Platforms, Institutions and Ecosystems

It is a crisp early morning at The iHub UX lab in bustling Nairobi. I just finished a meeting with the Gearbox founding consortium and I am about to settle in for a busy day at the Ushahidi office. What is on my mind is platforms, institutions and ecosystems. Literally (Version 3.0 of Ushahidi is baking in the oven plus www.crisis.net is live) and figuratively.

When looking at the technology space, with the runaway success of Apple and its strategy as a platform company that has created a lucrative ecosystem of devices, applications and network of developers, I feel compelled to revisit this important facet of strategy. The platform.

JP Rangaswami aptly put it when he wrote a series on this, beginning with this important observation.

Platforms enable ecosystems. They are “multi-sided” like exchanges and marketplaces, focused on simplifying interactions between participants.
As David Weinberger said recently, the smartest person in the room is now the room.

In our work, be it at a company, non-profit or institution, we have to ask ourselves, how does the strategy we pursue to increase value or impact dovetail with platform thinking? For some guidance on this, again – JP Rangaswami is our man.

We learn from him that
1. Platforms create value by enabling social interactions between participants. This has allowed people to build platforms themselves and sharing applications built ontop of the platform.
2. Sharing also creates value by reducing waste: The efficiency for anyone who has used services like Uber or other paragons of the sharing economy does not need a reminder on this.
3. All this sharing creates big, small and open data: Where it takes machines to filter, and a human to curate or be a skilled creator.

All the above lessons have implications for us on many levels. On a personal level, I ask myself, which platforms am I creating and in turn, which ecosystem am I building and participating in? I am reminded that with the deluge of data and complexity of networks, not to forget that when systems are highly complex, individuals matter. What is my contribution as an individual? What is yours?

For leaders of institutions, what is the implication for you? For your strategy? Do you play the open/closed game? How does it bode for your organization as the world continues its pace of technology adoption, automation and innovation? Where would you like your organization to be in in the arc of progress? Will you be the platform, will you build on the platform and will you have a key role as part of the ecosystem?

For policy makers and government leaders. Do you have a grasp of platform thinking? How do you evolve policies to look at what Fred Wilson aptly calls platform monopolies?

“…the Internet is a network and the dominant platforms enjoy network effects that, over time, lead to dominant monopolies.”

Do you keep up with the technological times and do you strongly insist on companies to provide API (Application programming interfaces) to encourage competition?
What role can government play in supporting and encouraging a healthy tech ecosystem? What does a healthy tech ecosystem even look like for your locale?

One of the people I am lucky to interact with several times a year as part of the MIT Media Lab Director’s fellows program is Joi Ito. Like other products of the periphery like him, I find his guidance, inspiration and example something that speaks to me directly and as I saw when he visited us in Nairobi, inspired us too. I am fortunate that I can answer the question for myself today as to which platform, which organization and which ecosystem and network I have a key contribution to make. That this network is both local and global is something that I am delighted about.

Here is a video of the Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi. We learned together what its like to be part of institutions that think of themselves as platforms and to make together.

MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellows Offsite in Nairobi from Juliana Rotich on Vimeo.

In Celebration of Teams

I took a short break to unplug. I had limited success with completely unplugging from the internet and from work, but slowed down enough to get some perspective. The main thing that leaped out at me when I thought about the work I am involved in, is the team. You often see lists recognizing individuals (I have been fortunate and honored to be on some of these lists). I think it is time for some lists honoring great teams.
There are many different models to use as you consider your team dynamics and leadership style.

The Ushaverse team

I was asked several questions about leadership and teams, with one of the questions being;
what leadership advice would you give others?

I think It takes humility to listen, to look around and participate with your team. To see potential in others, to support and uplift without supplanting and dictating. As Joi Ito, Director of MIT Media Lab says, compasses over maps.
Your leadership compass will be as unique as your team and you. It takes awhile to figure it out, but once you do, there is much joy in being a leader and being part of a great team. The culture you build is what will continue to inspire and guide you through difficult times. It forms the foundation on which you can build ecosystems, and yes…innovate.

As I get back to work and travel, I want to thank Rob Baker, Erik Hersman, Nat Manning, Daudi Were and the entire ‘Ushaverse’ team for pushing onwards and having my back when I needed to take a quick break. I am happily dialing back in with much excitement for all the work in store.

Transparency in The Extractives Industry: A role for Tech?

On a single day in March last year, three countries — Tanzania, Kenya and Mozambique announced discoveries of oil and gas (joining Uganda as possible oil and gas producers.) This was momentous, and according to this article in The East African, there are several major infrastructure projects in the East African region that are unprecedented. With all these projects in the region the question of transparency and engagement with citizens affected comes up.
Why care about transparency in the extractives industry? First and foremost, the numbers. In Charmain Gooch’s TED talk she observed:

The Africa Progress Panel led by Kofi Annan has estimated that the DRC has lost around $1.3 billion as a result, almost twice its annual health and education budget combined.
It’s this flow of money away from the citizens of resource-rich countries that makes corruption so high-stakes. Gooch presents a slide showing how in 2011, natural resource exports outweighed aid flows by nearly 19-to-1 in Africa, Asia and Latin America. That’s a lot of potential hospitals, schools, universities and business start-ups that will never materialize, she says. “That money has simply been stolen away.”

With the recent discoveries of oil, gas and minerals in the East African region do we want that statement (and that incredible ration 19-to-1!) to be true in the coming years, or what can be done differently to ensure that there is transparency that leads to accountability in the extractives sector?

I would be remiss if i did not temper this statement with an observation from Chris Blattman on corruption. That it is an Anglo-American fetish and that Westerners care about corruption far out of proportion to its impact on poverty alleviation and economic growth. More importantly in the context of this post is this statement:

i would still argue, moreover, that if outsiders want to promote prosperity, or get out of a bad equilibria, far better to talk about term limits and strengthening political parties and parliaments. People in poor countries hate corruption too, and will eventually take care of it if they have the means to mobilize and exercise voice, and hold leaders accountable. Outsiders can’t do much about that, but if they speak loudly and consistently on the subject I think they strengthen the people’s hand.

The question I have, is what can the technology community do? The means to mobilize and exercise voice are freely available to us with tools like Ushahidi, SMSsync, FrontlineSMS and others.

https://crowdmap.com/map/oiluganda/

What role can technology play?

Can platforms be used to report corruption close to the location of where it occurs? Are there secure ways BRCK + VPN = A secure blackbox for reporting corruption?

Create a feedback loop with affected community e.g Turkana people in Northern Kenya reporting via SMS about how their community is affected (positively/negatively) I am reminded of the recent announcement by Refugees United, working with Safaricom to launch a helpline for refugees to find lost family.

Could a helpline for affected community in mining areas be a way to not only provide a channel for participation, mobilize and give voice to the concerns of citizens?

Could Crowdmaps like the one tracking Ugandan oil industry prospectus be useful in keeping citizens informed of available information? Can these maps be simple clearing houses of information (the verification mechanism could be more difficult but with collaboration amongst transparency organizations, it is not a far fetched idea)

There is a great series on our blog about Anti-Corruption and transparency mapping: What can we learn and implement in our various countries?

Recent news about the signing of The Open Data Charter point to another avenue for action. What sorts of data sets should be available to help shed light on the extractives industry. Which companies are transparent about the agreements they have put in place with governments, counties, and community? If positive action is being made, are we applauding those companies and shaming the ones engaging in corrupt practices?

Charmain Gooch also noted…
“In a globalized world, corruption is truly a globalized business, and needs global solutions pushed by us citizens, right here.”

Lets have a look at Kenya (Home of Ushahidi, Mpesa, BRCK and Kenyan transparency Champion John Githongo). There are several local organizations working on issues in the extractives industry. Not necessarily the technology bit, but the gamut of concerns.Below are are a few resources, though it appears that there is more to learn and certainly more to do in this regard. If you have more resources and links, please do share in the comments and if you’d like to partner with us, do let us know how we can be of assistance to help answer the above questions.

1. Open Governance in the Extractive sector – Africa. This is in development phase. They would like to create a platform for dialogue and a framework for engagement. (Do let us know how we can help at Ushahidi)
2. Institute for Human Rights and Business – This appears to be trying to influence the decision makers at the UN level. Would be good to know more about how human rights violations are reported and if there is a role for tech and dynamic data collection to feed into the reports.
3. Kenya Mining Licences Map! This is great. Certainly applauding the work of Majala and Kenya’s Ministry of Mining for putting this together. Check it out, dig into the data.

Kenya Mining Licenses Map http://www.flexicadastre.com/kenya/ (Thank you Majala!)

Many thanks to Charles Wanguhu of AfriCog, Majala Mlagui of Thamani Gems and John Githongo for the inspiration.

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