What Traversing Africa by Road Can Teach us about Technology, Community, and Impact

Crossposted on the Ushahidi blog

TLDR: The scope of impact in Africa for work is great and an inspiration for the work ahead in 2015. Similar problems exist in various African countries and similar opportunities and the incredible chance to participate in a bolder stake on the future of the continent. Local communities have a key role in shaping strategy and can teach us a lot about what works where. With Ushahidi’s interlocking role of creating software tools for empowerment with its innovation catalyst role, the sandbox for its impact can be expanded.

Market TZ

This is a picture of a market in Tanzania. To the right of this picture is a parking lot with cabs and trucks and as I was waiting for my colleague Mark to register SIM cards, I could hear lectures by Julius Nyerere blaring from a Volkswagen van. In addition, the cab driver was listening parliament proceedings. Coming from Kenya where engagement with government is not as robust as this, it was quite encouraging. (Later found out that there was a major scandal and many were following because of that, but still, the level of citizen engagement in Tanzania is inspiring). The potential to add technology to this engagement equation was inescapable and something we’ll be keen to explore with partners currently working there. The big take away was that because of this variability in citizen engagement, the strategies for implementation and adoption of technology (including Ushahidi’s tools) will need to be adjusted to keep this in mind. What is needed is more connection with the key local organizations and learning how best to serve them.
bongohive

Bongohive

This is a picture of Co-founder of Bongohive Lukonga Lindunda speaking with entrepreneurs outside Bongohive space. Lukonga, his co-founders and team have been in touch with us at Ushahidi for several years now. It was an immense honor to meet them in their beautiful new space adorned with African art and filled with entrepreneurs,volunteers who I recognized from working together on Bantuwatch in 2011 (an implementation of Ushahidi to track the elections in Zambia) and women like Chisenga who’ve been part and parcel of growing Bongohive. This was the location of greatest connection and an important lesson that community is always important, and that with the expansiveness of the continent, it is important to keep connecting with the key drivers in each country who are building ecosystems of opportunity. Communities like iHub and Bongohive are important for building stable and equitable societies and key users of Ushahidi tools.

Route

It is a long game/long road… but when you meet a startup/social enterprise that is less than 2 years and already creating jobs, it just adds more reason to Ushahidi’s role as a catalyst, assisting and supporting (without supplanting) wherever possible. To foster environments that protect and reinforce fundamental human rights, it is going to take engagement on many levels, with various initiatives and partners. In building on the discussions with board of Ushahidi, partners who spent time with Ushahidi in Nairobi this last quarter, it is exciting to envision scaling our work, moreso with communities in Lusaka, Zambia, Johannessburg, South Africa, Harare Zimbabwe, and Maputo in Mozambique. We have the pieces in place with the software development group, the solutions team and Gearbox, iHub, Making All Voices Count partnership on the catalyst end. One of Ushahidi’s spin outs – BRCK continues to provide the hardware that will be useful to expand our work to the edge of the network. That is where even more impact can happen.

Looking forward to the new year with current and new partners engaged in creating more opportunity.

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.

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.

\o/ Data Gathering With Mobile Phones

For those in the African technology space, the challenges of gathering data from the field in areas that are not quite ‘on-the-grid’ are apparent. Let me just keep it short by saying ‘Houston, we have a power problem’. Charging laptops when you are off-grid is not easy, but if you have a Nokia E71 that can stay for 3 days without needing a re-charge…well, you get the idea.

Last October I excitedly proclaimed just how much I loved Nokia because they had a data gathering app for E71’s, which they were making available for NGO’s to test out. Please forgive me for not blogging about it. but you can find more info on the mobile active wiki, or watch this 2 minute you-tube clip on tracking the Dengue fever in Brazil.

This brings me to the latest news from FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS forms provides a killer functionality of basically using SMS as the data carrying pigeon. This is how it works. The person running the FrontlineSMS hub creates forms with questions for the person in the field to fill in with information. The field agent only needs to have downloaded the forms client from http://forms.frontlinesms.com/, this will work on any Java enabled phone, which is preety much a whole lotta phones. They can then receive a form from the hub via sms, fill it in and send it back again via SMS. Hmm I like my data-pigeon metaphor! This eliminates the need for a GPRS connection. If the person is entering the data at a place with no mobile signal, the information is still saved in ‘offline’ mode until the phone has a mobile signal. I do have to point out that with \o/ forms you do not require an E71 or high end PDA like with the Nokia data gathering tool. I still heart Nokia, and would highly recommend the E71 if you need a smartphone.

formsclient.jpg

Read more about it over at Ken’s blog, Erik’s thoughts on the Ushahidi blog and Jon Thompson’s coverage on Aid Worker Daily.

This functionality adds more fuel to the mobile => Cloud paradigm that I feel will redefine the participation and engagement with communities in rural areas. Once the information gets back to the hub, it can sync with a web app like Ushahidi or any other web enabled implementation that takes input from the Frontline SMS hub. The pretty graphs and visualizations are best presented on the web IMO. Personally, I am looking forward to using FrontlineSMS \o/ forms to plan a kick-ass tree planting party!

PS: For \o/ users in Kenya, do note that FrontlineSMS works with the Safaricom E220 modem. If it works with the new USB stick version E160? kindly leave a comment.

When I met Ken during the Plan International workshop in Kenya, he said something that I cant help but pass along.
“Do not ask for permission, ask for forgiveness” Keep doing whatever it is you love to do, and do not be afraid to try something new. I think Tonee and I co-opted that for our new-years motto. Seriously though, if you have ideas for using \o/ in your work, check out www.frontlinesms.com. Ken and his team have built a very useful data gathering tool that could give your project even more reach. Plus, the folks in the forums are super-nice. Really.