'People Will Work on Their Mobiles in Africa, We Just Don't Know How Yet'

As I mentioned in a recent post, one of the most striking aspects of the African Internet economy is that we don't know what the mobile Internet will look like when it is proliferated in Africa, much the same way we didn't know that banking would like M-Pesa.

My best glimpse yet of the future came yesterday at Nathan Eagle's talk at the Kennedy School. To be honest, I was somewhat embarrassed that I hadn't come across some of the brilliant work he is doing.

He started off the talk by saying "people are going to do work on their mobile phones in Africa, we just don't know what it is yet." However, three of his projects give some hint of what is to come.

Entrepreneurial Research and Programming on Mobiles

A program to support computer scientists and other engineers in their efforts to create mobile applications for the developing world context. They host an SMS Bootcamp, mobile phone programming for entrepreneurs, and mobile web apps. The program is now in 10 countries with 15 local computer science professors and lecturers.

These workshops have spawned a dizzying array of companies, in the fields of MDSS, mobile medicine, SIM-based application development, reality mining [w/ Christopher Waranga at Univ. of Nairobi], SMS bloodbank, Boonanet [commodity pricing], SMS gateways, air time regulator, stolen car alerts, business directories, pre-paid electricity, weather forecasts, MoKoSo [craigslist] and crush lists.

A start up based on three premises: (i) there are 1.5 billion poor literate mobile users in the developing world with time on their hands; (ii) corporations would benefit from 'crowd-sourcing' millions of tiny tasks that will always be done better by people than by computers; (iii) mobile phone networks have tons of underutilized capacity.

Txteagle "enables these tasks to be completed via text message by ordinary people around the globe." Say, for example, that Mozilla needs a Luganda language version of Firefox. They would ask people who speak Luganda to translate some of the key words. The machine parcable nature of text responses means that algorithms can identify talent and weed out those gaming the system.

The project is in a very early stage of identifying which tasks are best answered by SMS, and at this point 'they are throwing ideas against the wall, and seeing which ones stick.'

Reality Mining
Nathan's more academic work is on behavioral inference of complex systems in the developing world. At the Santa Fe Institute this summer, he built a super computer that can map, for example, where all of Rwanda's international phone calls in go in a single day.

This could be useful for understanding human patterns and affinities in outlier events like earthquakes, financial networks, urban planning, housing management, and movement dynamics. The most fascinating measurement of the economic influence of mobiles is a study that compared graphs of fish prices in three different regions of India before and after mobile base stations where installed. Before the base stations, the prices were erratic and subject to the whims of the larger buyers. After base stations, the data flat lined, showing that the ability to communicate has a profound effect on the price of tradeable goods in the developing world.

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The Psychology of American Political Choice

Liberals are dismayed that Republicans can be 'duped' into supporting a vice presidential candidate with so little policy experience. Turns out this has nothing to do with being duped, but instead is about the disparate ways Republicans and Democrats make decisions. While liberals rest on John Stuart Mill (autonomy is sacred, therefore cruelty is the worst thing we can do), Republicans rests on sociologist Emile Durkheimer [here described by Jonathan Haidt]:

Durkheim...warned of the dangers of anomie (normlessness), and wrote, in 1897, that "Man cannot become attached to higher aims and submit to a rule if he sees nothing above him to which he belongs. To free himself from all social pressure is to abandon himself and demoralize him." A Durkheimian society at its best would be a stable network composed of many nested and overlapping groups that socialize, reshape, and care for individuals who, if left to their own devices, would pursue shallow, carnal, and selfish pleasures. A Durkheimian society would value self-control over self-expression, duty over rights, and loyalty to one's groups over concerns for outgroups.
Obama should describe liberal goals through Durkheimian principles if he wants to get swing votes.


Information Technology Business in sub-Saharan Africa

At the Berkman Center last Tuesday, Ethan Zuckerman and Eric Osiakwan gave a talk on The Climate of Innovation Around Information Technology in sub-Saharan Africa. Here is my summary of Eric's portion of the talk. [Ethan's is here]

Eric tells two stories of innovation in Africa.

The ONE Network
In 1997, Sudanese Entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim was running MSI Cellular, at a time when there were only 2 million mobiles on the African continent. His goal was to develop a European quality mobile network without paying a bribe. He developed a model called incremental infrastructure, where instead of building out a national network, you invest in a single base station, get handsets to many people, and develop the network once more capital becomes available. He used this strategy to build a substantial network in 14 countries. In April 2005, Celtel bought MTC for $3.4 billion, which later rebranded as ZAIN's ONE Network.

The TEAMS Submarine Cable
Eric is a believer [and an investor] in SEACOM, one the major submarine fiber cables [slowly] racing to bring connectivity to East Africa in the coming few years. He predicts TEAMS will bring costs down from $7000 to $500 for a 2mbps connection. This will be critical to meeting the pent-up demand for Internet connectivity, driving both economic and social growth.

What do these stories say about the state of innovation in Africa? The main take away is that while projects like this seem like 'slam dunk' investments [earning 40%/year at some points], they are not getting the type of attention from the capital markets that they deserve. The TEAMS cable, for example, has the Government of Kenya as a major investor, which is a fine enough stop-gap measure, but prevents interest from others who are concerned with nationalization. Investors continue to be unfamiliar with Africa, and thwarted by major disasters like the one in Kenya.

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Networks and Tech Entrepreneurship in Africa

At the Berkman Center last Tuesday, Ethan Zuckerman and Eric Osiakwan gave a talk on The Climate of Innovation Around Information Technology in sub-Saharan Africa. Here is my summary of Ethan's portion of the talk.

In the 1990's, the physical location of all the critical elements of a successful tech venture [programmers, sys admins, sales, content, management] mattered a great deal. Analee Saxenion's 1998 classic "Regional Advantage" discusses what made Silicon Valley successful than Boston's Rt. 128 Tech Corridor.

The key is choosing the network model over the autarkic model. In Silicon Valley, changing companies frequently was encouraged, allowing talented employees to change jobs frequently and promote new innovation. In Boston, everyone tried to build everything in-house, which was a recipe for failure.

Today, the model has become more decentralized, to the possible benefit of African economies. The need for the critical elements still exists, but they can be in Orlando or Cape Town or Toronto, all working on a project based in Accra. This is promising.

One can see this evolution in social as well as economic ventures. In the aftermath of the 2007-2008 Kenyan Presidential Election Crisis, one saw these networks emerge in six distinct ways, demonstrating the sagacity of these networks [Nota Bene: I'm co-authoring a paper on this topic w/ Juliana Rotich to be publish later this fall in Harvard's Berkman Center Working Paper Series']

1. SMS used to promote violence;
2. Mashada.com- a popular Kenyan message board shut down after many violent messages, and the subsequent creation of Ihavenotribe.com
3. Blogs became Newspapers, 48 hour period where broadcast journalism was not reporting live, pretty common to read blogs over radio;blogs as mass media
4. PR Campaign Globally- a group of writers who wrote in major publications to change the narrative away from genocide,
5. Mama Mikes- alternative remittance, send $100 as a voucher for petrol, mobile phone minutes, with far less overhead than Western Union
6. Ushahidi.com- a platform for reporting incidents of violence via mobile and posting them online.

The decentralization is promising for both social and economic entrepreneurs. It would be great to see a study of how these networks are contributing to wealth in African economies. A possible idea for Fletcher's Center for Emerging Market Enterprises.

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Ushahidi and the Era of Participatory Human Rights Campaign

Today, the new Ushahidi site launched, marking the era of the distributed human rights campaign. Just as Wikipedia allows for the wide-scale participation of collecting the world's knowledge, Ushahidi now allows for anyone, anywhere, to participate in reporting violence, atrocities and human rights violations. Internet scholar Yochai Benkler calls this phenomenon 'commons-based peer production', but what does it really mean?

Until now, campaigns for northern Uganda or Darfur relied on tiny elites in those places to speak for those facing violence. Today, with simply a mobile phone, anyone can actively report incidents of violence to a truly global audience, making it harder for perpetrators to face impunity.

I've written and spoke about Ushahidi before. The project started in the chaotic and sad days following the 2007 Kenyan Presidential campaign, when violence escalated out of control in Kenya's Rift Valley. Then, Ushahidi was an ad hoc tool to allow Kenyans to use mobiles to report incidents of violence, which would then be published on a Google maps based website.

Today, Ushahidi released a platform for use whenever and wherever the next human security disaster erupts. As one of the lead develops, Erik Hersman, recently told me, "Just like a blacksmith, we want to make the hammer, not tell people how to use it." It is exciting to think that whatever the next emergency may be, decent people will be empowered to both spread the word globally and and keep the perpetrators accountable.

Congrats to Erik the whole Ushahidi team!

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