Coded in Country | Stoking Local Innovation

Can institutions [be they international organizations, companies, universities, foundations or governments] enable innovation in local technology industries? We explored this question on a rainy Saturday afternoon in New York at the 'coded in country' session of the Open Mobile Consortium's Open Mobile Camp in New York.

The challenge of 'coded in country' -- how to get more coders in the developing world working on mobile projects -- is in many ways a helpful proxy for thinking about the larger question above. In an energetic discussion, we developed something of an incomplete typology for developing the capacity of local programmers, each with its advantages and drawbacks.

Partner with Local Universities
Lucky Gunasekara of FrontlineSMS:Medic and Stanford University pointed to Nathan Eagle's Entrepreneurial Programming and Research on Mobiles project that partners with African mobile engineering department to strengthen capacity. challenge: ensure knowledge reaches beyond university-educated classes.

Break Down Barriers with Local Tech Industry
Chrissy Martin of the Fletcher School mentioned that in Tanzania, the most inspired, engaged, and talented programmers all worked at value added services companies. These are companies that charge premium rates for sending and recieving sports scores, concert tips and other local cultural content. Chrissy argued that there should be more cross-pollination between private sector talent and those working on M4D projects. challenge: find an incentive for private sector programmers to engage.

Convince Donors to Adopt a 'Coded in Country' Standard
Similar to a fair trade stamp of approval, what if the Gates Foundation declared that any development project with a coding element must be 50% coded in-country. To be sure, some projects already feel a need to hire local developers. Stephen Miller of the Ujima Project | Investigative Reporting for Africa, discussed how the group hired Appfrica Labs to do the coding for the project. challenge: in places where local capacity is not established, balance project goals with local capacity building.

Give Space for Informal Innovation Labs
Christelle Scharff, professor of computer science at Pace University, discussed the mobile development boot-camps she runs in Senegal. The goal is to create space and an incentive for young people to spend a week intensely tinkering with mobile solutions to community problems. This is a similar approach to Appfrica Labs 10,000 Hours project, which urges companies in Kampala to open their space to young people interested in digital technologies. challenge: ensure that peer-education ensures learning of fundamental skills.

Labels: , ,

FairMobile | An African Telecom Research Agenda

Over at Many Possibilities, Steve Song just introduced the idea of a Fair Mobile Index: a measurement, akin to the Economist's Big Mac Index, of what mobile pricing regimes mean both for the average African user and mobile innovators who benefit from a generative market.

Steve writes:

Evidence from the pan-African research network, ResearchICTAfrica, points to a remarkably high percentage of income being spent by the poor on mobile services. For low income earners across 17 countries studied, the average African is paying more than 50% of their disposable income on mobile services.

At the same time, mobile operators are posting impressive profits. Kenyan operator Safaricom generated over 900 million USD in revenue last year of which a staggering 40% was Earnings before Interest, Taxes, Depreciation, and Amortization ( EBITDA). Other operators are also posting impressive profits with most operators on the continent announcing year on year increases in revenue.

The startling contrast between the remarkable benefits of mobile infrastructure and the high price being paid for mobile services in Africa while mobile operators post record profits leads to the conclusion that more competitive mobile markets in Africa would lead to even greater social and economic benefit for all but especially the poor.

I'm incredibly excited to follow, and hopefully to contribute to, the FairMobile research agenda. The editor of my Venture Beat article on Africa's SMS Crisis cut a critical passage that alludes to the frustrations I felt amongst innovators while I was working in Uganda:
These [innovative mobile] services, however, represent a trickle of innovation where there should be a downpour. The source of this sluggishness is the “non-generative” structure of mobile phone networks. In The Future of the Internet and How To Stop It, Harvard Law Professor Jonathan Zittrain defines generativity as the ability for entrepreneurs anywhere, driven by any social or economic motivation, to quickly and cheaply create, test and deploy applications. Zittrain says that generativity is the key to the Internet’s rapid growth, and he worries that new web-based appliances, such as the iPhone, that can only be modified with the manufacturers consent, threaten this fundamental character. In other words, Zittrain fears that the Internet as a network is becoming more like the mobile phone: costly and closed.

Labels: ,

Thursday Links 10.22.09

Pigeon Sun, via Meg Rorison's photostream

In route to Geneva, Patrick Meier puts the wraps on the International Crisis on Conflict Mapping, an event that sounded exemplary in both content and structure.

In Conakry, Global Voices explores blogger reactions to reports that on Sept. 28th, 150 opposition party members were massacred by government soldiers while gathering in a football stadium to protest the Gamara government.

In Washington, the Google Public Policy blog reports that 'innovation without permission' is at stake today as the FCC discusses net neutrality.

In Geneva, the ITU approves a single phone charger standard! oh lord yes!


Harnessing the Power of Mobile 'Beeping'

Parallel to my thinking about the prohibitive pricing of SMS in Africa [see my recent piece in Venture Beat], I've been thinking a lot about how to harness the pervasive and utterly free practice of 'beeping' [which takes place when a user places a call and quickly hanging up in order to send an (often) pre-arranged signal to another user such as 'come meet me now' or 'call me back'].

I'm curious to explore how 'beeping' can be used to collect information and serve as a platform for mobile services? Here are two good ideas.

'Beeping' as Instant Feedback and Poll-Taking
Imagine you are in Pader, one of the major towns in northern Uganda. During a drought, your community receives food aid in six different locations from six different donor agencies. As you walk into town, you see a billboard that asks: which of these six locations serves you best? Each location is tied to a mobile number. To vote, you just beep the appropriate number, and the votes are tallied by a simple piece of software on a computer attached to the six different phones. [the software would check for repeat numbers, ect] The same system could be used for conducting local elections.

'Beeping' as Coded Messages
Last night, I was re-watching Ashifi Gogo's talk earlier this year on GSM Networks at the Berkman Center. In his discussion of how asymmetric encryption is leveraged for his brilliant m-Pedigree project, he mentions that the next generation of such services may involve 'beeping.' For example, imagine you are planning your drive to work across central Accra in the morning and you wonder how much traffic is on the road. Gogo asks what if there was a short-code you could beep, and get a coded beep in response- one beep means the road is free of traffic; two beeps mean you better walk.
There is an open question as to whether mobile networks would actively push back on a high-profile 'beeping' project because it leverages their networks for free. It is important to note, however, tha most networks could probably handle over a million 'beeps' without significant use of their capacity.

The platform itself seems like something both development practitioners and entrepreneurs should be intensely interested in. What other 'beeping' innovations are possible?

Labels: ,

Appfrica Labs Launches 10,000 Hours Initiative

In college, when my thinking about communities first began to mature, I noticed the obvious discrepancy in Washington D.C. between the political elite who occupied a significant part of the northwest section of town, and remainder of the denizens, whose lower and lower-middle class communities lacked access to things like hospitals and super-markets. Since then, I've been a fan of community projects that put young people from communities with few resources in a new setting with a new vocabulary and a fresh take on the world. These shifts often provide the spark for new passions and new ideas to take home and expand.

For this reason, I'm excited about Appfrica Labs's new 10,000 Hours Initiative, described by Jon Gosier here:

Appfrica’s 10,000 Hour Initiative is aimed at offering a space for younger people to pursue their passions alongside professionals working in the field. The concept is very much inspired by the 826 National Project, which offers kids in the U.S. an after school hours community center where they can work alongside professionals who act as tutors and mentors. The name comes from Malcom Gladwell’s OUTLIERS, where he theorizes that it takes about 10,000 hours of practice for anyone to become truly exceptional at doing something. Of course we want to help offer those hours.

[...] The first space will be at my office in Kampala where I’ll encourage students interested in programming, new media and blogging to come by after school hours to spend a bit of extra time either working on their homework or learning new things from myself and my staff. Here they’ll have access to our staff, our internet connection, books, our computers and other resources that they can experiment with.

I find this to be a remarkably creative act of sharing, and one that can be highly successful with few resources other than a willingness to be occasionally generous with ones time.

Labels: , ,

10.15.09 Thursday Links

new orleans cyanotype, via meg rorison's photostream

In Porto, El Oso predicts that next to our digital malls like Amazon, "an artisan internet emerge around open standards like OpenID...led by digital natives yearning to express their individuality in a world of indistinguishable mass-manufacturing."

In Johannesburg, Rick Jourbert's presentation explores the trends of mobile web access in South Africa. He notes that only over 10 million South African's have accessed the web via mobile, and only 30% have access by means other than their phones.

In New York, Jan Chipchase stops by and takes notes at Clay Shirky's NYU course Design for UNICEF.

In the Kolda Region (southern Senegal), folks at the Jokko Initiative blog about the hard, experimental work of deploying a mobile social network to a class of women in a rural village.


Is Kindle the New Voice of America?

In High Tech Diplomacy (Newsweek) Evgeny Morozov writes that Silicon Valley tech firms could be a good conduit for public diplomacy.

Distributing Kindles to the four corners of the world would not only be a good gesture from Amazon, it would also help promote free speech. Kindle could end an era when visiting foreigners have to smuggle samizdat books in and out of authoritarian countries. It is a dream device for dissidents, all for $299.
In 1963 Voice of America, the primary public diplomacy arm of the U.S. Department of State, translated and broadcast Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream Speech' behind the Iron Curtain, giving many people access to one of the most vivid narratives of the promise of democracy. However, American diplomats, and their counter-parts overseas, have yet to get public diplomacy right in a digital age.

Towards the end of the Bush era, a small amount of State money went towards studying the effect of Internet on democracy, including mapping of the blogospheres in repressive regimes like Iran and presenting narratives of moments when the Internet proved important for democracy. While this continues to yield a great deal of knowledge, its unclear that US government involvement in creating and distributing knowledge in repressive regimes will be effective. Cheap hardware could be part of the answer.


Technology is Easy, Community is Hard

the view from downtown Salzburg, Austria

Sometimes conferences get in the way. Other times, especially when one is wrestling with an idea in progress, they can inspire. This week, the Salzburg Global Seminar, on new media in the developing world, held on a gorgeous lake at the foot of the Dolomites, was certainly the latter.

I've been wrestling with the question of where development institutions (widely construed) fit in the new media landscape in the developing world. I'm passionate about, and deeply involved, with the development of local technology industries in Africa. However, unlike many in this community, I do not feel the need to will away an international aid community that is working and succeeding on hard problems [to take just one example, how mobiles can become a tool that helps health workers in northern Zambia lower the death rate of babies born with HIV] that local tech industry can not yet serve. In fact, in the short to medium term future, these international institutions will continue to be the main client base for local tech.

One thought that I continue to ponder came from David Sasaki, Director of Rising Voices, a global citizen media outreach initiative of Global Voices Online.

Technology is Easy, Community is Hard
Too many projects focus explicitly on technology training, when in reality the technical skills necessary to create media, such as posting on a blog, become easier every day. Instead, these projects should focus on the difficult challenge of creating a lasting community of young people who are passionate about telling stories about their community and willing to experiment with new media tools.

Frequently, there are many individuals who care about community issues and are curious about technology, but lack a venue to come together and share both their story telling and technology skills. Media development projects can play this role. I believe they can provide 'scholarships' for ensuring that promising young people from dis-advantaged backgrounds have access to this community and the ideas that come out of it.

Labels: , ,