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Friday, 24 April 2009

Tech lessons from Africa

Ushahidi: Crowdsourcing Crisis Information

Ushahidi, which means ”testimony” in Swahili, is an open source engine. The project was developed in the effort to better map out reports of violence in Kenya. This was after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.

The aim of Ushahidi is to create a platform that any person or organization can use to set up his or her own platform for collecting and visualizing information. They explain that, ‘the core Ushahidi platform allows for a plug-in and extensions that can be customized for different locales and needs. The tool is open source allowing others to download, implement and use the engine so that they can bring awareness to crises in their own region.’

The core engine is built on the premise that gathering crisis information from the general public provides new insights into events happening in ‘near real-time.’

Ushahidi is also being utilised in the Indian election by Vote Report India.

screenshot of Vote Report India

Users contribute direct SMS, email, and web reports on violations of the Indian Election Commission’s Model Code of Conduct (PDF). The platform will then aggregate these direct reports with news reports, blog posts, photos, videos and tweets related to the elections from all relevant sources, in one place, on an interactive map.

Vote Report India aim is to not only increase transparency and accountability in the Indian election process, but also provide the most complete picture of public opinion in India during the elections.

Vote Report India is a non-partisan all-volunteer collaboration between software developers, designers, academics, and other professionals.

Here's Erik Hersman, aka WhiteAfrican, talking to TED about Ushahidi:

Here's a paper on the use of the Ushahidi platform in the Gaza war. Scroll to sec.5 for new media.

Recent research from ResearchICTAfrica reveals that Kenyans are spending incredible amounts on mobile communication as a proportion of income.

Here’s how it breaks down. The average Kenyan spends over 50% of their disposable income on mobile communication. For the bottom 75% of the population, that figure goes up to 63.6%. In terms of total individual income, the average Kenyan spends 16.7% of their income on mobile communication. That figure rises to 26.6% when looking at the bottom 75% of the population.

Africans are paying for mobile communication in spite of how expensive it is, not because of how affordable it is and because access to mobile communication is critical for people. Even if you are digging a ditch by the side of the road, day labour is now organised via SMS.

Nathan Eagle of MIT recently gave a talk to eTech where he explained about the mobile scene in Africa.

Entrepreneurs are constantly finding new uses for the technology.

A Kenyan water pump manufacturer combines an mobile-mPesa-enabled, solar-powered metering system with their water pumps. They give water pumps away for free and then make a profit by selling access to water via Safaricom’s mPesa service. Send the pump 20 Kenyan Shillings and it pumps 20 litres of water for you. This has increased the water pump companies business and made water more accessible to those who need it.

However, as Steve Song points out:
When a single mobile operator is a gatekeeper to water supply, something is wrong. For any village in this situation, [Kenya's largest mobile network]Safaricom can charge whatever they like.

If we accept the premise that, in places like Kenya, no one can afford not to have access to a phone, then one cannot help but feel that something needs to be done. A flour milling company in South Africa was recently fined more than 45 million Rand by the Competition Commission for price fixing and collusion. I think it is time to take a serious look at mobile operators.

Imagine an alternate reality where Africans paid less than 5% percent of their income on mobile communications and all phones operated on an IP-based network so that any new African innovation might be unlimited in terms of scope. Then we would see mobile-enabled social and economic innovation taking off in Africa.

As Nathan explains, African colleges and universities are turning out a lot of entrepreneurial tech talent. Unfortunately, much of this then migrates. Things like his work and the establishment of companies like Google Kenya is helping to stem this flow. Barcamp's have been held in Kenya and are coming up in Nigeria.

London is hosting a chance for sponsors and African innovators to meet up this weekend at Africa Gathering.

WhiteAfrican's blog is full of tales of tech innovation in Africa. Here he talks about the problems facing the next generation of techies in Liberia. Here's his list of African tech events.

Here Jonathan Gosier explains about his work in developing a tech hub in Uganda.

The rest of the world has a lot to learn from Africa, most obviously in developments around mobile phones.

HT: Kenya Pundit, WhiteAfrican

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