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

Transmediale: The future of Tech in Africa

Written for the Transmediale festival in Berlin – Feb 2nd -7th 2010

The transmediale festival is examinining futurity now what the ‘future’ as a conditional and creative enterprise can be. At its heart lays the intricate need to counter political and economic turmoil with visionary futures. With FUTURITY NOW! transmediale.10 explores what roles internet evolution, global network practice, open source methodologies, sustainable design and mobile technology play in forming new cultural, ideological and political templates.

What follows is my perspective on where the future is headed, particularly as it regards thinking of futurism, technology and Africa.

Before I get to the five ideas that shape my perspective on futurity in Africa, I found myself asking, where are the African futurists? In the discourse of futurist manifestos, there is a dearth of the African perspective. Perhaps its a hold over from the old and tired meme of colonization, post-colonial construct that characterized the 20th century.

Or perhaps its because African futurists are few and far between. This remains an open question for many Afrophiles I encounter.

Let me begin with a big disclaimer. When I speak of Africa, it is a major generalization, though in the technical space many of the trends we see appear to be similar in several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. Kindly allow me to generalize by using the term Africa to refer to the grouping of countries comprising, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, South Africa, Malawi, Zambia, Nigeria and Ghana. Many examples that i will refer to will be from East Africa, particularly Kenya.

There are five points i’d like to make.

1. There is a new meme emerging. As we begin 2010 in earnest, Africa is growing, and some might even say it is experiencing a renaissance of sorts. The future of the web is already here, and it is in Africa.

The growth of mobile phone tech has been explosive. 550% in the last 5 years. The word leapfrogging doesn’t even begin to describe the transformative effect mobiles have had in Africa. Its been revolutionary. It has led to innovations that have applications around the world. Case in point, MPESA (#MPESAishowdoit) a service that started with 52,000 subscribers in April of 2007, it currently has 8.5 million users and processes nearly 10 percent of Kenya’s GDP in transactions that average less than $20. Since its launch, the cumulative amount of money transferred from person to person is 300 Billion kes. When it comes mobile money, the third world is first That this innovation took hold in Kenya first before its adoption in other parts of the world like Afghanistan is something that no futurists could have foreseen.

Many new users of the internet will experience the web through their mobile phones. The development of user interfaces and key research is happening in Africa, with Nokia and IBM setting up research centres on the continent, and home grown innovation hubs such as ihub present exciting possibilities.
My colleague and friend Erik Hersman wrote that if it works in Africa, it works everywhere, from current events in the African tech space, we could go further and posit that If its awesome in Africa, its awesome everywhere.

2. The promise of technology for social change. With the influence of writers like Dambisa Moyo challenging previously held beliefs about aid, and pushing the idea of microfinance aided by technology in the form of projects like Kiva, we see the potential of technology being used for real social change. Making Africans less poor by investing in their enterpreneurial drive as opposed to financing dictator’s lavish lifestyles. There are myriad organizations incorporating mobile tech in provision of services. Its not just mobile, just as Twitter aims to be the pulse of the planet when it reaches a billion years; We are seeing use of crowdsourcing software Ushahidi as an interesting indicator of what can happen when information is crowdsourced and visualized. Tighter coupling of the SMS realm, mobile and the cloud are exciting prospects in Africa.

3. Note: The knowledge economy is not an enclave of the west. The myths about the developing world being left behind have already been debunked by noted statisticians like Hans Rosling. It is a fact that technology is transforming Africa, and it has an important role to play in increasing GDP. As the tech space grows and matures, there will be more localized applications to help increase efficiency and overcome bottlenecks. There is alot of room for growth here, we will see the continued growth of Mixit (SA stats and Africa growth for this innovative application -stats) Pesa Pal, OboPay, Black Star Lines and other companies betting on the mobile and tech growth opportunities in Africa. Students in Africa will have to rise up to the occasion to provide these localized applications. We are clearly not there yet, but i would wager that the brilliant minds in African universities will step into the Global economy and fill an important gap.

4. I grew up in a country where authoritarianism/post cold war stupor? was the other of the day (80’s and early 90’s). There was a sense of oppression, even artistically there wasn’t as much self expression as we’ve seen in the late 90’s and early 2000’s (noughties). There was the age of conversation – with forums and IRC. This gave way to the age of participation, with blogs twitter and social networking, characterised with co-creation and well, the mashup culture (and LOLcats) For African’s online this trajectory has closely mirrored the global phenomenon of social networks, though it was only accessible to the well heeled or diaspora Africans. The problem was basically a lack of large pipes connecting Africa to the world. This is changing. With the arrival of Seacom cable in September 2009, streaming a you tube video is no longer an exercise in futility. What this means is we are likely to see the age of participation and co-creation as more new users get online. Twitter-like services are gaining popularity with the growth of Naija Pulse (uses Laconica) and aggregation services like Afrigator just to name a few. Take for instance KBC – Kenya Broadcasting service – When I was growing up it was the only tv station. Now they have a twitter account for their breakfast show and for some strange reason asked me a trivia question without giving me a prize.Its a new time. You’ve got foursquare, we’ve got smoke signals – Just kidding, there is growing use of google latitude. Hipster Kenyans with smart-phones were turning on their google latitude to find out where their friends are and where the party is during the holidays. One guy and his dad use google latitude to pinpoint their locations and triangulate the nearest bar to meet up for after work drinks. With the introduction of low cost GPS enabled phones in the African market, we are going to see some interesting uses of this technology and innovations that we cant completely foresee.

So what else is in store. I am going to harken to Clive Thompson’s observation about twitter, that it gives the user some sort of prio-perception/ social sixth sense. I do have to mention too that Clive Thompson also wrote about the point in social networks where the conversation stops because the social network gets too big.

5. The internet has enabled the diaspora to keep in contact with their countries, and with this comes the cultural exchange that’s been part of globalization in general. Project Diaspora is a great example of this. Teddy Ruge and his team are using the internet to support a community whose only source of income is from back breaking work at a stone quarry. The diaspora is part of the solution to poverty in Africa, and the internet is the medium.

There are transnational activists (some of them are my friends) participants in what Ethan Zuckerman calls the polyglot internet,
and whom David Sasaki calls ‘Believers without Borders’. They are participants in the mashup culture and could even be called cultural mashups if there was such a term. They may have been born in Africa, but; are global citizens by identity.

This cultural mashup sees an exciting time revealing itself through the retelling of old stories with technology, breathing a fresh perspective into African identity and self expression online. We already see this with the emergence of African Digital Arts, Animations made in Kenya (Just A Band) Senegal (Tree Lion), and the incredible creativity seen as part of the brand tourism around World Cup 2010 in South Africa.

The old memes are almost dead or as Fergie of black eyed peas would say, its so 2000 late. The new meme of Africa is unfolding in front of us. Technologically and culturally the future of Africa is absolutely refreshing.

Below are the slides

– Many thanks to Jepchumba for helping me out, and the Transmediale organizers for inviting me.

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Ory’s Video on

crossposted on the Ushahidi blog

Ory Okolloh is not only a blogger, founder of, co-founder of Ushahidi and colleague, she is also an inspiration to all of us. Below is the video of her talk at TEDGlobal 2007 – Arusha Tanzania.

The making of an African Activist

Ory, we are sambazaing this whether you want to hide or not 🙂

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.

Ushahidi: Thank You!

crossposted on the Ushahidi Blog.
ushahidi_v1d_200px.jpgDuring the month of March we appealed for your help with Ushahidi’s entry into the N2Y3 Mashup challenge. It is with your support that we are delighted to announce Ushahidi’s participation in the last phase of the mapping challenge. We could not have made it without you and we sincerely Thank each and every one of you for your votes, your encouragement and most of all for your ideas.

David and Erik will be going to San Fransisco next weekend to participate in development sessions with other technical experts, product managers, and engineers. It will be a great opportunity for Ushahidi to get some funding towards further development of the Mashup. Wish them luck would ya?

For now, we just wanted to thank you again for your support. A big part of Ushahidi is your participation, and with that, we are looking forward to making this project an even bigger success.

Asanteni Sana!! [Thank you very much]

**More updates will be posted on the Ushahidi blog and also on the NetSquared blog. Ushahidi also has a twitter channel for bite-sized updates.

Ushahidi Voting – 2 days left (We need your help again)

Today, I had to walk my friend through the ballot process for the NetSquared challenge. The 29! stars we are so very thankful for were part I of the challenge, we now need you to add Ushahidi to your ballot and submit 5 projects. This is the most crucial part of the mapping challenge. The following instructions (also blogged by Erik) should help.

How to vote:
1. Create an account (or Login if you already have an account) at
2. Vote for Ushahidi by clicking here, then click the red â??Vote for My Mashupâ?? button.
3. Vote for at least 4 other projects. Just make sure you choose a total of 5 minimum.
4. Click â??View/Cast Ballotâ??, or click here: Be sure Ushahidi is listed as one of your chosen projects.
5. Click â??Cast Ballotâ?? on your screen. Thatâ??s it!”

(Via White African.)

Ushahidi’s Netsquared mapping challenge (Action requested)

Picture 1.png

We are upto 4 stars this morning, please help us by registering and voting for the Ushahidi project. Why? Because we want to continue mapping not only the violence, but also the ‘doves’ or peace efforts happening in Kenya. The last two months have been traumatic to our collective psyche, and we would like to be well equipped to continue this important project. While we will not hide from the trauma of the events; we want make Ushahidi even more relevant to other countries in Africa.

Crowdsourcing further dev. by Hash
Background info on the Ushahidi project.
The NetSquared Ushahidi page.
More about the NetSquared mashup challenge.

Thank you for those who’ve voted for Ushahidi, lets get some more stars up there!

Quick update

Before leaving Kenya, i met with other bloggers in the Bloggers for Kenya initiative, where we ordered items for delivery to the red cross. On friday the 18th, the day that we were to deliver it, there was fracas in town and we could not make the delivery. (Afew pics i took are posted here) However, the great team at mamamikes and other volunteers were still able to make arrangements to deliver the items worth $3220(!) to the Red Cross. They also made a visit to Nakuru on the 19th and wrote about the experience on this post. This was before the current flare up of violence, so you can imagine how the situation has deteriorated further. We are all sickened by this mess. Thank you again to all the bloggers and friends who donated and continue to donate to alleviate the suffering in Kenya.

I was also able to meet with Charles, one of the writers in Kwani. The Kwani blog is here, where the writers in the collective are putting into words the sorrow we feel at the turn Kenya has taken. If there is one thing that gives me hope its the conversations between the people our age. Be it in Mamamike’s office when Segeni asked us ‘How do you feel?’ to the chat i had with Charles before rushing to the airport. We cannot begin to quantify the losses in Kenya, moreso the optimism and hope we had for our country. I like many of you…i am at a loss for words.

The Global voices special coverage page for Kenya has been aggregating bloggers posts relating to the aftermath of elections in Kenya. Its a resource that Ndesanjo, Solana and the team at Global Voices put together. I got back from Kenya and just got busy updating the reblog and it slipped my mind to give you a heads up about it.

As noted earlier by KP and Erik, the Ushahidi blog is up. Please continue to send us information and we will keep putting it up on the site. A timeline of the crisis has been developed by Nick and David.

Sometime last year we had a conversation with KP about using twitter to monitor the elections, and we both got rather swamped with other stuff to put the idea in practice. I still feel like there is an opportunity to use twitter in future elections and create an aggregator of tweets from each constituency (Imagine the transparency) We live and learn. There is a good post here about twitter’s potential in Africa by the TEDster and developer Soyapi. After attending DEMO, i will revisit this so we can discuss how we can use ‘microblogging’ and other tools not only to deal with the current crisis in Kenya, but to expand citizen journalism. Like Segeni asked…How do you feel? It is outlets such as blogs etc, that can help (in a small way) to express our feelings…but in a constructive manner. Like Erik says, we can do better. We can chose to fight the vitriol with constructive dialogue and peace efforts, and moreso humanitarian assistance. Note: The Red Cross site now has a google checkout. When the crisis first started it was prohibitive for many to pay wire transfer fees and thus mamamikes really helped helped facilitate donations. They still continue to do so via their homepage. Either way there are options for Kenyans in the diaspora to help our fellow Kenyans in dire need.

Local Kenya Number for UShahidi – 6007


Please text incident reports to 6007, kindly include the location where you are texting from. The information will appear on Kindly pass this along to everyone in Kenya, particularly in the rural areas. By and large coverage of the situation in Nairobi is extensive, but we need information from the rest of Kenya as well. Thank you for your support.