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

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.

South Africa: State of The Mobile Web

SA_image.png Via ICT4D on Twitter

The Opera Mini mobile browser is gaining popularity even in my household (ahem Nokia E71), and the latest numbers from the State of the mobile web indicate the stats for SA. I did not find any stats on Kenyan usage, i suspect its still not a ‘critical mass’ to warrant inclusion in SMW. Would be curious if anyone has mobile web stats from Kenya, please share, because Tim Berners Lee said so!

Download SMW PDF here and read a summary with highlights and pretty graphs here.

From the report:

In 2008, we saw strong growth in Opera Mini usage all over the world, in both developed and developing countries. Social networks and search engines were competitive, as Opera Mini users determined their preferences.

emphasis is mine
I would not be surprised if traffic from the developing world eclipses that of the developed world in the coming years. If over 80% of BBC mobile site’s traffic comes from Africa…we are likely to see more dominance of mobile web usage by my fellow Africans.
I heard this bbc stat last year and cant for the life of me find the document it was mentioned in. Halp?!

Snapshot: South Africa (# of unique users)
Top 10 sites in South Africa (# of unique users)

1) facebook.com

2) google.com

3) wikipedia.org

4) yahoo.com (up from 5)

5) gamejump.com (down from 4)

6) my.opera.com

7) mxit.co.za

8. youtube.com

9) waptrick.com (up from 10)

10) live.com (back on the list)

Top social networks in 2008 South Africa
Facebook was the preferred social networking site for South Africans in 2008.

Web site Growth rate in 2008 (users)

facebook.com 187.48%

peperonity.com 66.44%

mocospace.com 189.98%

hi5.com 59.84%

I am shocked, who are these people using hi5?!!
It is quite likely that the stats for Kenya would indicate Facebook as the top site, would love to see how Zuqka is fairing on. @kahenya i am sure the TOS for Zuqka would definitely trump FB’s current heavy handedness?

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)

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)