Category Archives: Funny

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Microsoft vs the Open Source Community in Africa

Microsoft vs the open source community in Africa

Last week the BBC interviewed Dr. Diarra, the chairman of Microsoft in Africa. One of his quotes was memorable:

“Africa is really the last frontier in not only developing technology that is specific to people’s needs, but eventually even developing new business models that will enable the emergence of local software industries, such as young people who have the skills to be able to write their own applications for their own community,”

I agree with the first part of that statement, it’s the second part that I find alarming. Coming from Microsoft, how can young people build the skills to write code when they can’t even pay for the closed software needed to run it? It’s not free, and if access (which he states earlier) is the biggest issue facing African technologists – then how does closed software fit into the equation?

Let’s say that the developer communities do emerge even with that hurdle, we’re still left with what one person wrote: “…they will be formed from programmers who are completely dependent on American software for the livelihood: it’s neo-colonialism, pure and simple.” At it’s worst then, African governments are paying for Western products, and are dependent on these large organizations to maintain and support critical systems.

Netzpolitik writes an interesting piece, pointing to a recent WSJ article and talking about how Microsoft positions itself within education and government circles in Africa, thereby cutting off major revenue sources for open source developers and organizations that originate from within the continent.

“Of course, Microsoft does not come for free – the hidden price tag is not just attached to the licensing costs but also to the ownership of innovation and data. Microsoft should be supporting local developments instead of stifling them and dealing with them as competition.”

Monetary and Knowledge Costs

There really are two costs when dealing with software: the expense of buying and maintaining it, and the knowledge cost within the local programming community. The monetary side is a short-term cost relative to the knowledge costs (core competency) that a nation does, or does not, develop over time.

In Africa organizations have a lot of hurdles to overcome, not least of which is the straight cost of doing business. Where it might be simple for some organizations in the US and Europe to wave off a couple thousand dollars worth of licensing fees, the same is not true in Africa. The margins are lower, so every cent counts.

In a region where cost is so important, it’s amazing then that the most lucrative deals go to the Western organizations that have high costs for ownership and maintenance. These outside organizations use backdoor methods to gain contracts where in-country options are available, usually with less expense and with greater local support.

The bigger problem is the knowledge costs, or lack thereof, when closed source organizations muscle into the most lucrative fields. What the country ends up doing is stifling its own programming community. Without money trickling back into that community, its growth is stunted. Instead of young developers learning the fundamentals of coding in open code, they end up going to work in an office that runs proprietary systems.

Ushahidi and Vine

The last year has taught me a great deal about working in the open source space. Not just in developing a tool using these principles, but in helping create a non-profit technology organization focused on open these same fundamentals. That is, we believe that the best use and furtherance of our technology, and our organizations goals, is done with and by the greater community that grows around it. We serve as a focal point from which this community gains energy and to act as a group which is dedicated to the core framework of the tool itself.

Do all situations need and/or require open software? No. In some cases closed-source options are just plain better, which is why I have no problem buying great apps for my PC, Mac or iPhone that make my life easier. I don’t believe that all technology has to be open, though I do think that by keeping it completely closed most companies will be bypassed by their open counterparts in the long run. Good examples of this are the Firefox browser and WordPress blogging platform – possibly Android.

A couple of weeks ago Microsoft announced their new Vine product. It has a lot in common with Ushahidi, including sending and receiving of alerts via SMS and email. To be honest, we have no ownership of this idea, but what we do have is a question as to why Microsoft believes and works to create crisis and emergency systems in a closed way.

Some thoughts from other bloggers on this same issue:

“Crisis reporting is something that wants to be free. It needs to be free, community owned, a service that just exists.”

- Jon Gosier

“There is nothing in Vine that you cannot already do with a combination of Ushahidi’s proximity alerts and the path-breaking SMS based forms updates from FrontlineSMS. Having met with the best and brightest of Microsoft Research, key members of the team behind Vine and the team behind the new version of Sharepoint and Groove, Microsoft have nothing that comes close to the capabilities of FrontlineSMS today with regards to forms based data transfers over SMS in austere conditions, which is precisely what is needed for decision support mechanisms and alerting post-crises.”

- Sanjana Hattotuwa

“The ownership of a crisis reporting system by one company seems unattractive from a consumer as well as a security perspective. It is not unlikely that this will become yet another failed attempt to override instead of collaborate with existing local solutions.”

- Netzpolitik

Unless Microsoft is creating something truly revolutionary, which I don’t see that it is in Vine, then I would rather see them put their development muscle behind something that actually is. It doesn’t even have to be Ushahidi. Finally, if they really are about creating emergency and disaster software for use by normal people, then I would encourage them to not charge for it and to make it as open as possible for others to work with it, including Ushahidi.

[Sidenote: Interestingly enough, the first pre-beta smartphone app that was finished for Ushahidi was the Windows Mobile version. We all chuckled, and then gave a quick dig to the ribs of the devs doing the Android and J2ME apps, to get them going. To us, it didn't matter that it was the service created for our friendly closed-source giant finished first. In the realm that we find ourselves in, crowdsourcing crisis information, it doesn't matter what device you use - it just needs to work.]

(Blue Monster image by Hugh MacLeod)

Quick Hits Around African Tech

I’m thoroughly enjoying Dambisa Moyo’s “Dead Aid” book. Buy it, has great food for thought, and numbers to back it up.

The New York Times article on big web content companies lack of profitability in places like Africa.

We’re seeing a new trend of microblogging platforms emerge across Africa. Most recently in the Congo with Akouaba, but also in Nigeria with Naijapulse and South Africa’s Gatorpeeps.

Matt Berg writes about the “Off-grid solar calculator” in North Africa.

Mobility Nigeria points out that Nigeria displaces Germany in the Opera Mini top 10 list.

Bankelele breaks down some of mobile payment tool M-Pesa’s strengths and weaknesses in Kenya.

We’ve announced Ushahidi’s Beta stage, and another round of funding.

APC talks about the broadband rollout issues and a movement to change policy in South Africa.

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

Microblogging, Location and Emergencies

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and have thought quite a bit about it in Africa. More, I’ve thought about what the ramifications of Twitter pulling out of the global market means, and then thought quite a bit about Jaiku, Laconica and Mxit and various other chat/microblogging applications. There is, without a doubt, a move towards short-form updating via mobile and web, and it needs to be federated.

There’s something missing in this new mobile + web microblogging movement, and I think it’s location.

Thoughts on location and microblogging...

Why Location Matters

Most of us use these services for updating, and being updated, by our friends and interesting people. That’s the main use, and it will remain so. The truth is, you and I don’t really care to hear what any random stranger is doing, even if they are nearby. However, we do care what is happening on a very hyper-local level in the case of emergency or “big event”.

It’s somewhat like the “pothole theory” that I talked about earlier: you wouldn’t normally care about the pothole on a steet, unless it’s yours. It helps explain why we care about certain things.

If you use Twitter and have an iPhone, you’ll probably be aware of Twinkle – it’s an application that enriches your Twitter experience. In Twinkle, you can set your location and then a certain radius from which to receive twitter updates, even if they’re from perfect strangers. I think that’s the beginning of what we’re talking about.

However, again… I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.

The “What if…”

What if we created a way that a greater federated system of microblogging applications could also use location as an alert point?

Of course, my current world is colored by Ushahidi, crisis and emergency news coverage. I think of the ability to anonymously send in reports to a system like Ushahidi running in any country, and those who are part of this greater, extended and federated network would be updated – even if that person was unknown and anonymous.

Federated Microblogging, SMS and Location

Here’s a use case:

John is a Twitter user in Accra, Ghana. Anne has setup a local Laconica server with 5000 users in the greater Accra area. Eddie is not part of any of these networks, just an average guy with a mobile phone. Ushahidi is running in Ghana.

Users from the Laconica group can setup an “alert” for a specific radius from their location using Ushahidi, linked to their Laconica account.

An earthquake happens and Twitter and the Laconica server are ablaze with dialogue about what is happening. Eddie (our normal guy), sends an alert into the Ushahidi number, along with hundreds of other Ghanians who are not part of Laconica or Twitter. Anne, and the other Laconica users are receiving alerts (web and mobile) from within their set alert radius automatically, from completely anonymous people. Alerts on where people are trapped, who is missing, who is found, where not to go, and where help is needed most.

John, our Twitter user is updating Twitter, but it has no little local implications due to not being able to be used in Ghana (except via web). Local mobile users aren’t receiving his updates, and he isn’t receiving theirs.

I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in this scenario, and it’s imperfect, but it serves as a good setting to discuss some of the shortcomings of the current situation and the possible growth areas for them. It also talks to even bigger ideas and the greater impact in Africa of a real social mobile network that can connect people using only mobile phones and do it as needed.

There are some interesting things to learn and apply from location-specific alternatives to global SMS gateways (like FrontlineSMS), and I wonder where tools such as InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat can be used here too.

More to come on “getting updates that matter” later, this is just some initial thinking on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Bush-videostreaming at Barcamp Jozi

We had a great day 1 at Barcamp Jozi yesterday, and then a mad evening rushing around Johannesburg trying to find a good enough uplink connection to run the live streaming panel back to Barcamp Africa. We didn’t exactly succeed in live streaming, but the video will be uploaded shortly.

More importantly, we had an incredibly good time having the adventure, spending the evening having a conversation about mobile phones, the web and technology in Africa – all under the open skies of South Africa.

Panelists:

I can’t actually view the video, but if I could it would be at this link: Barcamp Jozi panel

Apparently, Ugandan’s Like to Drink

Nigeria places a distant second, while 2 more Central/East African countries are heavily in their drink too (Rwanda and Burundi). Can’t say I know why there’s such an abundance of pombe in that region…

That’s from a neat data visualization tool called Many Eyes. Again showing the importance of data visualization for understanding large amounts of data easily.

I read, or heard, someone say that data visualizations are there, “to help the ignorant understand complex issues”. That’s about as accurate as it gets. Not ignorant in a bad way, but not everyone can be a statistician, a specific field specialist, or have the time to crunch numbers.

A bonus visualization showing mobile phone subscriptions per 100 people throughout sub-Saharan Africa:

(hat tip Ethan)

Clay Shirky at Web 2.0: Gin and Cognitive Surplus

This was my favorite talk at the Web 2.0 Expo – probably one of my favorite talks period. I promptly went out and bought Clay’s new book, Here Comes Everybody, and am working through that right now. It’s good.

The big question he answers is, “Where do people find the time?”

Enjoy the 15 minute video:

Read the transcript here.

A Fun Panel on Horrible Social Media Ad Campaigns

Currently I’m sitting in the “The Suxorz: The Worst Ten Social Media Ad Campaigns of 2007″ panel at SXSW. The panel is full of interesting, and well-known, characters in the ad/media space.

This panel of bloggers and marketers will dissect ten terrible ad campaigns that abused the ideals of people-powered media, then award The Suxorz Trophy to the worst.

Worst Social Media Ad Campaigns Panel

Continue reading

Blog Envy: List 5 Blogs You’re Jealous of

You know you have blog envy. That’s the feeling you get when you go to a blog and start getting those feelings of inadequacy. It might be because of really good design, maybe the writing is just incredible, it could be that they’re better at breaking stories or any number of other reasons.

Blog Envy

I’m no different. Here are mine and the reasons why:

Web Worker Daily
Web Worker Daily
It’s not just the great content, or the perfect design… It’s the whole package and it makes me angry just to go there. Part of Om Malik’s “GigaOm” network, it has thoughts, stories and tips on how to work from a mobile environment.

Coda
Coda Coza
I’ve been envious of Coda’s brilliant blog design for over 2 years. Don’t let me get started on his photography skills, comparing myself there makes me feel absolutely pathetic. Please teach me how to be a Coda-clone so that I can die happy.

Thinker’s Room
Thinker’s Room
Anyone who averages over 35 comments PER POST deserves credit. I’m extremely jealous of his ability to create community, not to mention his ability to write “funny” (though you have to be from Kenya to catch some of it).

WorldChanging
World Changing
It’s like crack for someone who is interested in development and technology. I can’t go to World Changing and just read one story.

Creating Passionate Users
Creating Passionate Users
No one manages to get an idea across better than Kathy Sierra. This is where I go to beat myself over the head learning how to create simple graphics that you instantly “get”.

If you would like to participate in this exercise, please tag your post with “blogenvy” and list 3-5 blogs that create deep feelings of envy and jealousy.