On BRCK, Ushahidi and TED. Thank you all!

The last couple of weeks have been intense. Preparing for a TED talk is not easy, but with June Cohen, Kellie Stoetzel and Roxanne, I was better prepared and more confident than If I had not rehearsed with them. We had some moments where electricity would go out on my side in Nairobi and I would wish I had a BRCK with me. This is just a brief note to thank them for helping me, especially June for her encouragement, feedback and the invitation to speak.

There are others i did not mention in the talk, including Ory Okolloh,The Ushahidi Board, Reg Orton, Philip Walton, Jon Shuler, Mark Kamau and of course my family. I would be remiss if I did not correct that here at the very least. It is not with any ill intent that I did not include you in the talk, you all have my thanks and appreciation. I will be looking through the many comments on TED.com and also responding to feedback I’ve received directly from friends and colleagues in the tech space.

It is a long journey we are on, and I am especially happy to be part of the arc of technology in Africa. Ultimately, the hope is that we can make more, fix things and help each other. Onward.

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.



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

Design with the other 90% CITIES

I wrote a piece in the book Design with the Other 90%: CITIES. The book and exhibition was curated by Cynthia Smith. For the interested, there is a traveling exhibition in the following cities.

Sept. 14-Jan. 7, 2013
Kemper Art Museum at Washington University, St. Louis, Mo.

On view through Jan. 5, 2013
Mercy Corps’ Action Center and the Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, Ore.

Do check it out if it is near your neighborhood.

Old fishing basket, now a lampshade

Speaking of design… This is a fishing basket that Dipesh Pabari repurposed into a lovely lampshade. I think it is pretty cool.

It is not about Technology, it is about People

I am still thinking about Riyaad Minty’s reminder about people. One that I would like to share with you here with his permission

All this talk on the role of social media in times of crisis really gets to

me. We’re not living in 2008 anymore folks. Yes, governments and people use twitter and facebook [and others. Thanks for pointing it out… again. Every news story is about PEOPLE. Real people. Who are impacted by something that most of us can never really understand. We sit and go through a ton of unedited footage of the
direct impact a bomb blast has on community, on a family. It’s shocking. It’s horrific. It’s real. Stop talking about the technology. Talk about the people and the issues – this applies to every story, from war to protests to natural disasters. And I say this as someone who runs the Social Media for one of the largest news organisations in the world.

It is particularly apt for technologists and a very important thing to remember when we talk about the systems that we make. It is just as important to focus on the people behind the stories, the report behind the red dot. A reminder to empathize, and whenever possible to assist in the alleviation of suffering. As humans we seriously need to be reminded what it means to have your life suddenly turned upside down. Whatever form that might be. Be it from poverty, war or natural disaster. We’ve seen so many affected, from Haiti, Cuba, North Eastern America, to Palestine and Israel and in my current location – Kenya. We need to zoom in, care and assist someone. Start somewhere…and as Jen Pahlka of CodeforAmerica recently told me. Lets work on the hard stuff.


I am getting increasingly interested in Complex systems science, not just to understand our complex world, but also to learn what can be done in terms of collaborative problem solving. The pre-eminent organization NECSI that studies this makes a point that I think bears repeating, and points as to why we should exceedingly care about individuals when systems start breaking.

“Losing pieces indiscriminately from a highly complex system is very dangerous,” said Dr. Bar-Yam. “One of the most profound results of complex systems research is that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter.” According to Bar-Yam, understanding the weaknesses of civilization is critical to our ongoing existence. “Complexity leads to higher vulnerability in some ways,” he said. “This is not widely understood.”

Other resources:
Book: Zero Degrees of Empathy by Simon Baron Cohen
Map: War on Gaza by AlJazeera
Follow Red Cross Kenya in covering the grenade attacks in Kenya, Javin Ochieng too

Crowdsourcing and the Tech Hype Cycle

I found this article about the Gartner Tech Hype Cycleto be quite informative. Particularly since Crowdsourcing is included.

Gartner Tech Hype Cylce 2012 - cc licenced image from Press Release

Gartner Tech Hype Cylce 2012 – cc licenced image from Press Release

The visualization indicates that crowd sourcing is at a time of inflated expectations. That the narrative of possible change coming from the technology is now part of the conversation, triggering various questions around areas of impact, scale, replicability and market growth. I find this chart quite encouraging actually, because when you are knee deep in the mechanics of how crowd sourcing works, pushing to encourage use cases beyond crisis, you can’t help but think hard about the sustainability and how to navigate an organization through the various stages indicated here. More interestingly, how to make the plateau of productivity happen faster. A key insight when I look at this visualization was that achieving productivity in the shortest amount of time is of great importance. The broad range of impact that a certain technology can have is not lost on me either. There is clearly a lot of untapped potential in crowdsourcing, Internet of Things and other technologies shown.

I do feel a tad impatient as these technologies can be even more commonplace than is the case today, and part of every day life. The key questions around monetization, adoption, user experience and scale continue to be a part of business strategy, with the fundamental view of community as the bedrock of it all. As we at Ushahidi run various experiments and revamp products like Crowdmap, I am still deeply curious as to how everything pans out in the next 3-5 years for the industry.

Would love your take on the tech hype cycle, particularly when you consider crowd sourcing, the internet of things and big data. What stood out for you? How is it informing your outlook and plans?

Want to compare 2012 to 2011? Here is the breakdown of the tech hype cycle report from 2011

Jargon Watch: Idle Sourcing ala’ Streebump and Waze. Both companies that i find quite interesting, hinting at how much more utility we can get from our networked devices. More here from Trendwatching.

Africa Related: Ella Mbewe of The Asikana network in Lusaka Zambia is crowdsourcing all technology initiatives by Africa’s women. Join her and the BongoHive here.

On Africa, Growth and Transformation

Below are some thoughts I wanted to share today at the closing plenary of the World Economic Forum on Africa. Many thanks to Mike Macharia, Bill Hoffman, Lorna Irungu-Macharia and Paul Cohen for their thoughts. [More edits later when I get time!]

With population growth of < 30 who could be disaffected, unemployed uneducated or we could be investing in this generation to make them innovative entrepreneurs who are participants in shaping a better future. Africa is at an inflection point of engaging and training the future. From Large corp, Civil Society, innovation hubs like iHub. We should engage on transforming Africa, or we give up a century.

McKinsey estimates Africa’s gross domestic product at about US $2.6 trillion, with US $1.4 in consumer spending. Africa’s population growth and urbanization rates are among the highest in the world and these are the statistics generating demand for innovative new ways to handle the problems they raise

Be careful not to confuse growth with transformation. Growth statistics can provide confidence to invest and a willingness to change. Change cannot be orchestrated, sometimes it happens often from the bottom up. Tolerance for this change and actually support for these changes. One of those positive changes is the growth of innovation and business hubs like the iHub in Nairobi, Bongohive in Tanzania and IceAddis here in Ethiopia. e.g Tax Breaks and incentives for innovation hubs Africa wide. Connect, Invest and scale the work happening here.

A connected world has different velocities, power structures, different risks but transformative opportunities. We are in a hyper connected century of not just consumers, but producers, diverse micro economies and We cannot be afraid of complexity, diversity and gender equity. Empowerment of women and education. Although only 1 in 5 women is a legislator it is higher than the global rate.

Solutions need to be Demand based From my perspective: We can learn from Technology adoption worldwide can provide near term benefits in areas in Agriculture, a woman with a mobile phone and access to an Ushahidi system to get information about appropriate plant disease in Argentina. Adoption of these kinds of systems in Africa can help. The best uses of open source technology is often not under our control. We can provide a great skeleton on which various stakeholders can flesh out appropriate, local solutions. In addition there are homegrown startups like Mfarm and iCow in Kenya. These are young tech women creating solutions for the agricultural sector. We need to support and scale what they are doing to other parts of Africa.

Illusion of a nexus between education, entrepreneurship and innovation. There are real gaps that need to be filled. Focus needs to be on bridging these gaps in a real way and not just in talk. Digital and financial literacy need to be embedded into education systems. Nevertheless, In a nation of 34 million, over 28 million Kenyans own a mobile phone, representing 71.3% of the total population. There is an opportunity to do more to impact more people with the technology they have in their pockets.

Unbelievable paucity of intra-african trade, cost of a 40% of US trade is within NAFTA, 60% of European trade is within Europe, 12% of African Trade is within Africa. The cost of a phone call from Kenya to the US is 10kes, India and China 18kes, and within Africa, 30. Clearly there is more to do here from infrastructure perspective to even internet access where only 13% of Africans have internet access.

Culture: Reimagining “This is Africa” When faced with Process and resource efficiencies, we need to be impatient and demand better. It is not enough to have 600 million mobile subscribers we have answer the question of access to what. Do people have access to healthcare, education, finance and agriculture information and services via those mobile phones or do we have another digital divide emerging. What needs to happen is to figure out the economics for provision of services everywhere even in rural areas. In 10 years Europer could look to Africa on how to crack this.

Linking the digital and physical world in a coordinated way can provide efficiencies. The Transportation sector could benefit greatly transnational communications.
The African opportunity is not just theoretical, given the right opportunity; people can make incredible contributions; as we have seen with several African business leaders from Africa and this year’s Social Entrepenuers. Talent is universal opportunity is not. In order to transform Africa, we need to create opportunities. I was greatly encouraged to see Bethhelem’s sole rebels workshop. She is creating opportunities and is already transforming Ethiopia with a global business. Mxit is an instant messaging and social network platform that processes over 500 million transactions every single day. Fantastic contributions.

The transparency we see with the open data movement, presents opportunity in creating a new asset class. When governments provide data that is accessible, relevant and useful. Many government agencies have fantastic information on historical weather patterns, water levels in rivers and even consumer protection information. Providing that data in an accessible and meaningful way could lead to a new data economy where entrepreneurs leverage that data to reduce inefficiencies.

Hyper local innovation that can make a difference on a village level. It matters and we need open platforms to support these kinds of innovations.

Innovative ideas? Draw on the open source culture that helped grow Ushahidi. global entrepreneurship index is at 2.49: Kenya is at 2.63, second only to Nigeria at 2.7 in Africa among others like the US at 2.8. This number clearly depicts the great potential for Kenya to become a globally- recognized ICT center and more so, an environment for nurturing entrepreneurs talent to a higher level.

Making the case for open source technology as an investment not only by ministries, to invest in the youth in a truly concerted way to build future businesses. What if the national innovation ecosystem is not driven by local needs and culture, its great to partner with multinationals in clusters, but that needs to happen in partnership with local firms. To enable knowledge and skill transfer. That is key in various industries.