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.

Welcome to Mobisoko

Mobisoko is Africa’s mobile app marketplace. It is the place for you to find location and language relevant applications for mobiles, especially geared to the African market.

mobilogo

Inspiration

In June of 2009 I had the good fortune of attending Nairobi University Techfest. It was an event that showcased the final year projects done by University students. It became clear to me and after discussions with Mulumba and Jessica, that mobile developers in Kenya have the ideas and skills to solve the myriad technology problems we have in Africa. They are creating applications that provide unique, localized utility for Africans.

An example of this is the text to speech application that Simon Ndunda developed. It allows Kikamba (one of the tribes in Kenya) speakers to hear audio versions of SMS in the proper pronunciation. This is particularly useful for blind people, and the library of sounds can later be used for GPS navigation instructions.

video from last year’s techfest, featuring Simon’s app

Simon and other mobile developers have inspired Mobisoko to be a repository for their ideas and a marketplace for the applications they bring to you. We look forward to providing more local apps for Africa and we invite you to join us by:

– Downloading the applications, providing feedback for the developers on the product page. This will help them improve their apps.

– Mobile developers simply email info at Mobisoko dot com with your application, a description and your contact information. We shall test, review and make it available for download on the site.

Karibu! (Welcome!)

**crossposted on the Mobisoko blog. For those in Kenya, come by the ihub 6pm-7:30pm for Mobile Monday, I will be doing a brief presentation about Mobisoko.

Let Me Upgrade you…

I finally upgraded this blog to WordPress Version 2.7.1. Initially I was worried about the theme not working with the new version, but seems like my apprehension wa

s unfounded.

I activated several plugins: Notably..

Tweet this so you can get your tweet on

Mobile press to make viewing my blog on your phone that much more pleasurable. This plugin was created by the good folks at Younique, a social marketing company out of South Africa. @Tylerreed good stuff man. Mobile press works beautifully on Opera and Iphone. I would highly recommend it. Do let me know if you encounter any problem on other mobile browsers.

Contact form in the About page

– I am still trying to figure out how to use Zemanta to deal bring in ‘related’ links for posts.

Goodies for you:
A wallpaper that my talented relative Jepchumba designed, click on this image to download it from flickr.

Wallpaper. Please feel free to download!

Link to Beyonce’s video. I shamelessly borrowed the title for this blogpost. Needless to say, the video has bsolutely nothing to do with upgrading wordpress blogs 🙂

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Lets talk about phones baby! …

Lets talk about you and me! Got your attention you Salt and Pepa loving peeps?O.k. Its been awhile since I mused on mobiles, but this is as good a time as any to get back to my ‘wag of the finger’ ‘tip of the hat’ thing…Indulge me.

First, I have been accused of hating on the Iphone a bit too much and being a Nokia fan girl. Those accusing me of this may be on to something. Here is why. I have previously wagged my finger at Apple for tying their beautiful device to a crappy provider like AT&T and ranted about my misgivings with the 1st gen Iphone.You see, i have had first hand experience with this monstrosity of a telco named AT&T. When I became blinded by the 3G speeds and the GPS on the new Iphone, i succumbed to the hype, the hipster call of duty and got the 16GB model of Iphone. First, the process of activating the phone at the Apple store did not go well, plus the ‘genius’ who was assigned to me was saying rather daft things like ‘i am required by Apple and AT & T to ask you whether you will be traveling out of the continental US’ and some other drivel all culminating in her telling me that I would have to get my phone activated by AT&T. After this that and the other, i finally got the phone activated and after even more drama that i shall save you the pain of reading and weeping, i was able to port my old phone number from T-Mobile. Let me just warn anyone reading this. Learn from my ginormous error people, do NOT for a moment think of switching from T-mobile to AT&T not even for the Jesus phone, Buddha phone or ‘There-is-no-deity’ phone. T-mobile is a far better company to deal with than AT&T, so save yourself the headache. I am glad to be back in the T-mobile fold thank you very much. Lets not even talk about unlocking your phone so you can use it when you travel, that would just be rehashing my old rant on this very point. Again, i learned first hand why I have unkind words for AT&T. In order for you to get decent rates when roaming, you have to sign up for a monthly roaming service where you pay an addition $5.99 so you can save a few cents on a pre-existing exorbitant roaming charge. So if you were to receive calls in say…Finland, if you had the roaming service it would cost you $1.19 per minute, if not, it would be $1.99 per minute or something close to that. Same applies if someone leaves you voicemail. You would still get charged at the roaming rate. T-mobile does not charge you a ‘roaming service’ fee. Data roaming is also very expensive. Do not dare get lost and use your Iphone maps for directions. You will flail, cry and quite likely faint when you receive your bill.

This pairing of a beautiful device with a crap company had me all worried when Apple announced that they would be making inroads into various parts of the world including Kenya. In the case of Kenya, Orange Telcom is the carrier of choice. Rebecca wrote about this in Network world August’08. Please be warned the following quote is plain and simple self promotion…But do I say?

Telkom Kenya will start selling the iPhone in Kenya next month after launching the Orange mobile phone service.
Orange entered into a contract with Apple that gave it the right to sell the iPhone in Kenya and the sale will commence once the service rolls out, said Njeri Rionge, chief commercial and marketing officer at Telkom.”My concern with the iPhone is the return to the old telecom hegemony where you are tied to one carrier because of a contract (since the telecom subsidizes the hardware), this system can be very annoying especially with the freedom that Kenyans have enjoyed in terms of their ability to switch carriers easily,” said Juliana Rotich, a Kenyan technologist.

Did you buy an Iphone in Kenya? What was your experience with Telkom like? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Ahem. moving along..

Second, the authoritarianism of the walled garden approach taken by Apple, particularly with DRMed songs on Itunes irks me to no end. I try to buy songs from Amazon MP3 store and would encourage all who believe in freedom, truth and chocolate to do the same. Yes hyperbolical of me, but dude, i wouldn’t want to be in your shoes when you use up your ‘authorizations’ from Apple because you switched between one too many computers/iphones. Lets not even talk about Apple yanking useful apps like Tether that would help you make the most out of that 3G data speed you are paying an arm, leg and pancreas on your Iphone data plan. Yes you can jailbreak it using Pawnage and get apps on cydia, but I digress.

All this brings me to my new device of choice.The Nokia E71, and my new device of drool and gadget lust, the N97

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*cc licensed pic by JKE on flickr

Just so you know I am seriously getting rid of my Iphone. Yes, i will miss the nice lines and one touch ease of interfacing with the web, the sleek simplicity of apps like Twinkle, Brightkite and even FB for Iphone. I will be content with Twibble and locr. I never got comfortable typing on the Iphone, sometimes I still pine for my old Q with the wide QWERTY keyboard, so E71 with its slimmer frame is a good compromise. The E71 is a phone that truly gives you wings…(sorry Redbull) You can travel with it, stick a local sim card and get talking, emailing, fringing, tagging photos with locr, mapping your way with the super fast GPS all the while having the freedom of having whatever blinking ringtone you want on it. I know you do not care, but I am indulging today aren’t I? My current ringtone is the song Gongo Aso by 9ice. I have the freedom to change it Moloko’s ‘Fun for me’ or Morcheeba’s Enjoy The Ride (Silver Saver Mix). Try doing that on the Iphone…you would have to pay Apple to create a simple ringtone?!! When Wired’s gadget lab proclaimed this phone ‘Best of Test’ I wholeheartedly agreed then and still do. On the podcast I think the guy said ‘This phone is not for everyone. It is for people who want a higher level engagement with their phone’ I haven’t even touched on the barcode reader! You know what, just head on over to Juergen’s for a complete rundown of E71 awesomeness if you haven’t already.

The Nokia N97

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CC licensed pic by Inky on flickr

From the looks of it, this could be THE phone that combines the best of ALL worlds, at least while the Morph concept phone remains just that. A concept.The N97 has a full QWERTY keyboard, touch screen, Micro SD slot and generous memory – 32GB onboard memory, you can add 16GB on the Micro SD card slot. For more spec-goodies see the Data_Sheet_Nokia N97.pdf. I care about the 32GB memory because if you truly want an Ipod replacement such that you would have one device to rule them all, and have access to your substantial collection of music, space matters. If for some odd reason you’d want to listen to Longomba’s ‘Vuta Pumzi’ while you recall the good times circa 2005-’06, or early 2000s Kenyan rap that sounds rather bad right now, yet at the time you were bobbing your head going…’oh this is nice’ well you’d have the freedom to. Wings from Nokia i tell ya. Wiiings! Caveat: The N97 does not have a flashlight. Readers of this blog know that i have this thing for Nokia phones with flashlights, and believe that it is The.Best.Feature.Ever! so on this one point, i am going to ding the N97 just a peg. If someone can hack the Dual LED camera flash to act like a flashlight when i type a combination of keys…well it is quite possible that I would sign over an IOU stating my infinite adoration to the person who hacks this. Yes oh yes, BET ON NOKIA.

I am looking forward to being in a country where i can switch mobile companies vuka/unvuka as I darn well please. Kenya, see you in a bit.

Remote Mobile Hack for Water Pumps

Via Jan Chipchase

Farmers were tired of waking up at odd hours to irrigate their farms, so one of them created a mobile app that allows remote control of water pumps
Jan notes that there is a commercial version, called Nano Ganesh.

The impact of this, particularly when combined with cheap and reliable services like Village Connection should not be underestimated.

Indeed. This hack reminded me of the brilliant Morris Mbetsa from Kenya who made an anti theft device that is controlled remotely via mobile phone. When the technology platform allows for people to write localized applications, amazing things happen. This is another reason I like the Nokia S60, because it allows for anyone to create hacks such as this. Now that is transformative technology.

I am currently reading Jonathan Zittrain’s book ‘The future of the Internet and how to stop it’ In the first few chapters he mentions ‘generativity’ and how it is part of the internet. To paraphrase, it is the ability for 3rd parties to create and innovate on top of a platform. In light of the S60 Nokia platform and the open source nature of the Symbian and Android…perhaps the mobile world is set to have platforms that encourage innovation around the world. Just like the story from India and Kenya are interesting, I think there is definitely more to come.

PS: I am currently at Mobile Active 08 ; a conference bringing together many of the people using mobiles for social change. You can follow the proceedings on http://twitter.com/mobileactive

Xenophobic Attacks in SA – How to help

When events happen that shock us, sadden us and make us generally quite depressed, it is heartening to find a way to channel those feelings into assistance. United For Africa uses the Ushahidi engine, and they’ve populated the ‘How to Help’ and the Donation sections of the site. So when you read reports that make your heart sink, you can make a difference. Most of the links on the ‘How to Help’ page are for local donation/assistance centers, though for the online/diaspora folks, you can donate online to the South African Red Cross Society using your credit card.
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Nokia Debuts Phones for Emerging Markets


The Nokia Event Site announces the debut of new phones designed for the emerging markets like Sub-Saharan Africa. Nokia put alot of thought into the functionality that they added, which makes me want to give one of these gems a whirl. I am a sucker for features such as FM Radio, and there is just something about a phone with a flashlight…that is absolutely genius IMO. You would think so too if you were in upcountry Kenya (around 2005i  sh), torch/flashlight batteries are dead and you uhhm lets just say you need to walk from point A to B in the dark of night…then your cousin says “Here! Use my phone, it has a flashlight!” Indeed not all heroes need wear capes. Before i get all mushy about inanimate objects, here is the blurb…

While features like phone-sharing, cost monitoring and flashlight remain relevant to consumers in entry markets, Nokia continues to add new functionality, such as mega pixel cameras, FM radio with recording functionality, email and Bluetooth connectivity technology to mobile phones targeted at consumers in entry markets.

  while on the site, and if you have a decent connection, do check out Julius’ story; on how he uses his Nokia phone in Kapenguria, Kenya. I am still admiring this silhouette image of Julius and his phone.

If you have an N95 or other Nokia phones that have video recording capability, record your story and submit it to the www.nokiaproductions.com, where noted film director Spike Lee is going to review  the entries (includes music, photos and text) then weave your bit (if chosen that is…) into a film to be released later. (Hat tip Shel Israel via Twitter)