Category Archives: mapping

A Turkana Solar Eclipse Expedition

It’s been a few years since I was last up in the northern reaches of Kenya, and what an adventure that was! (blog posts 1, 2, 3 and 4)

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

BRCK Solar Eclipse trip, photo courtesy of Barak Bruerd on our last trip up to Northern Kenya

This week finds me heading back, chasing the moon that will cover the sun. November 3rd at 5:30pm (East Africa Time) there is a hybrid solar eclipse. The lunar-like desert setting on the edge of Lake Turkana is said to be the best place in the world to watch it.

This also happens to be one of the most difficult places to get to, as fuel and supplies are a difficult thing to come by for the final 1000 kilometer loop. You have to bring it with you. It’s an unforgiving place, and yet one of the most hauntingly untouched and beautiful stretches of Africa that you can still find.

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Solar Eclipse Path, Nov 3, 2013

Though one never needs an excuse to have an adventure, the BRCK team is using this trip to stress test the device. We have a number of things planned, covering ruggedness and heat to testing out an amplification antenna with it. With luck, we’ll even have a VSat connection in hand, and test out WiFi via satellite internet backhaul and stream the eclipse live. You’ll be able to watch that at BRCK.com/eclipse.

[update: Huge thanks to Indigo Telecom for loaning us a BGAN terminal and 50Mb of data!]

Seven of us are trekking up to this iron triangle; where Sudan, Ethiopia and Kenya meet. We’re taking three 650cc motorcycles and a Land Rover 110. Two happen to be professional photographers, two others are highly talented amateur photographers, and I’m going as the hack iPhonographer. :)

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Sibiloi National Park, by Lake Turkana in Northern Kenya

Our destination is Sibiloi National Park (KWS site), possibly the least visited and most unknown park in Kenya. It’s a good few hours drive north of Loyangalani, which I’m curious to see after the past few years. As far as I can tell, there is really no reason to ever go there, well, except for an eclipse…

I’ll be blogging our adventures here, as well as with others on the BRCK Blog. You can follow the images and livestream at brck.com/eclipse.

[Note: It should go without saying, but I won’t be answering many emails…]

A 2013 Uchaguzi Retrospective

MRTN8684


UPDATE: Here’s the report put together by the iHub Research team (3Mb PDF): Uchaguzi Kenya 2013

The elections in Kenya this year have had a lot of drama, nothing new there. As I wrote about last week, Ushahidi has been involved quite heavily on the crowdsourcing side via Uchaguzi, which meant that we had an exhausting week as the results kept getting extended each day.

Uchaguzi Update

Some basic statistics:

  • 5,011 SMS messages sent in (that weren’t spam or junk, as those got deleted)
  • 4,958 reports were created (from SMS messages, the web form, email and media monitoring teams)
  • 4,000 reports were approved to go live on the map
  • 2,693 reports were verified (67% of approved reports)

Notes and Links:

  • Many reports, links an updates can be found on our virtual situation room
  • The analysis team provided twice daily rundowns based on verified data at http://visuals.uchaguzi.co.ke/
  • Rob created a map visual to show the reports coming into Uchaguzi over time.
  • The IEBC tech system failed, I started a Tumblr trying to figure out how the system was built, which companies were involved and what they did, and what actually went wrong.
  • Before the IEBC tech system was shut off, Mikel used their API to create maps (1, 2) and Jeff and Charles created a mobile-friendly results site as well.
  • Heather wrote up a good post on our situation room blog about what we’ve learned along the way.

Here’s an Uchaguzi community graphic:
Uchaguzi community graphic

Uchaguzi: Full-Circle on Kenya’s Elections

Uchaguzi: 2013 Kenyan Election Monitoring Project

Just over 5 years ago, I was just like everyone else tuning into the social media flow of blogs, tweets and FB updates along with reading the mainstream media news about the Kenyan elections. We all know the story – thing fell apart, a small team came together and built Ushahidi, and we started building a new way to handle real-time crisis information. We were reacting and behind from the beginning.

(side note: here are some of my early blog posts from 2008: launching Ushahidi, the day after, and feature thoughts)

Now, the day before Kenya’s elections, I’m sitting in the Uchaguzi Situation Room, we’ve got a live site up already receiving information, 5 years of experience building the software and learning about real-time crowdmapping. There are over 200 volunteers already trained up and ready to help manage the flow of information from the public. This time Kenya’s IEBC is ready, they’re digital, and are doing a phenomenal job of providing base layer data, plus real-time tomorrow (we hope).

In short, we’re a lot more prepared than 2008 in 2013, everyone is. However, you’re never actually ready for a big deployment, by it’s very nature the crowdsourcing of information leads to a response reaction, you’re always behind the action. So, our main goal is to make that response processing of signal from noise and getting it to the responding organizations, as fast as possible.

Uchaguzi 2013

If you’d like to know more about the Uchaguzi project, find it on the about page. In short, Uchaguzi is an Ushahidi deployment to monitor the Kenyan general election on March 4th 2013. Our aim is to help Kenya have a free, fair, peaceful, and credible general election. Uchaguzi’s strategy for this is to contribute to stability in Kenya by increasing transparency and accountability through active citizen participation in the electoral cycles.This strategy is implemented through building a broad network of civil society around Uchaguzi as the national citizen centred electoral observation platform that responds to citizen observations.

The next couple days I’ll be heads-down on Uchaguzi, running our Situation Room online and Twitter account (@Uchaguzi), and troubleshooting things here with the team. We’re already getting a lot of information, trying to work out the kinks in how we process the 1,500+ SMS messages that people have sent into our 3002 shortcode, so that tomorrow when things really get crazy we’re ready.

I’ve already written up a bunch on how Uchaguzi works, so I’ll just post the information flow process for it here:

Uchaguzi's workflow process

Uchaguzi’s workflow process

Your Job

As in 2008, your job remains the same; to get the word out to your friends in Kenya, to get more reports into the system, and to support groups working towards a good election experience.

A huge thank you to the local and global volunteers who’ve put in many, many hours in the workup to tomorrow and who will be incredibly busy for the next 48 hours. Besides the hard work of going through SMS messages and creating geolocated reports out of them, some of the geomapping team have been busy taking the police contact information and mapping it. They’ve created an overlay of the data, it’s on this page right now, but our plans are to put this on the main map later.

Just as in 2008, a few people are making a big difference. All of the volunteers doing the little they can to make their country better.

Geomapping team for Uchaguzi

  • Leonard Korir
  • Samuel Daniel
  • Luke Men Orio
  • Slyvia Makario
  • Wawa Enock
  • Mathew Mbiyu

Some other helpful links for the Kenyan elections

IEBC
Find your polling station
Voter education
Mzalendo
Got To Vote
Wenyenche
Google Elections Site
The Kenyan Human Rights Commission
Mars Group
Kenya Nation Election Coverage
Standard Media Kenya
Kenya’s Freedom Media Council

A Location Based Mobile Adventure Game

This is brilliant. Legends of Echo is a new free Java mobile phone, massively multiplayer role playing, location based game put out by the people behind the Grid in South Africa (Vodacom).

“In the game, the Echo is a parallel virtual universe based on the South African map. Instead of cities and skyscrapers, however, players will find rolling green fields, rocky outcrops and valleys to explore and establish their base.”

The best overviews are found on the News24 Games blog, in an interview with co-creator Nic Haralambous, and on Nic’s own blog (you’ll also want to read what Vincent Maher had to say about it). From what I can tell, without having played it yet, is that it’s a turn-based card-type game. You find loot, do battle and win more loot. Leveling is there, but it’s not as large of a component as expected.

“There are lots of different kinds of weapons, powers and items that you can pick up by moving around the country from city to city, province to province. Each one gives you a slightly different edge in battle.”

On top of the normal game elements, and an indicator that makes me believe that LoE might be better thought-out than most other games, is the fact that they built an economic system into the game from the beginning. Nic states, “There is a currency model built in to the game that allows players to spend airtime in the Echo Marketplace.” That’s a big deal, and it’s not easy to pull off if done right.

Legend of Echo’s graphics and visual appeal can’t be understated. They spent a good deal of time to make this game look and feel like a World of Warcraft competitor, and it shows. Visually it reminds me of Arcanum meets World of Warcraft.

Specs

You’ll need to have a high-end Nokia or Sony Ericsson to play Legends of Echo. I’ve got an old Nokia N95 sitting around somewhere, so my plan is to dust that off and give the game a run when I’m in Cape Town next month.

It also appears that you actually have to be in South Africa to play it, but I’m checking with Nic to see if anyone living in a country that The Grid operates in can play it as well. This is doubtful, as it’s based also on the Afrigis system, which is fairly Southern-Africa specific.

The game is available for free as a Java download to cellphones. To play Legends of Echo, SMS ‘ECHO’ to 33313 (50c/SMS) or visit http://www.legendsofecho.mobi

A teaser video:

Legends of Echo from Cow Africa on Vimeo.

Thoughts from a gamer…

  • It seems that a web-based Java version of this game would be successful, if only because it would allow you to play on whichever device you have handy. Are there any plans for that?
  • How much will LoE go the direction of Foursquare where they really use the location based systems to drive competition and increased game play?
  • I’m impressed that they took the time to create a strong virtual economy.
  • Will a real-world economy of people using real money to buy and sell goods develop online, as we’ve seen in other successful MMO games?
  • You’re supposedly able to “Build special items with unique abilities”. I’d like to know more about the crafting system, as that can be one of the best ways to deepen interaction and make a game more unique.

Quick Hits in the African Tech Space

Indian firm Bharti buys up Zain Africa
The biggest news in the African tech space is Bharti’s $10.7 billion purchase of Zain’s African operations, which operates mobile networks in 17 countries in Africa. Apparently, some believe that Africa’s potential makes Zain deal value fair. (Zain’s African countries: Burkina Faso, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Republic of the Congo, Gabon, Ghana, Kenya, Madagascar, Malawi, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambiaand Morocco.)

Google continues getting Africa on the map

Google Maps was launched in 30 Sub-Saharan African countries
. That’s an amazing asset for everyone to use, and it’s also an incredible testament to the number of users using their “My Maps” feature, as this is where this data comes from.

On the growth of tech hubs in Africa
Rebecca Wanjiku wrote an article on IDG about, “Tech labs move beyond corporations in sub-Saharan Africa“. She’s a member of the Nairobi iHub advisory group, and has more insight than most in this space.

South Africa’s Design Indaba
It’s happening right now in Cape Town (Feb 24 – 26, 2010). Great design, and great speakers, but I was really intrigued by their kids program.

Location based service launches in Nigeria
StarTrack is a new location based tracking service in Nigeria, Loy Okezie has a good overview of this new service from Starcomms.

In San Francisco this week

I’ve spent this week in the San Francisco bay area going to meetings, speaking and discussing everything from the iHub to Ushahidi and AfriGadget.

University Students and the Aid Industry

Last night I spoke to a group of university students for 3 hours at the University of San Francisco to Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg’s class on “the Politics of International Aid and Development”. My bent is towards technology and the practical applications of such in Africa. I’m no expert on international aid, but that didn’t stop us from having a lively debate on what works and doesn’t work in Africa.

My main points were centered around technology allowing people to bypass government (and other) inefficiencies in Africa – creating opportunity where none existed before. In my experience, most aid programs don’t work, in fact we’ve seen more good come out of the mobile phone industry’s foray into Africa over the last 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 50 years of aid work.

Some questions that arose during the conversation, each of which we could have spent a day unpacking and dissecting in detail:

  • Can wealth generation alleviate the ills of Africa?
  • Is corruption trickle up or trickle down?
  • Should corruption just be seen as a “cost of doing business”?
  • What’s the most compelling innovation that you’ve seen come out of Africa?
  • Is there such a thing as “good aid”?

Google

This morning I spent some time with the Google.org and the Google crisis mapping team discussing ideas and thoughts about what we all did in the digital space around Haiti. More importantly we asked the question, “what are we going to do the next time a huge global disaster strikes?”

That’s an important question because we need to ensure that we’re further along next time. That, the next time disaster strikes we’re ready with a toolkit of useful applications and platforms that can all be deployed within just a few short hours.

One of the cool things to see was the Google street mapping vehicles parked in a row.

Citizen Space

There are more and more co-working spaces showing up all over the world, including our own iHub in Nairobi. However, one of the early pioneers in this was Citizen Space started by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. My main purpose visiting was to see how it’s setup and how it has changed since I last visited a couple years ago.

My takeaways: big open space, desks and cool eclectic design. Rent desk space and have a cool vibe about it. I’m sure there’s more than this, but it’s what struck me during my short visit.

Twitter

Most of the afternoon was spent at Twitter where I gave a lunchtime presentation. Ryan Sarver, head of platforms and the API, asked me to do more general talk on innovation in Africa starting with AfriGadget. Having a good 50-60 Twitter employees listening in on AfriGadget, then a talk on mobile phones in Africa, and finishing with the Ushahidi usage in Haiti was interesting to say the least.

The questions asked made me realize that there’s a good opportunity for top-end Twitter employees (and likely other high-level techies from Silicon Valley) to stretch themselves a little bit, head out to Africa and really see what’s going on. They would probably get some ideas that caused them to be a little more creative back in the US.

A longer discussion was had with the leads for the Geo/Mapping team and the Internationalization team. More refreshing than anything else was realizing how open they were to outside ideas and how willing they were to listen. Twitter is doing a lot of things to make sure that their platform is more accessible all over the world, and I think we’ll see some pleasant surprises this year in Africa.

Summary

There’s obviously much more to discuss than this brief summary can do justice to, but not all of it can be put down at one time, or is even relevant at this stage in the game. What I’m excited about is the fact that more people in the Bay Area are talking about relevant issues to African technologists and that there are opportunities for the two groups to start interacting in ways that haven’t been that common in the past. There’s room for both sides to learn from the other.

iHub: Nairobi’s Tech Innovation Hub is Here!

iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub for the technology community – is here! It’s an open space for the technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in the area. This space is a tech community facility with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (co-working), part investor and VC hub and part incubator.

A number of us in the Nairobi tech community have been discussing the need for a physical nexus for the tech community here for a couple years, so it’s great to finally be so close to uncorking the bottles and celebrating a big step forward for all of us.

iHub opens on March 3, 2010!

Here’s a rough video of the iHub. A first-look at the space, before any design or wiring is done:

[Note: my apologies for the video quality, it was taken with my phone.]

Background and Info

The iHub will have a redundant 10Mbs connection, hardwired and WiFi, and it’s freely available to any tech person in Nairobi to use once they become members. Membership is free, our only requirement is that you are indeed involved in the tech space as a programmer, web designer or mobile application developer.

Data connectivity is the most important aspect of the iHub, but after that comes a fresh design and an atmosphere that is conducive to techies getting cool stuff done.

Finally, we’re putting our networks into place to give special access to the entrepreneurs and startups who need space to meet with VCs, seed funders and local businesses. We’re trying to create the place where seeds are planted and are easily found by the people with money to help them grow.

A Blank Canvas

The iHub is what we as a tech community make it. It is a blank canvas, a big open room with a great view and wonderful location, but still an empty room that needs some input from people within the community to design, and create a culture around.

What part are you going to play?

  • Want to have bragging rights on being the logo designer for the iHub? There’s $500 (38,000 Ksh) up for grabs at the iHub logo contest!
  • Have a penchant for design, want to help layout the floor plan, pick the wall colors or design the signage?
  • We’re wiring this place with the latest and best data connections in Kenya. Can you help us make sure the network is sound?
  • Good at creating intranets for fast and easy file sharing of 1gb+ downloads like the Android SDK? Want to help us build that?
  • Maybe you’ve got great business connections. Will you help us connect the iHub and the people in it to the business community?

iHub Location

The new iHub’s location is going to be on the 4th floor of the new Bishop Magua Centre on Ngong Road (directly opposite the Uchumi Hyper). It’s an amazing location, with quick access to public transportation, food and the rest of town.


View iHub – Nairobi’s Innovation Hub in a larger map

Community Involvement

I’ve been working closely with a couple of people from the community to find a place and get some basic items squared away. This advisory group is made up of individuals with a long standing presence in tech locally, including:

  • Riyaz Bachani, CTO of Wananchi
  • Josiah Mugambi, Co-Founder of Skunkworks
  • Rebeccah Wanjiku, Tech reporter and entrepreneur
  • Conrad Akunga, Blogger and Software Manager
  • Erik Hersman (me), Tech blogger, Founder of AfriGadget and co-Founder of Ushahidi

As mentioned earlier, there are a number of things still to be done, and we all need to band together in order to make this space what we hope it will become. Your ideas and drive will make the iHub into the space to be in all of East Africa for tech-related activities.

If you would like be involved, leave a comment below.

Working on Ushahidi’s Haiti Response

Last Wednesday started out pretty normal for me. Then it stopped. The US-based members of the Ushahidi team informed me of the earthquake in Haiti, and then the madness began… 6 days later, what’s happened?

Ushahidi is heavily involved in mapping and integrating crowdsourced information from Haiti into an aggregated map that is being used by both people on the ground who need help and those who can provide relief. Teams of volunteers in Kenya, Uganda and the US have been working to solidify the platform and make this effort work. Keep up-to-date in our Situation Room and our blog.

Though it’s not a completely accurate description of what we’re doing, it’s close: We’re running what’s basically the 911 system for Haiti through a local shortcode on the Digicel network 4636. More on the 4636 number and campaign.

How you can help

Pass this message on, try to get it to people, media and organizations IN Haiti:

“In Haiti? Text 4636 (International:447624802524) on Digicel with your location and need. Report emergencies and missing persons.”

Help with open mapping of Haiti campaign through OpenStreetMap, CrisisMapping Network and CrisisCommons via the “Drawing Together” campaign.

Other links you should know about

Missing persons index
In-Haiti relief organization registry
Twitter Tracker/Filter
Crowdsourced facial recognition
OpenStreetMap Haiti
Crisis Commons Haiti
ICT4Peace – useful links wiki

It turns out this little experiment that started two years ago to crowdsource information from the public in Kenya during the post-election violence might have a future after all… :)

Thanks for your support, and for your help.

Testing Google Driving Directions in Kenya

Gone are the days where you had to have lived in Nairobi for a couple years before you understood all the backroads and neighborhoods in order to get from one place to another. Kenya has an advantage as the only non-sales office in all of Africa for Google is here. When they create new tools, or customize a feature from the developing world, for Africa they do it here in their own backyard first (and sometimes Uganda).

Google Maps in KenyaA couple weeks ago Google turned on mapping directions for Kenya. Like me, most of the people who know Nairobi were shocked and didn’t believe it. Could this really work? It does, and it works well.

I’ve been testing it out for the last week to see what type of results I get, and I’ve been impressed with the results. Fortunately I have my iPhone with me, and it allows me to do things like challenge Google/Apple to find my current location and then give directions from that location to somewhere in Nairobi that I happen know every backroad, alley and footpath between.

Shortcomings

No control for traffic
As omnipotent as Google seems to be, what they’re unable to do is track the vagaries of Nairobi traffic. So, as logical as the directions you get from Google might seem, they are not the best way to go much of the time. While they give accurate directions for new people to Nairobi to follow, they are also the “obvious” route and will cost you hours of sitting in gridlock while you watch the matatu’s clog the road even further.

Alternate route to gigiri

Lack of detail on the maps
Some areas, even large towns like Ongata Rongai aren’t even shown on the map. Below is the failure screen for getting directions from Rongai to Eastleigh. I had to go with Langata instead, as that was the next closest “town” in Google Maps. This pattern holds true for dirt roads and paths that are usable by vehicles, but which don’t show up on the map.

Lack of data - fail on Google map direction in Nairobi

I’ve also seen this in regards to offices and buildings, where they are put on the wrong part of the road, sometimes off by a good half kilometer, as was my father’s office in Upper Hill shown below.

Finding the BTL office in Upper Hill, Nairobi

Final Thoughts

Anyone living or working in Kenya should buy a drink for every intern and Google employee who has done the manual work to get Kenya mapped to the level that it is. It’s an iterative process that only gets better as time goes by and more people work on it.

As Google states:

“This essential tool is by no means Google’s effort alone – we’re enormously grateful to Kenya’s active online cartographers who have helped us build these maps from ground up with the use of Google Map Maker, a tool that allows people to help create a map by adding or editing features such as roads, businesses, parks, schools and more.”

The directions provided by Google in Nairobi (I haven’t tested up-country) are adequate. They’ll get you to and from the locations in Nairobi that you need to go. You’re better off now than you were before, and as someone new to the city you’ll have a lot better luck with Google’s maps and directions than you’ll have with asking someone on the side of the road.

African Connectivity Visualized

Jon Gosier’s Appfrica Labs has put together an amazing infographic on internet connectivity in Africa. Amazing work!

Infostate of Africa 2009

“The African continent is rapidly changing. In the next two years 2 billion dollars will bring 12 terabits of connectivity to the continent. Will africa become the world’s newest outsourcing hub? Will it foster it’s own tech and startup culture? The image above explores the ‘infostate’ of Africa in 2009.”
(Read More)

Flickr set here
Full-resolution version here
Buy it in print here

Tags, Time and Location

On Friday I had a long conversation with Noam Cohen from the New York Times about Ushahidi and Twitter. He was doing some homework for an article he was writing on the increased value that geolocation data can add to the massive streams of data coming out of tools like Twitter, called “Refining the Twitter Explosion with GPS“.

A lot of our discussion was centered around location, especially since he was thinking of the Ft. Hood shootings and the value of location in determining useful information from the Twitter stream during that crisis. This is what we’ve built Ushahidi around of course, the idea that location and even small bits of information give us a better understanding of an unfolding crisis. This is just as true of mundane information, or trending topics in a locale, which is why Twitter is building a new geo infrastructure. It couldn’t be in better hands either, with both Ryan Sarver and Schuyler Erle on the team, what Twitter puts out will be top notch.

What was more interesting than just geographical references for information was the combination of two other big ways to parse this data: Time an Tags. We’ve started to see a lot more apps mixing time and location in the past year or two, and we’ll see more as the visualizations for it improve. Categorizing information, pictures and video by keywords (tags) have been around even longer.

TwitterThoughts

We need to see more combinations of tags, time and location in visualizations and platforms. I can’t think of anyone who does all three really well (if you can, please leave the link), though there are a number who do two of them incredibly well – including Flickr’s geocoding of images (tag + location), TwitterThoughts (tag + time) and TwitterVision (time + location), etc.

We have a widening stream of information. The lowered barriers for entry globally, and the encouragement by social tools, means we’re seeing exponential growth rates. Twitter alone saw an increase from 2.4 to 26 million tweets per day in just the last 8 months. We need some way to make sense of this information. Our ability to create information has far surpassed our ability to understand it in a timely manner.

Chris Blow outlined this best with a visual for Swift River for use in a presentation I did at TED this year:

information produced vs information processed

It’s a serious problem and one that only gets deeper with every month that passes. In most areas, it’s not a big deal, but when a crisis, emergency or disaster hits the misinformation and lack of understanding has very real consequences.

I’d love to see more work being done with all three: Time, Tags and Location.

Traffic Updates by SMS in Nigeria

eNowNow is a service in Nigeria where anyone with a mobile phone can sign up to receive updates on traffic conditions in different areas around Lagos.

How it Works

Traffic via SMS in Lagos Nigeria - mapArmed with a mobile phone, a team of 4-6 motorcyclists ride to different, pre-designate parts of the city. They take pictures of the current traffic conditions and MMS that image to the central office. That image is then geolocated and given a score of “slow”, “moving” or “free”. Anyone who has signed up for SMS or email alerts is then sent a message with the traffic update.

Challenges

I asked Simon, one of the people putting the service into action, what some of their challenges are. His reply:

“Collecting information in this way, although not that technical (lots of people have said why not use stationary webcams it would be technically superior), is turning out to be more difficult than we expected. Finding people who can grasp the concept behind the service, ride well through the crazy Lagos traffic, and are reliable has been tricky, added to that we’ve had lots of issues around harassment and even arrests from the police (many police officers apparently believe you need special police permission to take photos of traffic) and just recently the weather has been in our way as the rainy season has just started in Lagos making operations more difficult and a few phones have been dropped in puddles! “

The business side

eNowNow doesn’t see much value in charging premium SMS rates for their services. They believe margins are low, and they don’t think the uptake would be high enough amongst their target market to make it work. Instead, they have plans to subsidize the service with revenues from licensing traffic information to Sat Nav providers and logistics companies.

“In Nigeria the networks will take anything between 40 and 75% of a premium SMS’s cost to a subscriber for themselves (pull or push) leaving you a tiny margin for profitability and driving the industry standard (and therefore what the networks will allow you) per SMS cost higher. Most people think that traffic only affects those in cars and they can therefore afford to pay for a service, but most of Lagos’ population aren’t in that bracket and those on public transport still have choices about which buses they take, which routes and what time they leave work.”

Thoughts and ideas

Maybe it’s because I’m a motorcycle fan, or maybe it’s because I have a deeply ingrained detestation for being stuck in traffic in Africa’s mega cities, but this application hits the sweet spot for me. I’ve been wanting just this type of thing in Nairobi for a long time…

One additional idea, to make this even more dynamic, and spread it over the whole city is to create a way for ordinary drivers to text into the system when they come across a new or growing traffic problem. I imagine that Lagos has areas with traffic that is not on the pre-designated points that eNowNow operates in currently.

This is a classic locally grown tech initiative, and I hope that they can pull it off. If so, it can definitely be replicated in other major metro markets across the continent.

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

It’s all beginning to come together, at least on the fringe where all of us technocrats live. Social networks have been humming along quite nicely, many people you know are now part of a service like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Bebo or Mxit. On the edges, some applications have started to pair up location-based services around them, thus the rise of smaller applications like FireEagle, Loopt and Brightkite.

What’s always seemed to be missing is a way for location, mobile phones and social networks to coalesce. A way for you to communicate with people, be it updates, comments or chat – and then apply location to that as you chose. Those social networks that tried to do it all couldn’t do it at this level, because they didn’t have critical mass (such as Brightkite). Those that had reach, like Twitter or Facebook, don’t have a simple way to play with location for everyone.

Enter Google Latitude

Just over a week ago, Google Latitude launched. It’s a location-based service that mashes up Google’s own mapping products with Google’s communication products; Gmail and gTalk (chat). One week later, they announced that a million people were already using the service in the 27 countries that they had released it into.

Google Latitude Screenshot

While people are discussing how great the technology works, and it does seem to be quite impressive if you carry one of the supported smart phones platforms (BlackBerry, Windows Mobile, Symbian and Android), I believe there’s something even bigger going on here. Google has not had much success in the social network space, so they are taking a rather nontraditional approach to getting embedded into people’s lives at a much more foundational level. Gmail has a base of 50 million+ accounts, and each comes with a chat service, which has gained quite a bit of popularity. Not to mention, SMS was enabled within chat just a couple months ago, in December.

What Google appears to be doing, is leveraging its massive user base, tied together through email and chat services, and pairing it together into a larger community that works within it’s mapping infrastructure.

(Putting on my Ushahidi hat, this has some pretty big ramifications for disaster and emergency work in locations where Google use is heavy.)

The competition

It also has the potential to change the game for some other large services. What happens if people start using Google Latitude for their status updates instead of Twitter and Facebook? What service do you use to find out what’s happening on a Friday night?

It will be very interesting to see what types of reactions to this service arise out of the large social networks, especially those with a large international footprint. Getting location, mobile and social networks to play together isn’t easy, yet these organizations will not sit by as Google whittles away at their empire.

Here’s something to think about. If you didn’t realize this before, pay attention: the big international showdown in this space is between Google and Nokia in the coming years. They have been gaming each other for over two years, and as the race to the edges begins, you’ll see them come head-to-head more often.

Nokia Ovi

1.5 years ago Nokia bought mapping service Navteq in a mega-deal at over $8 billion. Last summer they launched Ovi, which allows remote sync capability for photos, contacts and calender, gains access to music and games, and marries up their mapping and sharing capabilities. It’s what Nokia is banking on for their consumer value-added services in the future.

I’m not sure who will win out on usage in the end, but I do think that Google’s Latitude is an incredibly strong and under-the-radar type play that should be watched very closely. One thing is for sure though, the organization that opens up for easy third-party development on their platform will have a better chance.

Digitizing Africa: Starting with the Dirt

I was completely fascinated when I heard about the African Soils Information Service (AfSIS) and their goal of gathering detailed digitized soil samples from 42 countries in Africa. That’s a huge project, and it’s propped up by grants from the Gates Foundation and AGRA.

African Soils

Unlike many of you, I have little knowledge of farming and have no agrarian pastimes. So, though the mapping and techie side of me thinks it’s really a neat project, I didn’t know why it was needed. Apparently, one of the biggest problems with food scarcity in Africa is lack of knowledge on soil degradation and the low-yielding crops that these areas generate. This information is critical to identify the types and amounts of mineral and organic nutrient sources needed to increase crop yields.

Digging deeper

I started trying to find out more about soil mapping in Africa, and came across the European Digital Archive of Soil Maps. It turns out they have an amazing number of scanned geological maps for almost every African nation.

I decided to look up my childhood stomping grounds of Kapoeta, a dusty (tiny) town in the Equatoria Province of Southern Sudan. Sure enough, I found a hydrogeological map (circa 1989) with some good information:

Hydrageological map of Southern Sudan - Kapoeta

It turns out that Kapoeta is a bit of an anomaly, in that you won’t find too many areas in Southern Sudan with as much geological diversity. It’s just off the major flood planes, and it there are 3 different types of hydrageological structures within the area. The local Taposa tribe stores their wealth in cows, but they do grow some millet.

Though that data means very little to me, in the right hands it can make the difference between a large annual millet yield, or possibly even the introduction of a new crop that locals didn’t know about. It’s in places like Kapoeta that this project will see it’s true potential.

Digitizing Africa

I was happy to see the following quote in the press release:

“All soil information will be collected and made available via the Internet in a user-friendly manner. AfSIS experts will offer training to agricultural extension agents and others on how to interpret and translate information provided by the soil map for practical application.”

As we get more open and available data on Africa – be it soil, vote counts or census information – more value added services will be created. Businesses can grow up around both the data collection and its use. More importantly, with the use of other tech tools, I think we’ll find that the information that is aggregated and then acted upon, will start to make it’s way back into the hands of those who need it for their daily living. This soil project just might be a greater thing than we realize.