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Motribe: The Mobile Web Community Builder

The Mobile Web is the future of mobile apps, and it’s not surprising to see Vincent Maher and Nic Haralambous, from South Africa, on the front end of it. Motribe is a simple community building platform for the mobile web. You can easily get a site up and going in an hour that allows chat, photo sharing, private messaging and mobile blogs.

That bit about the mobile web is important, since it means you can browse to it on most phones, and you don’t need a special app for it built on all the smartphone platforms, like iPhone, Android, Ovi, WinMo and Bada – as in, there’s one less barrier to entry.

I asked Vincent why he chose mobile web, his response:

“Mobile is the killer internet platform for Africa, but also the rest of the world. We have found that our younger users prefer using an ipod touch to surf the web than a PC. Motribe works on 4000 devices (or more) and the Motribe plan is to change the way people use social networks in emerging markets.”

Initial funding was raised 4DI Capital, and they’ve got a clear business strategy, which is to sell their product. Pricing ranges from $10 to $50, and each level gives you a greater ability to customize and “own” the mobile social network that you’ve built. There is also an enterprise level available for bigger brands and companies. Motribe also has a free plan with core features and a 100-user limit for you to get started quickly.

Its built on Amazon EC2, S3, RDS and Cloudfront using PHP, Codeigniter, Google Charts, JQuery and Cassandra. Vincent stated that, “Cassandra is the most interesting of the components because its going to be the key to scaling to millions of users.”

Giving it a Test Run

I went ahead and signed up to give Motribe a whirl. My test site is AfriGadget.Motribe.mobi, where I’ll put up some stuff from AfriGadget and see if a community grows around it. Just getting going, I can see that a lot of attention has been put behind this platform (as would be expected with veterans like Vincent and Nic).

Some notes:

  • Signup: done easily, nice little touch to provide a QR code directing to a URL for login.
  • Setting up a community: simple, see image below.
  • Access code: for when you want only certain people to join
  • Test mode: for making sure your community is setup right before it goes live
  • Themes: many simplified stock themes available out of the box.
  • QR code generator: there’s a neat QR code generated for the URL of your new site. (Would be nice to have this as an embed code for websites)

There are a couple example sites already going – emofwendz.com is the one they ran for the pilot, and it has some fantastic engagement stats, like an average of over 100 pages viewed per visit (the norm for web sites is about 5) and average visit lengths of around 60 minutes. Today, Vincent said, an Afrikaans-language site was created for Christians http://ekerk.motribe.mobi, its a good example of exactly what they people to do with the platform.

Some Thoughts

If there’s any platform that’s come out of Africa in the last year that fills a global need, it’s Motribe. I won’t be surprised to see this go big at all.

There are always teething pains, experimentation and adjustments when a new platform goes live. I found a few issues, like when I went to upload my logos they threw a bug (I was a pixel off on the size, thus the issue). Not unexpected in a brand new platform, and I’m sure it’ll be fixed shortly.

I wasn’t able to test out the “Custom URL” and “Advertising Manager” features, though I would like to see how each is implemented. It might be worth having a section on the website to preview at least the Advertising Manager in more detail to see if it’s worth upgrading to.

There isn’t any SMS functionality yet, and I’m not sure there needs to be either. As Vincent said, “we don’t have a need for SMS right now but we may well integrate SMS at a later stage depending on whether we can find some good uses for it.”

Worth reading: other posts by TechCentral and the Daily Maverick.

Nokia’s $1 Million Growth Economy Venture Challenge

Your mission:
To build a product, which will be a profitable business, that improves the lives of people who live in a part of the world where they make less than $5/day. It can be hardware, software or services as long as it is related to mobility.

What application would you build to win a $1,000,000 investment from Nokia to do that?

Picking a Winner

If you’re just hearing about this contest, you’re already too late. Today I’m sitting in on the final judging panel to pick a winner from the 10 finalists who come from all over the world.

Since the challenge ended July 31, 2010, Nokia has received nearly 300 submissions from 54 countries, with a majority of them coming from India (47), followed by the United States (42), Kenya (14), the UK (11) and Egypt (9).

In no specific order, here are the finalists:

eVOTZ
www.eVOTZ.com
USA

Mobile devices have become the dashboard for people’s live, and eVOTZ allows their voices to be heard and counted in a whole new way. We believe mobile handsets offer profound social impact to improve eDemocracy with mobile apps for social good. Our eVOTZ platform incorporates SIM card security with location-based services that for the first time bring both TXT voting and mobile Web Smartphone solutions to South Africa and other emerging growth economies for trustworthy voting. Help us in our mission to ensure mobile voting is secure, convenient and trustworthy in South Africa and other emerging economies, worldwide.

IDIFIED
Black Tie Networx
www.btnetworx.com
USA

Could someone use their Nokia phone to avoid a roadside bomb or mine? As amazing as that may sound, it is possible and soon. IDFIED is an application being developed to identify buried explosives in the Developing World and areas of conflict. One benefit will be to quickly provide information to civilians, NGOs and emergency workers to avoid IEDs using GPS and proximity alerts. We think this will change the way people use their mobile phone and that Nokia can be a major contributor to its success.

Mobile Distributor Solution
Virtual City Ltd.
http://www.virtualcity.co.ke 
Kenya

Virtual City Ltd, a home-grown Kenyan company, has developed a solution that aims at addressing systemic issues along the Supply Chain for distributors and retailers of Fast Moving Consumer Goods in emerging markets. The Mobile Distributor Solution is designed to contribute to improved efficiencies and value to all the stakeholders in the value chain and result in increased number of transactions, accurate records, improved Inventory management & reporting from the field and effective management decision making. The solution will also bring value to a large number of beneficiaries comprising of thousands of small and micro enterprises in the FMCG Market.

FloCash Payment Network
Flocash Ltd 
www.flocash.com 
UK

FloCash is a mobile payment service that extends the bank to the unbanked in the form of a virtual bank based on the unique MoCharge mobile terminal. FloCash provides the unbanked masses of Africa the ability to make remittances, make bill payments and pay for product and services across a network of agents. The FloCash service is not a closed loop service. Its payment intermediary can be a Micro Finance Institution, a telco or a bank. Through provisioning of the FloCash smart card, anyone can sign up for the FloCash service, even those who do not own a mobile phone.

Mobile JobHunt
Shenzhen LEG 
www.leg3s.com
China 

“Mobile JobHunt”, targeting 300 million urban blue-collar workers and rural migrant workers in China, an under-served sector for a long time. It’s a set of employment information applications and services based on “Mobile Internet” and “Cloud Computing”. It covers recruitment, rights and interests, and training. Since late 2008, we have partnered with 200 phone makers and accumulated 15 million installation units, nearly 10 million active users and 1 million corporate customers. Revenue exceeded US$10M in FY2010 (ending June), with US$5M profit. With proprietary IP, “Mobile JobHunt” has no known direct competitors. We intend to go public in 1-2 years.

mmatcher – your mobile, your marketplace
mmatcher (R3 d.o.o.)
www.mmatcher.com
Slovenia

Mmatcher is a personalized mobile marketplace, which automatically in real time matches complementary interests. For example, mmatcher will match a cabbage seller with all potential buyers that are interested in his product. India is full of online marketplaces, but problem comes with accessibility to computers. Mmatcher resolves the problem and provides a solution to 640 million mobile users. We believe that mmatcher could be the missing element between Nokia life tools and Nokia money by providing buying and selling opportunity over the phone. Our vision is to reach 2.5 billion users in India, Pakistan, China and Indonesia in 3 years.

Bionic Power – The Portable Power Solution
Bionic Power Inc. 
http://www.bionic-power.com/ 
Canada

Wireless communication is not truly wireless as users are tethered to power grids to charge their mobile phone batteries. This is a particular problem for 1.6 billion people in developing countries without access to electricity. By generating electricity from everyday movements of individuals, the Bionic Energy Harvester provides a cost-effective and reliable solution to this power problem. Bionic Power’s technology is powerful, producing about half an hour of talk time from one minute of walking. Among other applications, it can be used to power things such as headlamps for harvesting crops at night, LED lights in homes, and laptop computers.

m-Employment platform using SMS
Cogilent Solutions 
www.BrightSpyre.com 
Pakistan

Low-income people without reliable access to Internet and technology do not enter into the job search through the modern tools. The solution is to bring complete functionality of a job portal on mobile by using SMS service. This m-Employment platform will connect more than 1 billion opportunity seekers (skilled, semi skilled workforce) in the South Asian and African countries with the opportunity providers (jobs, work). Short profiles built using SMS will connect opportunity seekers with all the opportunities advertised in their context. The opportunity providers will post work job opportunities and will be able to search and connect with the workforce matching their requirements. The platform will support local regional languages with strong spam and abuse control system.

Transclick for Globalization of m-commerce
Transclick 
www.transclick.com 
USA

Transclick is the leader in mobile digital translation of SMS, email and IM as well as Internet Browsing text translation at 400 words per sec. using customized microglossaries for higher accuracy than free online translation. Transclick’s API allows m-commerce and m-banking vendors to add Transclick into mobile commerce to enable those who make less than $5 per day to access English speaking buyers and communicate post-sale. The seller in Africa can create advertising of a product, translate and publish it automatically, using Transclick’s SMS translator and the price includes 10 cents per transaction paid by the m-banking vendor to Transclick.

Remote Diagnostics Kit
Vyas Labs
http://medical.vyaslabs.in
India

Vyas Labs Remote Diagnostics Kit (RDK) is a user-friendly remote medical diagnostic device that can work with mobile phones to allow medical specialists to attend to patients sitting thousands of miles away. It provided real-time ECG, non invasive blood pressure measurement, pulse oximetry monitoring, electronic stethoscope, body fat index, height, weight and pan-tilt camera, with total control with the remote doctor. The doctor can point to a specific location on the mobile screen and the nurse using the device sees the location and places instruments there.

The Award

Though we’ve voted today on the finalist, the winner won’t be announced until tomorrow at Nokia World. Someone is walking away with $1m to fund their project!

Nokia World 2010

At the Nokia World event in London. Keep up with it using the #NokiaWorld hashtag on Twitter and on their Nokia Blog.

“At Nokia, “connecting people” is more than a feelgood tagline.” Niklas Savander, Executive Vice President Markets, Nokia.

He goes on to talk about the fact that they’re the largest manufacturer hitting the largest number of people worldwide. Just as everyone has a different need, they have to create phones that offer different features, compromising on the device due to the customer needs.

Smartphones

“People bought far more Nokia smartphones than Apple and Android combined.” On average, people buy 260,000 Nokia smartphones daily. Despite all of these new competitors, Symbian is still the largest with just over 40% of the smartphone market.

Symbian 3 has been rewritten to be faster, easier to use and more developer friendly. “A transition from legacy to leading edge.” They plan to ship 50 million of these new Symbian 3 smartphones. Over 100 operators and distributors will be offering the N8 globally.

Another dig at Apple: “Our phones work day in, day out, no matter how you hold them.”

Maps

Nokia has invested a lot in Ovi Maps, having bought Navteq a couple years ago, and going on from there. NIklas claims that they have further reach and impact than Google Maps. It’s more accurate, has dedicated (correct) pedestrian routes. You also don’t need to be connected to the internet to use it, without a constant mobile connection. If you do need it connected, you’ll find it much less data hungry than Google Maps.

Nokia’s Ovi Maps is available in 78 countries and 46 languages.

By 2013 over 800 million people will be using GPS enabled devices. Soon, everything on the internet will have a location. This is huge and will transcend the user experience as we know it today. “It’s a space we intend to own.”

The Nokia N8

Anssi Vanjoki, EVP, General Manager of Mobile Solutions comes on stage.

“People are buying more than hardware and software when they buy a smartphone, and Nokia is the company that built this market.”

“A few critics have looked at the Nokia N8 and said that it looks like the “same old Symbian”. That’s like dismissing the experience of a new car because it has the same dashboard. You have to drive it to know the difference.”

A broader distribution base than any other platform. He’s talking to developers.

The Nokia N8 is an important milestone, because it’s the first to take the new Symbian OS to the next level. It’s got new hardware, and new software – a new user experience. He wants us all to give it a test drive, they’ve got plenty of them around the event to play with.

He talks about the N8’s 12mp camera, and shows us some examples. They are amazing. It has a mechanical shutter, so the images look great. It has the largest sensor used in any phone-like device.

No other smartphone on the market can give you such a high-level experience. Anssi then shows us a trailer for Tron, with a direct cable (HDMI) onto the big screen from the phone itself. It is amazing.

A lightening fast processor and a 3d graphics accelerator. Aluminum body. Glass OLED Screen, etc.

More new phones

Different people have different needs. A new family of Symbian devices.

Introduces the Nokia C6. Has an 8mp camera, built in Ovi Maps, location sharing is made easy. It also features something new, the ClearBlack Display (CBD), a premium touch screen with a great view. “The black screen is blacker than black, as the sensors take away reflection on the glass.”

The Nokia C7 is thinner, with a stainless steel body.

Social network support for Facebook and Twitter are built into the new C6 and C7. Since Nokia’s customers are global, they’re also supporting Renren in China, Orkut in Brazil – and other global mobile social networks. Both will start shipping in Q4 2010.

They’re looking to find the “most active Facebooker” among their 1.1m Facebook Fans. They’ll choose 5, and they’ll win a new Nokia C6 and C7 and 20 of their closest friends.

“The Nokia E7 is BIG.”, it takes over the space that the Nokia 9000 started in 1996. It’s an office on the go, supporting Microsoft’s suite of business software.

[Note: trying to find an image of the Nokia e7 to share with you, but their site gives me no responses for a search… crap. Bad marketing.]

Found one on Engadget:

Environmentally friendly: C7 uses biopaints, C6 uses recycled metal.

Nokia Developer Community

Purnima Kochikar, VP Forum Nokia and Developer Communities

1.3 billion Nokia people. She crisscrossed the world to talk to developers (she didn’t go to Africa though).

2+ million developers globally.

Simplified developer interaction and made it easier to distribute applications. “You have an improved ability to write apps that mean the most to 1.3 billion Nokia users that use payment methods that serve them best.”

We believe that success isn’t measure just in Dollars, Euros or Pounds, but also in the lives of people. We see this impact everyday in the apps that you have built. Our goal is to help increase the health, wealth and lives of our users, and bring them joy. Uses the example of Proxil for checking if drugs are legitimate.

Think globally and act locally. This isn’t a race to the next million apps. It’s about getting relevant apps to everyone around the world.

Have created a way to reach consumers via demographics, not just geographic location. For instance, have found a great desire of Indian apps in Canada.

Last year alone Nokia shipped 364 million phones with Java (s40) on them. There is a real hunger for great apps on these devices, and people are absolutely willing to pay for them.

Ex: VuClip allows you to watch videos on your mobile phone. The founder thought it would sell best on smartphones in the West. He was pleasantly surprised to find that most of his users come from the emerging markets.

“Touch and Type” SDK for s40 is available on ForumNokia.com.

The Ovi Store

175 million devices available to be sold to.
45 million touch devices
50 million potential new users with the new Symbian 3 OS phones. (C6, C7, E7, N8 models)

There are 2 simple ways to build for Nokia: native Qt SDK and the Symbian Web Runtime (web SDK).

The new standard compliant Nokia Browser. It has been updated for touch, improving consumer interaction, especially for people who will use the mobile as their primary internet device.

Available in 190 countries
Supports 120+ Nokia devices
Credit card and operator billing (choose operator billing 2/3 times… that’s huge.)

Fizwoz as an example has 167 country reach due to the Ovi Store.

App distribution cost reduced on Ovi Store – application signing is free for Java and Symbian.

They have 150 people in Forum Nokia to support developers, with someone on every continent, including someone in South Africa (do they help the rest of Africa or only South Africa?).

Mikael Hed, CEO of Rovio, leader in mobile games. Creator of “Angry Birds” (which I and my daughters love) and has sold over 7 million copies and the free version has been downloaded 11 million times. A new bird, the “Mighty Eagle”, is released to let you not get frustrated with a level – an in-app purchase for $1.99. (awesome new video)

The Ovi Store’s in-app purchase option let’s them maintain the immersive gameplay experience.

Vodafone

Vittorio Colao, Chief Executive Vodafone Group, comes on stage. “I personally believe that data is a great opportunity.”

Vittorio talks about his recent holiday in Greece, and how they interact with their mobile devices now as compared to years ago. They’re emailing, hiring cars, booking restaurants, mapping beaches, reading news on tablets, watching video news, getting wind forecasts by the hour, etc… They’re using data seamlessly.

Life is changing in an incredible way amongst the masses. Real life.

Here’s just 1 month from Vodafone Group usage of data:

  • 1/3 browse
  • 25% play games
  • 20% Email
  • 15% social networking
  • 11% maps
  • 30% business
  • Video and music fastest growing.

All people, rich or poor, north to south, will have their interactions done on the mobile. We need 5 things now to make things work better:

1. Network speeds and quality of service – the expectation, in terms of quality, is quickly rising. Pervasiveness, speed, accessibility, distribution and care. Vodafone has never cut investment in this area. The operator can provide two things: privacy and security. Data pricing and data caps have to change, he wants different levels of service.

2. Devices and operating systems – low-end smartphones, PCs, emerging market smartphones.

3. Content and services – Thinks social networking will double. Navigation will increase by 90%. Streaming music and video are already the largest of Vodafone Groups work.

“In reality, the network’s main job is not voice anymore, it’s handling our customer’s entertainment.”

A couple recommendations for devs: 1) tailor your apps to individual users – they have loads of customer information that can be tapped as an operator. 2) Operator billing is quick, intuitive and much easier to manage and will grow your usage of paid apps.

4. Customers affordability – pricing is becoming more important than features in the new segment of adopters of smartphones (emerging markets).

5. Ecosystem profitability – There has to be the right return for all the players. Pricing should be adjusted to reflect usage and load on the system. We’re reaching the end of the “free” time, otherwise we’ll have a free bad experience. Segmentation must drive the right device to the right demographics at the right time. There must be enough margin for developers to have a strong incentive to create locally relevant experiences for customers.

Notes from gKenya

This is the third day of gKenya, where there are 30+ Google employees running a big Google-focused conference in Nairobi. They’ve just done one in Ghana and Uganda as well. The first day was for university students, the second for programmers and today is for entrepreneurs and marketers.

Nelson Mattos, VP of Africa, Europe and the Middle East gave a keynote, here are some notes from that.

Challenges

High penetration of mobile devices, and growth in mobile, yet not many fixed lines and very little high-speed connectivity. This provides a major challenge to Google, whose internet paradigm is based on a different type of user. Low speed and unreliable connectivity.

The diversity of Africa is also a challenge, especially languages. Example, is that there are 51 African languages with more than 2 million speakers.

Devices and affordability. Cash flow constraints impede the ability to pay the entire device price at once. – plus limited access to financing options as the whole of Africa only has 4% of the population that is banked.

Africa is a fragmented market with 54 countries and 1 billion people compared to other emerging markets like India (1.1b) and China (1.3b). This means lower volumes of things that can be sold and lower return for investors.

Broadband in Africa is 10x more expensive than in Europe. The price is just too high outside of cybercafes and certain limited mobile plans.

14% of the world’s population, 2% of the internet
Globally, 94 domains per 10k people, Africa is 1/10,000.

Opportunities

Africa is embracing mobile, so Google is trying to speed up the process of getting more and more people online using mobile. They’re also working on many different levels to create a more holistic ecosystem for the internet in Africa, including policy, education and developer outreach.

Access – reducing the barrier for potential users
This mainly means reducing the cost to access, data and services. They do this with with devices (like this week’s release of the Android IDEOS phone from Huawei). They also engage with major telcos and ISPs to reduce the price of entry for data connections.

Google works a lot with the African developer communities as well, they’re particularly heavy in Kenya, Ghana, Uganda, Senegal and South Africa, but are growing to more countries. One of their goals with this is to educate on how to better create efficient and effective websites, and it’s also to help grow a higher calibre of developer.

They have a university access program, where Google helps bring universities into the internet era in Africa (though I’m not sure what that means to be honest, outside of giving them Google Apps for free.)

Finally, they work to Improve the end-user experience, including latency for both Google products and internet services in general (ie, Google Global Cache). Note: Google Global Cache only works in certain countries, Kenya is not one of them due to political bickering amongst certain ISPs, AccessKenya amongst them

Relevance – making the internet relevant and useful to local people
Google is working to create and enable more African content online (ex: Swahili Wikipedia challenge and Google books partnerships). They’re helping to develop applications that are locally meaningful and enabling African devs to do the same by launching Google products in more languages.

Sustainability – helping to build an internet ecosystem in Africa that has long term sustainability
Developer outreach is a major component, where they are strengthening the developer community (through places like the iHub), working with universities by raising the level of curriculum and awareness about Google, and are also working and partnering with startups, publishers and NGOs.

Awareness and education (Doodle for Google in Kenya and Ghana, “Best place to watch the match” in Kenya during the World Cup, etc.

Google Tools

Taking advantage of Google apps (email, docs, calendar):
50k students using Google apps for free at universities
Small, medium and large sized organizations are using Google Apps as well, examples given were: Kenya Airways, Homeboyz Radio, USIU

Products developed for Africans – recent launches:

  • YouTube (South Africa)
  • Streetview (South Africa)
  • Google maps in 30 African countries: including driving directions in Kenya, Ghana and SA
  • Google News in many African countries
  • Google Places (Kenya)
  • Google Trader (Uganda)
  • iGoogle in 36 Sub-Saharan African countries
  • SMS chat in Gmail (Ghana, Senegal and Zambia)
  • Tools in local languages (ex: Gmail in Swahili)
  • Android Marketplace launched in Kenya and South Africa on Monday, but it’s crippled by lack of Google Checkout use in these same countries.

(There were actually quite a few more “Africanized” tools and features that he listed, but I couldn’t copy them all down in time. I’ll try to get the full list later.)

Ability for organizations to start local and expand globally:

  • Google Maps: 300 cities mapped, and represents a chance for local businesses to have a global presence by getting into the business listings
  • Google Site Creator: get indexed faster, uses the example of AkiliDada
  • Monetization opportunity through AdSense and Adwords: uses an example of “BabyM“, a business out of Nigeria, who used $400 on Adwords and sold their complete inventory in 4 weeks.

SwiftRiver: Curating in an Age of Information Overload

In an age of information abundance, curating meaning is key.

9 months ago that is just what Jon Gosier set out to do as he took over the reins of the SwiftRiver initiative at Ushahidi. Today he announces the Beta release, and unveils the new website at Swiftly.org.

What is SwiftRiver?

SwiftRiver Open Beta Announcement. from Ushahidi on Vimeo.

“SwiftRiver is an open source intelligence gathering platform for managing realtime streams of data.”

Using 5 different tools in the toolbox, you can create a host of useful applications. Tools ranging from natural language processing to handling duplicates, or a source’s importance in the ecosystem. Much like a box of Lego’s, the value and usefulness of the apps created are up to the creator.

SwiftRiver lets users:

  • Manage realtime data streams (e.g. RSS, SMS, Twitter, Email)
  • Identify relationships between content (e.g. email and tweets)
  • Set parameters to auto-filter incoming feeds
  • Curate content based on preferences

Swift code and web services

Like all Ushahidi work, the code is free and open source, anyone can download it, contribute to the code, and run it on their own server. Due to it’s complexity, SwiftRiver also offers a software as a service solution, allowing you to tap our servers for your own needs. Swift Web Services (SWS) is our cloud platform. The platform offers a number of different APIs to developers. With this platform you can easily beef up your applications with natural language processing & active learning, reverse geocaching, distributed reputation, content filtering and web analytics.

This first app, called the Sweeper is the first project to enter Beta and now ships with SwiftRiver. Sweeper, is a term Ushahidi uses to refer to people who ’sweep’ through a system, performing certain tasks, and it was for this reason that we put the Ushahidi resources behind the whole initiative.

SwiftRiver | Sweeper

SwiftRiver | Sweeper

History, contributors and code

The origins of SwiftRiver are in the community of Ushahidi developers and users. Chris Blow and Kaushal Jhalla asked some hard questions after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in 2008, discussing the need for something that can help with this information overload we have in the first few hours of an emergency or disaster. Today, we’re seeing the first fruits of that technology, and it’s exciting to know that the potential for it’s use goes far beyond the crisis scenarios that we first envisioned.

Matthew Griffiths (Uganda) and Neville Newey (South Africa) have done a great job hacking out much of the code and designing the architecture for the platform. They’ve been joined by an army of volunteers and contributors, including: Joshua Bronson, Soe, Nishith Rastogi, Mang-Git Ng, Josh Bronson, Ivan Kavuma, Andrew Turner, Chris Blow, Kaushal Jhalla, Ed Bice, Moses Mugisha, Victor Miclovich, Wolfgang Werner, M. Edward Borasky, Maarten J. van der Veen, Ahmed Maawy, Colin Meinke. A huge round of thanks to everyone who gave freely of their time and energy to move this project forward!

Find out more on the website at Swiftly.org
Download the code, v.0.5 Cape Jazz

Making Ushahidi

[Below is my Tech4Africa talk, given today in Johannesburg, South Africa, titled “How we built Ushahidi, w]

I’m used to talking about Ushahidi, and as all of you guys who frequently talk about your product or company know: it gets old spouting off the same old stuff over and over again. That’s why I’m excited about today and for being invited to this excellent conference, since I’ll be telling the backstory, the quirks and funny bits that got us to this point and made our Ushahidi culture what it is today.

This is my story of Ushahidi – Of a small organization that dislikes hierarchy and being told what we can’t do. One that questions everything, embraces innovative thinking, takes risks boldly, and sometimes learns the hard way that we’re human after all.

In January 2008 I spent a week watching news reports roll in from Kenya, frustrated. Frustrated because I had said for years that “technology helps us overcome inefficiencies”. Wasn’t the madness of Kenya, in it’s post-election violence throws, it’s lack of media coverage, and lack of real information just this? Why was I unable to do anything?

It turned out that I needed an idea, and for once I couldn’t come up with one on my own. That seed of an idea that grew into what you see today came from a simple bullet point by my friend and fellow blogger Ory Okolloh, asking if we could map reports of violence around the country. Thus Ushahidi was born.

I’m going to walk you through three defining moments for our organization, and our platform, not all of them pretty, but which make us who we are.

1. Let’s look at the ad hoc cast that got it started:

The Ushahidi Team - circa Jan 2008

Ory Okolloh – lawyer, blogger and Kenyan political pundit
Juliana Rotich – renewable tech geek, blogger and database admin
David Kobia – developer and top Kenya forum webmaster
Daudi Were – blogger and web guy
Erik Hersman – Africa tech blogger, web guy
Others – a various cast of tech and non-tech people swarmed around the first Ushahidi deployment in Kenya, helping with small tasks and then disappearing.

Key points:

  • You’ll notice that there was not a single one of us who had any humanitarian experience
  • None of us had taken part in any open source project. (v1 was built in .NET)
  • Most of us were self-employed, running our own businesses or consulting, and didn’t like working for big companies.
  • The only common denominators that we shared was our love of our home; Kenya, and the ability to blog.

Thus, we felt we were the best placed to create an African open source platform for crowdsourcing information, our tech gift to the rest of the world.

We didn’t think of that at all actually. Instead we were madly Skyping, emailing, wireframing and coding over a 3 day period to get something up as quickly as possible.

We were brutal about every decision:

  • If it wasn’t absolutely necessary, throw it out.
  • Pick a name, any name, we don’t care if non-Kenyans can’t say it, just get a domain up asap
  • Launch this app, it’s functional, we’ll fix bugs and features on the fly
  • No one has a short code for us yet? Screw it, it’s not worth waiting, we’ll get one eventually.
  • Money, what’s that for? Media budgets are overrated, we’ll blog it.
  • We don’t have a logo. Oh well… Launch already!

How our team came together, the way we made those initial decisions and how we interacted and leaned on what would become our community was defining. It still colors how we operate, our organizational communications and our community focus.

Lessons learned:

  • This taught us to keep a shallow and wide decision-making structure so that everyone had access to all the information about ops or platform that they desired. Anyone was empowered to make decisions, since thy understood the macro-game.
  • Release code early, it’s better to have it out and being tested and worked on in the real world, than hidden away in a sandbox somewhere.
  • If you want it done, build it yourself, don’t put it off onto another team member.
  • Community = success
  • No money, no worries. Build good stuff and good stuff happens, money follows.

2. Technology is only a tool

allocation

No background in open source projects meant that we had little experience in how to engage programmers, designers and the help needed to get things moved from that initial .NET build into an open source language. David and I were trying to decide what language to write this in, and we ended up picking PHP over Python since we thought more African programmers would be proficient in it.

David wasn’t a PHP guy (yet), so the early helpers, the volunteers like Jason Mule, Henry Addo and Chris Blow were a huge help in making the decision to go with the Kohana framework and a myriad of other decisions.

3 months later we announced v0.1 of “THE NEW AND REBUILT USHAHIDI PLATFORM!”

We were very excited, after all, wasn’t this the platform that would save the world? And we were ready to show the world just how it could be done. Gamely mounting our white steeds we charged into a deployment of Ushahidi in the troubled North Kivu region of the DR Congo.

Echoes of that failure splatting against the ground remind us still, today, of the complexities of the space we build software in. We learned from those lessons though, and Ory wrote a good blog post making sure that it was shared within and without.

Lessons learned:

  • Technology is only 10% of the solution needed. The rest is administration and messaging.
  • Stick to what you do well. Our team is built to build software, not be a deploying organization
  • (caveat! We do help in deploying rarely, like Haiti and Kenya, but we now pass those off, or partner)
  • Own your failures publicly, learn from them.

3. Enter the failephant!

The Ushahidi Failephant

Only a few months later, after the DRC debacle, we were rested and ready to fail again.

Al Jazeera had used the alpha version of the Ushahidi platform in Gaza, a group of organizations and individuals were deploying it to monitor the worlds biggest elections in Indian, and we had a number of groups in East Africa testing it out.

Our model was that we had a small team at Ushahidi whose job was to come up with and guide the core architecture of the platform. Volunteers also worked on core, but were also encouraged to extend the platform in their own ways. It was working very well, and still does.

We were ready to release the code publicly.

Before I say anything, let’s revisit that point earlier about none of us having eroded on an open source project before…

Preperations were made, blog posts were written, tweets were tweeted – and we got lambasted by one of the guys we respect a great deal in the open source community. Rabble called us out on all the things we did wong.

– The code repository was behind a user/password wall
– We weren’t available in the normal programmer channels like IRC
– Hard to plug into the rest of the dev community

Our team went to work, madly working over the next 12 hours to get our stuff straightened out. Finally I wrote another blog post, introducing our failephant mascot and apologizing for our ignorance and missteps.

Lessons Learned:

  • Listen and apply that listening to real changes
  • Again, own your failures. Fix things that are wrong.
  • It’s okay to think different in how you execute on a project as long as you don’t stray from the spirit of your community and self
  • .

Finally, I’ll end with this.

We’ve learned that technology does overcome inefficiencies, but that it still takes people to make it happen.

We’ve learned that more people need to buck the status quo, that questioning everything makes us better.

We’ve learned that Africans can build world-class software, and to expect nothing less.

SwiftRiver 101 at the iHub

Jon Gosier 3

Jon Gosier is the founder of Appfrica Labs in Kampala, Uganda, he’s also a Senior TED Fellow, a great African tech blogger and a good friend. I’m fortunate enough to work with him at Ushahidi too, where Jon heads up the SwiftRiver initiative with his team in Uganda.

Screen shot 2010-06-15 at 1.32.30 AM

“SwiftRiver is a free and open source software platform that uses algorithms and crowdsourcing to validate and filter news.”

SwiftRiver v0.2.0 (Batuque) is out. There’s a new plugin structure called “turbines” already sporting 3 new ones for natural language processing, Google’s Language Services and TagTheNet. (see video below for more)

Jon is in Nairobi, he’s here to lead two SwiftRiver 101 classes at the iHub tomorrow. The morning session is for non-techies, or anyone who just wants a primer on the platform. The afternoon session is for programmers who want to see how they can get involved.

Join us!

Getting Started with SwiftRiver – Batuque from Ushahidi on Vimeo.

Barcamp Nairobi 2010: Day 2

Today is only a half day at Barcamp Nairobi 2010. We’re getting underway, and there are 5 talks so far:

  • 9 colloquial Kenyan languages in Whive.com by John Karanja
  • Live mapping using OpenStreetMap and GPS units by @mikel
  • “Build a Drupal site in 20-minutes” by @batje
  • “Geek girls in Nairobi” by the Akirachix
  • Explaining the Kenya ICT Board $3m grant by @Kaburo
  • Google Geo API

The $4 Million Kenya ICT Board Grant

“US$ 4 Million of the proceeds for Grant Applications for the development of digital content and software applications.”

It was announced 10 days ago, and there are already 500+ applications. Final applications are due by July 19, 2010.

$10k for individuals and $50k for organizations. That is a Kenyan citizen and above 18 years old, for companies, you have to be registered in Kenya. You have to show your resume/CV for the leadership team.

The application can be done online.

Two main areas of the grant:

  1. Government services and applications (5 ministries)
  2. Any innovative ideas around digital content and software

The first 46 grants will be handed out to both private and public sector ideas and applications. More grants will be given out to companies (30) than private individuals (16), but there will be an equal split between the two groupings.

Grants announced on August 15th, 2010, at which point they will be working on contracts. The grant will be given out in 3-4 tranches, starting in October 2010. The funds have to be spent within 12 months. There will only be 46 grants given out this year (2010).

A single company can apply in multiple rounds for a grant, but will only be given one grant per round.

What protection will your idea be given? The team looking at and reviewing/judging the applications will be signing NDAs. There are 9 judges who will decide the winning proposals, and they do plan on sharing the names of those individuals.

Some people are worried that if they have a new idea, and they’re working for a company, that that company will own it and not them. Kaburo Kobia is suggesting that if they believe that is really the case, then the individuals should break away before then.

If you have any questions, make use of their website, send them an email at grants@ict.co.ke, call them at +254-020-2211960 or visit them on the 12th floor of Teleposta towers.

Google Maps API

IMG_0978

Mano is one of the top engineers from the Google Maps team and he was flown out to Kenya specifically for Barcamp Nairobi. He’s giving an overview of what can be done using their API, well beyond the normal pointal use that we see all the time.

I asked him what they’re doing about offline mapping, especially for those of us in Africa who don’t have the same access to connectivity. Mano says that they’re concerned about offline maps as well, which they don’t offer, but not for the reason I suggested. Instead, they see most of the people in the world accessing maps via mobiles, so they need to be able to let that happen when data capability is not within range.

Barcamp Africa Finds a New (virtual) Home

A couple years ago, the first Barcamp unconferences started to show up around Africa. These loosely organized events end up having a large impact on the local grassroots tech scene and blogosphere. The open and unstructured format ends up fitting the African style of community and discussion around ideas and projects that just isn’t found in normal conferences.

Barcamp Africa Logo - large

The first “Barcamp Africa“, however, was a little different than the normal local events. It was put together by individuals in the US (at the Google office in California), some of whom were diaspora, and others who had a deep interest in the continent.

Maneno LogoThat was a year ago, and now the good people behind Maneno (a blogging platform made for Africa) have taken over the hosting of content around Barcamp’s that take place in Africa or that have an African focus. Beyond that, they have created a simple way for those putting on new Barcamp’s to setup an online home for it.

“The primary objective of the new BarCamp Africa hub is to encourage a continuous stream of participant driven content from African barcamps before, during, as well as after the events take place. Barcamp Africa allows each barcamp to have a simple, hosted, lightweight site specific to their event with a custom url. As an example, check out the recent barcamp’s in http://barcampafrica.com/swaziland, http://barcampafrica.com/madagascar, or the upcoming http://barcampafrica.com/abidjan. Stories published on this site as well as others on the platform aggregate to the main BarcampAfrica.com page (as well as the Maneno home page) and are exposed to the larger audience of barcampers all over Africa.”

As someone who has helped put on a couple Barcamps, I’ve found that there are really two components. First is the simple organization, which self-organizes best around a wiki – specifically the Barcamp.org wiki. Second, is the communication to everyone else around the community of the upcoming event, done best with a dedicated blog/website.

This second area, communication, is where the greatest value for organizers will be found with the new Maneno hosting for Barcamp Africa. It will be with the those who simply want to setup a site that will get them good, dedicated exposure and allow multiple people to write on it, with updates on location, place, attendees and initiatives arising out of it.

For those who haven’t tried it, Maneno has an incredibly fast loading blogging platform, specifially designed for low bandwidth areas in Africa. On top of that, it is available in local African languages that have traditionally had little web presence. Articles can be easily translated between multiple languages and sit atop one another to overcome the linguistic divide facilitating open communication between the different communities.

If you’re interested in upcoming Barcamps around Africa, check out the Barcamp Africa calendar.

15 Travel Tips for Africa

Apparently, when you’re a foreigner traveling in the developing world, your biggest problems are that you’ll be set upon by bandits or get in a horrible car wreck. Nicholas Kristof is a well-traveled journalist for the NY Times, going to some of the most far-flung reaches of the world, so he does have good advice for travelers. It’s just a pity, as Chris Blattman points out, Kristof ends up undermining his own stated reason for writing the piece (to get more college students traveling in the developing world) by fostering this idea that international travel is inherently dangerous.

Here’s one of my favorites (can’t you just see everyone lining up to visit the Philippines after reading this?):

“10. Don’t wear a nice watch, for that suggests a fat wallet and also makes a target. I learned that lesson on my first trip to the Philippines: a robber with a machete had just encountered a Japanese businessman with a Rolex — who now, alas, has only one hand.”

My African tech travel kit for a few days on the road

In response to Kristof’s op-ed, here are my take. Not all about your kit, but also some thoughts on traveling in general.

15 Africa travel tips (not related to bandits, thugs and murder):

1. Take only one bag. “Suitcases are for suits, check-in for suckers” as my well-heeled friend Jan Chipchase points out. My choice is the Northface Heckler backpack (in black). It’s got a convenient sleeve for my computer, and plenty of room for the camera and other items – your mileage will vary.

2. Pack less. This is what makes #1 work. You’re going to be tempted to pack for every eventuality. Don’t. only to find out when you get there that you only need 1/3 of what you brought.

3. Carry a power bar. Usually you can find food wherever you are, however for the small cost in space having something handy that gives you some energy and that you can trust to not get a stomach bug over, this is my first choice.

4. For the techies… USB devices are great for transferring information, applications and pictures use one. However, remember that there are no condoms for USB devices and that every PC and internet cafe device should be treated as a pox-ridden carrier of digital STDs for your virgin device. Keep it faithful to only your computer (and vice versa).

5. Paperbacks trump hardbacks. There’s a lot of waiting around when traveling, which makes it nice to have a book handy.

6. On mobile phones. You have two choices on your phone. a) buy a cheap one when you get there ($20-40) and get a local SIM card. b) get an unlocked phone before you leave and just buy a SIM card when you hit the ground. For multi-country travel I suggest going with “b”, which is what I do. If you lose a lot of phones, or are terrified of being robbed, go with “a”.

7. Bargain for everything. Have a great conversation with the first seller of whatever service or product you’re interested in. Never buy from that person. Instead, figure out exactly where the line is and then haggle harder with the next vendor, tout or merchant. (How can I state this delicately…? If you’re paying 25% of the asking price, you’re still being ripped off.)

8. On Cameras. A lot could be written about this, but suffice it to say that smaller is better unless you really like to take good pictures. I would suggest something that is waterproof. My personal favorite is the Sanyo Xacti – I love this thing. However, I could equally suggest getting something that runs off just a couple AA batteries. (Pros and Prosumers who, like me, carry a larger body DSLR ignore this one. You have your own rules to live by).

9. Spread your money out. Never carry all your money in one place. This isn’t just for security reasons, its for bargaining as well. I suggest carrying varying amounts of cash in 3 different spots and knowing what the amounts are so that you never pull out too much.

10. Eat local. This is especially true if you’re going on the cheap, don’t be afraid to eat the cooked foods at the road-side kiosks. You’ll see me regularly eating beans and chapatis on the streets of Nairobi for lunch. At $.50 I’m getting a good full meal and I can do it in a hurry if need be. If that’s too adventurous for you, you can choose other local spots, just don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you have to eat at the “westernized” establishments.

11. Mosquitos are made in hell and must be killed. I could write a whole post on the epic battles I’ve had with these satanic insects. Buy a can of Doom (insect spray), get insect repellent, sit on the smoky side of the fire, use a mosquito net – whatever it takes. My favorite way to kill them is a wadded up t-shirt as it has a wide area of impact – if you’re good you can smash them up against the wall/ceiling from a good distance away.

12. Remember your power adapter. Know what the outlets are going to be like where you’re going so you can recharge your computer and/or camera. Not knowing where you’re going, I would suggest this one – though a little big, it does fit almost everywhere you’re likely to travel.

13. Watches are overrated. It’s just one more thing to carry, use your cell phone for the time. Time doesn’t matter as much anyway to be honest… I haven’t worn one for years, but it could be I’m missing something here.

14. Drink a lot. I’m not going to get into it on whether you drink bottled water, sodas, beer or tap water – just make sure you’re drinking. You’ll end up sweating more, walking more and not realizing just how dehydrated you are until you notice that you haven’t gone to the restroom all day.

15. Toss out your expectations, embrace the differences. It’s not all going to fit the “standard” (as I reminded myself when I nearly bashed my skull in) that you think it should be. Just roll with it and keep a light-approach to life. When something goes wrong, which it will, remember that a smile, a shake of your head and a laugh will take you a lot further than the angry, frustrated and shouting “white person in Africa act” will.

The bonus tip is this: make friends locally and listen to them. They know the area and can point you towards people and places that you’ll get a lot out of. They also know most of the dangerous and dark corners of the region that you should stay away from, which Kristof talks of. People, at the end of the day, are your greatest assets when traveling, not your gear, knowledge or prior experience in the region.

Have tips of your own to add?

The best ones in the comments will be added here (so leave a link so I can attribute it to you).

From Ethan Zuckerman:

  • Bring a hat. One you don’t mind wearing all the time, one you can wash in the sink or a bucket every night, one that keeps the sun from frying your brain. Or buy one. But this is a “don’t leave home without it” item for me.
  • Undershirts keep you cooler. I rarely wear one in the States, but they’re essential equipment in tropical climes, and one of the few ways to remain presentable if you’ve got to do a business meeting.
  • And an urban Africa tip – a cheap flashlight/torch is your friend when the power goes out and you’re staggering home from the bar at 2am. We refer to them in Ghana as “sewer avoidance systems” – trust me, fall into one open sewer and you’ll carry a torch with you for the rest of your life.

From Kari:

  • Live as much like an average-incomed local as possible (very poor by US standards). it leads to richness.

From Patrick Meier:

  • listen and make friends locally. Stress on all those words. Take the time to greet and exchange greetings with people whose paths you cross, everyone is important, chat with the guard outside your hostel, make every effort to learn the local language, it’s a sign of respect and is appreciated, say a warm hello to the mama selling the peanuts on the street, make friends with taxi drivers, and know how to ask questions, and then how to listen.

From Alan Davidson:

  • Carry a copy of your passport and an international driving license. Don’t know how many times a copy of my passport and not the original has saved me a world of trouble.

From JKE:

  • I used to carry a USB-2-mobile cable instead that plugs into any USB port and also comes with an adapter for the 12v socket in any car. Helps you get some energy where there’s no socket and is much lighter than most power adapters.

From Tony Durham:

  • If you can’t patch holes in the mosquito net, apply some repellent around the hole.

From Christopher Fabian:

  • Nokia phone with built in flashlight becomes a clock, alarm, torch and phone…magically!
  • Two each of small packets of tylenol cold (2 daytime / 2 nightime) are great if you get slammed with some bug and just need to get through a day and a night somewhere.

From SW:

  • Always have tissues with you as the lavs are seldom well stocked.

From Catherine:

  • Especially in very busy areas like indoor markets, hugely populated street corners, etc, I carry my day backpack on my front.
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