It’s Not About Us, it’s About Them

While blogging, emails, Twitter and the internet are doing a great deal of good getting the news out of what’s going on in Kenya to the rest of the world, I find myself troubled. You see, the communication that needs to be happening is at the grassroots level. Everyday Kenyans do not have access to any of these services.

Let’s put our minds and capabilities towards solving real problems for people beyond the technologically elite.

Take the current state of affairs in Kenya as an example. With every problem comes an opportunity. In this case, we’re talking about finding a way to open up better communications to not just the African digerati and blogosphere, but the everyday Kenyan as well.

The primary means of communication during an emergency in Kenya is via SMS – on their mobile phones. Some of the problems with the current structure of mobile communications in any African region during a crisis:

  • Many disbursed one-to-one communications (SMS)
  • Lack of reports from people on the ground – traditional media can only cover so much. If there was ever a need for citizen journalism, then this is it. (this goes beyond what Ken talked about in just citizen monitoring of the polls)

With the just the two problems outlined above, it’s possible to see what kind of technology solution might be useful. That’s the type of service and/or platform that we should be building towards. Beyond the usefulness of such a service in a crisis, it would likely be a profitable business venture in less trying times.

[Check out two good posts on Kenya from a technology angle by Joshua Goldstein at Harvard’s I&D blog and Mark at Mashable]

Another good tech idea from Ory at Kenyan Pundit:

“Google Earth supposedly shows in great detail where the damage is being done on the ground. It occurs to me that it will be useful to keep a record of this, if one is thinking long-term. For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level the truth of what happened will first have to come out. Guys looking to do something – any techies out there willing to do a mashup of where the violence and destruction is occurring using Google Maps?”

19 thoughts on “It’s Not About Us, it’s About Them

  1. Michael O. (Texas) says:

    After the dust settles, and while addressing and seeking to prevent the repeat of the kind of violent outbursts we have seen, our leaders will surely have to squarely face the perceived grievances of many groups of citizens. For example, I hazard that presidents will have to ensure that political appointments represent the face of Kenya, lest they be accused of being tribalism. Some might even propose laws to enforce such requirements. It will be interesting to see how our political experiment seeks to do what ought to have been done a long time ago and use legislation to create a semblance of justice and equality.

  2. Drupal has an SMS Gateway module that can be used to send text messages between cell phones and websites. It needs some work, but it can go some way to solving this problem. With this module, it is possible to keep a subscriber list of “citizen journalists” to whom a mass txt message can be sent calling for updates regarding what is happening on the ground. Each person sends an SMS regarding what they can see and it appears as a comment on the issue on the site.

    Other open source CMS may also have this capability

  3. Identifying the final recipient of such technology is important. If the person has no access to computers, mobile phones or similar gadgets then technology will fail them – at least for now. I personally think podcasting rather than blogs can play a better role in getting information directly to the poor masses. We also know that most folks in the rural area have access to at least radios. The secret will therefore lie in ‘marrying’ podcast and radio technology – the delivery. This is a simplistic view, but I assume the idea is pretty clear. I will be interested in working on this idea with any interested parties.

  4. I was downloading google earth for fun when i read your post, whilst researching stuff for my blog.

    I will give it a shot, and post back the pictures to you like on the 12th. Cool I am curious to see waht is happening

  5. Hi Munashe

    It’s a totally new ball game adding the word ‘free’ to the criteria Erik discusses in his post. Very few mobile services are free (although sometimes clever marketing can make people see it this way). Many Kenyans already have access to mobile technology – either a handset of their own, or access to one via a friend or family member. The point is how people can be mobilised to report on what’s happening in their areas, and in their lives, during times of crisis, and how a service can be put in place to allow them to do it.

    Of course, it’s easy to sit here in a place like the UK (where I am) and hope, or expect, a Kenyan NGO to rapidly set up some kind of SMS service for everyday Kenyans to use to report news, ethnic violence, police brutality and so on. The technology to set up such a service is already out there, but it’s often inaccessible to these kinds of organisation due to cost or complex technical requirements.

    The whole point, as far as I’m concerned, is how we provide relevant and appropriate technology solutions to grassroots organisations looking to use mobile technology in places like Kenya in times of crisis. I’d love to know how many Kenyan NGOs considered doing something, but didn’t because of a lack of knowledge, funding, technical skills or resources.

    This, for me, is the point. There simply isn’t enough focus on servicing the needs of this grassroots community, and this is something I’ve been saying for a long time now. We need to be looking at developing appropriate technology solutions, and empowering organisations in their work. The problem is there isn’t much money, if any, in this.

    My own work is based on initiatives such as FrontlineSMS (http://www.frontlinesms.com) and nGOmobile (http://www.ngomobile.org), both of which seek to address this imbalance.

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