read more about it over at Ken’s blog, Erik’s thoughts on the Ushahidi blog and Jon Thompson’s coverage on Aid Worker Daily.

This functionality adds more fuel to the mobile => Cloud paradigm that I feel will redefine the participation and engagement with communities in rural areas. Once the information gets back to the hub, it can sync with a web app like Ushahidi or any other web enabled implementation that takes input from the Frontline SMS hub. The pretty graphs and visualizations are best presented on the web IMO. Personally, I am looking forward to using FrontlineSMS \o/ forms to plan a kick-ass tree planting party!

PS: For \o/ users in Kenya, do note that FrontlineSMS works with the Safaricom E220 modem. If it works with the new USB stick version E160? kindly leave a comment.

When I met Ken during the Plan International workshop in Kenya, he said something that I cant help but pass along.
“Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” Keep doing whatever it is you love to do, and do not be afraid to try something new. I think Tonee and I co-opted that for our new-years motto. Seriously though, if you have ideas for using \o/ in your work, check out www.frontlinesms.com. Ken and his team have built a very useful data gathering tool that could give your project even more reach. Plus, the folks in the forums are super-nice. Really.

Lift09: Vint Cerf

To say that I feel so lucky is an understatement. Let me just get this out of the way “omg omg omg I am listening to Vint Cerf speak!’
Predictions
There will be millions of devices plugged into the internet. For example a sensor for his wine cell

ar, E.gArch Rock – Actuator’s needed to make the sensor turn it back on.
DNSSEC will have increased importance in the security of the web.

Vint loves sensors. He goes through a list of sensors he could add to his wine cellar, even the wine bottles.

IPV6
It is my fault that we ran out of IP address space – Laughter from the audience.

cloud computing introduces the internet problem all over again. How can clouds talk to each other?

well, just watch this for yourself? I am seriously in awe. InterPlaNet sounds fantastically cool. In watching his talk, i am reminded to be curious, keep your mind expanding just like the universe is. I hope to see Interstellar internet at some point. If he’s not losing packets with InterPlanet, my guess is Insterstellar internet would be just as successful.

Watch:

Why Localization Matters

Define:Localization
“In computing, internationalization and localization (also spelled internationalisation and localisation) are means of adapting computer software to different languages and regional differences. Internationalization is the process of designing a software application so that it can be adapted to various languages and regions without engineering changes. Localization is the process of adapting software for a specific region or language by adding locale-specific components and translating text.”

Whenever I think about technology and Africa, the importance of localization really sticks out in my mind. I harken back to the posts by Ethan Zuckerman and Koranteng Ofusu Amaah to revisit this issue. Ever had problems with images you uploaded to flickr?

As a software designer, Koranteng understands how hard it is to get the details of localization right – full support for different character sets and text that reads right to left instead of left to right. But he’s also interested in the cultural details of software design, which can be so subtle that you’re unlikely to detect them unless you’re directly effected by them:

Koranteng wrote:

The first thing I very quickly noticed: somehow all the photos that I uploaded to Yahoo Photos turned out darker than on Flickr (the services both resize uploaded photos). The photo-resizing algorithm used by Yahoo Photos was giving worse results. This was noticeable to me because a large number of photos featured darker-skinned people such as myself. The originals were fine and where there were lighter skin tones everything looked good, but with darker skintones, the resized photos were not so good.

Ethan noted that Koranteng found similar problems with Flickr’s flash plug-in and slideshow feature, as well as with Adobe Photoshops Quick Fix and Auto Correct options. Has anything changed since 2005 when Ethan wrote about this? I do not think so, but correct me if i am wrong.

Localization matters because cultural sensitivity in technology is paramount to designing products that work as well as possible for all communities.

Localization matters because, as this African technologist’s said…
“if it’s meant to be local, it should be locally developed” – Paa Kwesi Imbeah

So where are we today in terms of localization of software in Africa?

The most successful story that illustrates what opportunities there are in solving African (sw localization) problems with African solutions is that of Ted Kidane of Feedelix. Feedelix is currently providing products that allow SMS editing in Hindi, Chinese and Ethiopic. Software made by an African and now providing products to the world.

Another organization to watch and take note of is Kasahorow in Ghana. These guys are doing some incredibly cool stuff.
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Kasahorow has been working on the Africa keyboards to aid in writing African content, in African languages. They are doing this for all the major operating systems. More info can be found here, including a downloadable package that you can try out. If your main language is Akan, Gaa, Gbe, Hausa, Igbo, Kikuyu, Luo, Swahili, Tswana and Youruba be sure to download that package.

Kasahorow is working on the ANLoc Project; a partnership with other organizations to address the issue of localization by creating locales, building tools, terminologies, standards, etc. More info about ANLoc can be found on African localisation dot net. Gotta love their tag line ‘The African Network for Localization’

There is a firefox add-on that Kasahorow released: Ladies and gentlemen, the Akan Dictionary for Firefox 3.0. Dare I say, cool stuff indeed.

Localization matters because it is empowering.
If ANLOC can succeed in its mission to enable Africans to participate in the digital age by making it easier for people to use technology in the language they are comfortable with, this only bodes well for the preservation of African languages and even fostering innovation. Ideas expressed in many ways, not just in English. (Yes, i do enjoy pointing out the obvious sometimes)

Like Jeremy Clarke of Global Voices put it simply: English != Global. The GV Lingua project, translates GV content from English to 15 languages, with Swahili and Polish translations having been added recently. Translations work best when the person has cultural context to allow for expressions in slang and language structures that are difficult to build into machine language. This is another example of localization + aggregation of content. Dare i say again, cool stuff indeed.

Another site to keep an eye on is AppAfrica, If i am not mistaken, there will be a project to translate tutorials from English to Swahili on their code repository.

On a global level, the ubiquity (firefox) experiment from Mozilla labs seeks to empower users and lusers heh heh to control the web browser with language based instruction. They want to make this available in more than 60 languages. Check it out here, and contribute to it if you can.
Watch this clip of Aza Raskin showing how ubiquity works.


Ubiquity for Firefox from Aza Raskin on Vimeo.

All in all, in real estate they always say location, location, location…when it comes to African tech i would categorically say localization, localisation, localization. (thank the Brits and Americans for the spelling differences). I would like to hear your thoughts on localization, if you have other examples, and of course more on the mobile web, which I did not touch on on this post.

Small Scale Wind Energy – A call for papers

Via Afriwea

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An International Workshop on Small Scale wind energy For Developing Countries will be held
September 14-16, 2009, Nairobi, Kenya
The workshop will cover the following main themes:

Wind energy technologies, their perspectives and applications in developing countries,

Reliability of wind turbines, lifetime and strength of wind turbine components,

Low cost and natural materials for wind turbines,

Case studies, social and economic aspects of wind energy in developing countries.

Abstract Submission

Please submit a two-page abstract (700-800 words, in MS Word format) by e-mail to haqi [at] risoe[dot]dtu[dot]dk no later than March 15, 2008. Authors will be notified of the Committee’s
decisions shortly thereafter.

Registration

All participants are requested to register before March 20, 2009. The registration fee is 200 EURO
for participants from developed countries, and 1200 Kenyan shillings for the participants from
developing countries
. After March 21, 2009, the registration fee increases to 350 EURO (developed
countries) and 3000 Kenyan shillings (developing countries), respectively. The payment of the
registration fee should be made either by credit card (Euro, Master or Visa), or by bank transfer.
Finally, after June 15, 2009, we take additionally late-registration fee of 70 EURO and 1000
shillings, for developed and developing countries respectively. The registration includes the access
to the sessions, coffee/refreshment and lunch/dinner.

Download the Workshop2009.pdf here.

PS: please stop laughing at the logo. My explanation, a lion was standing near a wind turbine, it farted a lightbulb or had a brilliant idea.