Category Archives: Web Stuff

Tech Talent and Expat Bubbles – Kenya Edition

(Note: cathartic, bloated essay forthcoming, read at your peril)

Say you are a Kenyan web designer living in Seattle, do you think anyone cares that you came from Kenya? No, they only care that you are a great web designer.

If you’re an American programmer working in Nairobi, does anyone care that you come from the US? Yes, for some reason that matters. You’re judged on where you come from as well as your skill set.

It’s not apples-to-apples, though it should be.

kenya-usa

This is at the heart of an issue that I’ve seen played out many times over the years in Kenya. My position in the community, my background in Kenya and the US, and the organizations I’ve built locally give me a unique perspective on what’s going on here culturally, that sometimes is hard for others to see.

Americans, Europeans, etc want to work in Kenya and be part of a growing melting pot of engineers, web designer and entrepreneurs trying to build out the next great tech economy. It’s a grand dream, and one that we should all support if we want Kenya to be on the global map.

Kenyans are madly building companies, growing a new breed of programmers, designers and entrepreneurs that are waking up to the reality of a global market. It embodies all of the energetic vibrancy that makes Kenya a regional economic powerhouse.

Both are needed. However, all things are not created equal, which leads to tension.

Kenyan tech has global competition, so act like it

I often talk about the Kenyan tech scene as highly active, yet nascent. There is a great deal happening in our space, but it’s not nearly as big as other larger and older tech communities found in the Bay Area, London, Berlin, Israel, Moscow, Bangalore or New York City. We’re growing, we’re half-way up the mountain, and there’s still some climbing to do.

There is likely the same percentage of top level engineers and designers in Nairobi as anywhere else, but the pool is still small. I’d guess the total pool of engineers is somewhere in the 3,000-5,000 range, and designers are only about 100-200. It’s not a deep pool to pick from, and there are many who linger around the edges claiming that they have skills, but who aren’t qualified to do more than create a “hello world” website.

In the startup world, Kenyan-led companies tend to be under-resourced and without the same networks that make it so much easier for expats to get started. While we’ve been building up more and more base resources locally for seed capital, and the business acumen of the founders is improving due to them being in town, it’s still not enough. And, while the $25k accelerator level is very much present in the community, there’s a huge gap in the $100-500k investment levels.

So, with local entrepreneurs, this leads to a protectionist mentality about how many mzungu’s are around and how they are sucking up resources. It’s not a good place to be. What we need to realize locally is that in the tech world there are very few borders, that we’re automatically in a global playing field. There needs to be lighter rules for immigration of expats (from anywhere) who are willing to bring investment and talent into the country, and keep it here.

If anything, Kenyan lawmakers should be finding ways to reduce the ludicrous tax rates on software companies, which would incentivize local ownership, encourage local investment so that the companies that do well have their profits stay in-country, and try to attract international talent and grow local talent. It’s a long-term game, and will pay off in the years ahead.

US/EU immigrants need to understand where they are

On the other side of the fence are the international expats who enter into Kenya. They are often well-meaning folks with a desire to build a company, or be part of a company in this vibrant country brimming with opportunity. This should be encouraged.

What I’ve observed over the years however, is something that shouldn’t be encouraged. These immigrants who come into Kenya tend to hang out with each other. This isn’t strange at all, Kenyans tend to do the same when they’re in the US. What’s not healthy is when you spend most of the time around people who look and sound like you, then when you want something from the rest of the greater community, act like it’s not there because it’s not directly in front of you.

There are some amazing programmers in Kenya, some ridiculously good web designers, some top-notch entrepreneurs. You will not find them by throwing a dart in a room and hoping to hit one.

Complain all you like about immigration policy, the need for more high-level talent being brought into the country, business taxes, etc – and I’ll be right with you. You complain about there not being any local high-level talent and I’ll call BS.

Instead, get out and get to know people. Get outside of your expat bubble and be a part of the community. This isn’t just meetups, this is who you go grab a drink with, who’s wedding and hospitalization you attend, who you watch rugby with and who you help (and are helped by) when in a bind. This is Kenya, where relationships matter, and where they are earned over time. Friendships here aren’t given lightly, and when they’re given, then they mean something.

To many in Kenya, the expats come and go, so why should they be invested in? Sure, make “friends”, and see what can come out of it, but the problem is that we all know the expat will be gone in 2 or 4 years. The deep investment we expect out of our relationships in Kenya isn’t found in that kind of transient immigrant mentality.

A personal final recap

Back to the talent issue. I’ve had the honor to work with some amazing Kenyan programmers, designers and engineers. How was I able to find them? It turns out that the relationships that I started building back in 2006 (8 years ago), then continued throughout the years, opened my world up to the people who really know what they’re doing. I courted some for 3+ years before they finally joined my team(s), others that I’d like to join my team still won’t budge from their old positions.

Right now I’m looking high and low for an electrical engineer for BRCK, senior-level EEs who have telcoms and/or consumer electronics backgrounds aren’t in deep supply in Kenya. However, I know they’re here, I just have to look harder and keep pushing out beyond my normal network.

They’re here. They’re not easy to find and they might already have a great job. Your lack of being able to find them doesn’t mean they’re not here. Your inability to attract them to your organization isn’t their problem, it’s yours.

Thinking about Blogging at WordCamp Kenya 2013

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

WordCamp Kenya 2013, Nanyuki

Today finds me in Nanyuki, Kenya at WordCamp Kenya 2013. The past couple years, I’ve been traveling during the event, but this year I get to come hang out with my blogging brothers and sisters.

As I was thinking about what to talk about, I thought I’d cover four areas:

  1. Why we blog
  2. My rules for blogging
  3. 3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere
  4. Using blogging as a tool

Why We Blog

“No, no! The adventures first, explanations take such a dreadful time.”
- Lewis Carroll

The best bloggers are storytellers, they take you on a journey. They tell you why you should care about things, they’re opinionated and informative, and they understand what makes things interesting to their readers.

My rules for blogging

My rules for blogging

Commitment: to be a really good blogger, you have to commit to it for a long time. Success doesn’t happen over night, and if you take it seriously and really put your mind to it, you can leverage that for much greater things in the years ahead.

Quality: take the time to write well. Sometimes I’ll write a 4 paragraph blog post and it’ll take me more than 2 hours. That sounds ludicrous, but it’s because I’m trying to find the right phrase, link to the right places and put the right images in that make this worth someone’s time to read.

Consistency: this is where I’ve been falling down over the last year or so. If you consistently publish quality blog posts, you’ll gather a following and generate a community around what you do. I blogged consistently, 3-4 times per week for two years before I really got noticed. It’s important to remember that blogging is a long-game, and that if you stick with it, it will pay off.

3 things that are bothering me in the Kenyan blogosphere

1. The Kenyan elections
Back in March of this year we had the prolonged (5-day) Kenyan elections, where there was a lot of tension. Where I believe we traded “peace” for truth. I wasn’t surprised that the media didn’t do their job. I was surprised that there were so few bloggers who did theirs. I took a lot of heat for creating the IEBC Tech Kenya blog on Tumblr to track the facts around the IEBC technology failures, but I kept wondering where the other bloggers were.

Quote by @Gathara

One person who did blog was @Gathara, and boy did he blog well!

Our job as bloggers is to be independent voices, and we’re most powerful when mainstream media isn’t doing their job. When we do this blogging in a timely manner and get that information out there quickly and in a well-researched and circumspect way. We need to get back to our Kenyan blogging roots, which were just like this back 4-7 years ago.

2. Corporate sponsored bloggers
Making money off of blogging is fine, nothing wrong with that. I’m tired of cut and paste blogging though, where people take press releases from a corporate and get paid to just paste it with no changes. I want to know why what that company is doing is interesting, why I should care. I want to know what your opinion is.

Don’t sell out and lose your identity.

3. Kenya’s new media laws

Kenyan MPs have approved a contentious media bill that journalists say amounts to government censorship

I see articles on the East African, the Telegraph, the Nation, but only a couple blogs show up in Google search results.

Why? Already we have loose set of laws around media and information, it’s a slippery censorship slope that hurts all but the powerful in Kenya. This new law makes it even worse, it smacks of Moi-era censorship.

Where are the bloggers using this opportunity to push back? Don’t we realize that this law applies to us too?

Blogging as a tool

My final discussion points were about how even if you have very little, you can still use WordPress, Twitter and Instagram to build a brand. I talked briefly about where we’d come from with Ushahidi and the iHub, just using blogging and social media to get on the map. Now, we’re doing the same thing for BRCK.

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

The BRCK Eclipse Expedition

I used the example and ran through the story of the BRCK expedition to Lake Turkana to catch the Solar Eclipse. I used my blog, as well as the BRCK blog to create the narrative, amplified by Instagram, Twitter and Vimeo.

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

Tools used to blog the BRCK Eclipse expedition

When you’re building a new brand, what you write and the images you use, help people understand what the narrative and brand is about. For us, it was important to put a stake in the sand (literally too, I guess), about the BRCK being a rugged connectivity device. Nothing said that quite like the team behind it out and thrashing it themselves (and also thrashing themselves…).

The results of this were that by the time we got back a week later, there were many more people interested in buying a BRCK themselves, but also people who now wanted to partner with us and even invest.

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Telling the story, creating the brand narrative

Blogging is a long-term strategy. The Ushahidi blog has been a big part of our identity for almost 6 years. The team who built Ushahidi were all bloggers, so it makes sense that it’s part of our DNA. For the iHub the same. For BRCK the same. I don’t believe in press releases, I believe in blogging the story and if you’re doing interesting things and telling the story about them well, then the right parties will find you.

Ping: a Tool for Families and Groups to Check-in During Emergencies

It’s been a hectic 4 days in Nairobi. The Westgate siege is now over, so the President tells us, though there will be a lot of cleanup and forensics to do. Three days of national mourning start tomorrow.

The full Ushahidi team met yesterday (many virtually, of course), and we talked about many issues surrounding the Westgate siege. Not least amongst them was the fact that we had a hard time checking in with each other. And then found out that one of our team’s wife and 5 children were inside of the mall, while he was traveling out of country. They eventually got out a few hours later, to which we were relieved.

This lead us to then think through our skills and tools, and where we could be useful.

In an emergency, how do you find out quickly whether your family, your team, your friends are safe?

The Ping App - a group check-in tool for emergencies

The Ping App – a group check-in tool for emergencies

How About a Way to “Ping” Your Group?

There was a consistent problem in every disaster that happens, not just in Kenya, but everywhere. Small groups, families and companies need to quickly check in with each other. They need to “ping” one another to make sure they’re okay. It has to be something incredibly simple, that requires little thinking to use. People have been doing some stuff in this space in the past, the best like “I’m Ok” are focused on smartphone users, but we have a need to make it work for even the simplest phones. Our goal is to have this available for anyone globally to use.

“Ping” is basically a binary, multichannel check-in tool for groups. The idea is that families and organizations could use this for quick headcounts on how everyone was, then use it as an on-ramp into a Red Cross missing persons index or something like Google’s People Finder app.

We’re putting the first version of it up at Ping.Ushahidi.com – here’s how it works:

  • You create a list of your people (family, organization), and each person also adds another contact who is close to them (spouse, roommate, boy/girlfriend, etc).
  • When a disaster happens, you send out a message for everyone to check-in. The admin sends out a 120 character message that always has “are you ok?” appended to the end.
  • This goes out via text message and email (more channels can be added later).
  • The message goes out three times, once every 5 minutes. If there is a response, then that person is considered okay. If no response, then 3 messages get sent to their other contact.
  • We file each response into one of 3 areas: responded (verified), not responded, not okay.
  • Every message that comes back from someone in that group is saved into a big bucket of text, that the admin can add notes to if needed.
Ping Notes, Features

Ping Notes, Features

Ping Architecture - rough draft

Ping Architecture – rough draft

Yesterday we quickly wireframed out a list of needs, some design basics, and an architecture plan (images above), got a rough product going on it (code is on Github). We now need to make it look better, so some designers are working up some stuff to make it work well on both phones and computers.

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Mockups of the Ping app, still undergoing some design tweeks

Final touches are to add in:

  • Account creation, we’re using our CrowdmapID tool for this, since it’s already out
  • Message “send” page
  • Archive old campaigns feature
  • Wire into text messaging service (Nexmo or Twilio), and then testing it out internally
  • Designing it so it looks good (responsive design, so it works on mobiles and PCs)

If you’d like to help out, jump on the Github repo, and get in touch with us about what you can do. What we have here is a minimum viable product (MVP) right now, open source, so anyone can make it better by branching the code and adding in features, etc.

Finally, a HUGE thank you to the people who have been burning the midnight oil to make this all happen in 24 hours:

@udezekene (visiting from Nigeria)
@EmiliaMaj (visiting from Poland)
@gr2m (visiting from Germany)
@Dkobia (Ushahidi)
@LKamau (Ushahidi)
@bytebandit (Ushahidi)
@DigitalAfrican (Ushahidi)

Liberty vs Control

Bruce Schneier on the NSA (and others) surveillance state:

Too many wrongly characterize the debate as “security versus privacy.” The real choice is liberty versus control.

Read the rest

This is the loss of freedom we face when our privacy is taken from us. This is life in former East Germany, or life in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And it’s our future as we allow an ever-intrusive eye into our personal, private lives.

Many think that this debate will just go away – it won’t. This is a BIG deal, one that I think is the biggest in our generation. Do not be quiet about this. Do not let tech multinationals and your government do this.

There are many more articles on this (these are just today’s), but here’s another by Glenn Greenwald at the Guardian on the US and UK defeating privacy and security on the internet.

Interesting Reads and Links – July 2013

Open Data for Africa
The African Development Bank has put together a great new resource for open data on Africa (200 data sets) at Open Data for Africa. Should be a good resource.

The Birth of Kenya’s Gaming Industry
A great long-read article on the beginnings of the gaming industry in Kenya.

kenya-gaming-industry

Ventureburn has also done a good piece on 8 African gaming companies.

A Kenyan Won the Tour de France
Chris Froome won the Tour de France, and there’s a great write-up in the Nation about how disappointing it is to see him do it under a UK flag, not a Kenyan one.

“Even more incredulous is the fact that Britain’s glory should have been Kenya’s, and those federation officials ought to be bluntly ashamed. But no matter, he has done Kenya proud. Congratulations, Froome. We salute you.”

“Stop Backing Visionaries”
I enjoyed this piece by Josh Miller on how seed funding could be stifling innovative startups in the Valley.

“By and large, innovative products aren’t strategically imagined ahead of time – they’re stumbled upon while experimenting on-the-go.”

Loose Links:

Savannah Fund Accelerator: Call for 2nd Round

The Savannah Fund has been in operation about 8 months now, and has done 5 investments. One at $200k+, one at $75k and three at the accelerator level of $25k each.

We’re accepting applications through the end of this week, and we’re looking for 5 quality startups to begin the accelerator program in August. Fill out this form to apply.

What is the Savannah Accelerator Fund?

Last month we put together a short video to better explain the Savannah Fund, and why it’s important for tech entrepreneurs in the region.

In short, it’s not just the $25k, which is useful but not the reason why you should be applying, it’s all of the other connections, training and access to people that bring the real value.

Mbwana has written a post on some of the lessons learned along the way, well worth reading:

“Some of the sessions included Max Ventilla who sold his startup Aardvark to Google, Carey Eaton of Africa One Media (best known for Cheki), Eran Feinstein of 3G Direct Pay a leading credit card and payment processor in East Africa, and investors including Khosla Impact. We also focused heavily on digital marketing by bringing technical experts such as Agnes Sokol who continues to advise some of the startups. In the next accelerator we will add additional resources including collaborating with iHub Research and UX Design Lab.”

Here’s Ahonya, one of the Savannah Fund accelerator companies describes how startups can benefit from accelerator programmes.

2013 Kenya Tech Community Survey Results

It’s interesting to see where the Kenyan tech community went to school, what years we graduated, where we work and what age we first started using computers regularly. As I did in 2010, here are the survey results for 2013, with 627 responses.

The live survey link.

[Kenya Tech Community 2013 Survey Base Excel File]

What age did you first start using a computer regularly?

2013 survey - Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

2013 survey – Age Kenyan tech community started to use computers regularly

You can see that we tend to get on computers when we are older, at 17+ (that’s 42% of us). There’s a definite need to get more computers into classroom settings, or homes, at a younger age.

Another view of the same age chart:
2013-Kenyan-age-on-computers-pie-chart

  • 32 People got onto computers at 8 years or younger
  • 51 People got onto computers at 9-10 years old
  • 62 People got onto computers at 11-12 years old
  • 89 People got onto computers at 13-14 years old
  • 128 People got onto computers at 15-16 years old
  • 264 People got onto computers at 17 years or older

Years that the Kenyan tech community graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Year Kenyan techies graduated from secondary school

Which schools did we graduate from?

The schools were across the spectrum. I don’t have the locations of each one, but it would be interesting for someone with the ability to pinpoint them, to do a heatmap of the country based on the school graduates from each location.

1980 - 1
1981 - 0
1982 - 0
1983 - 0
1984 - 1
1985 - 0
1986 - 0
1987 - 6
1988 - 2
1989 - 1
1990 - 4
1991 - 6
1992 - 6
1993 - 7
1994 - 11
1995 - 8
1996 - 17
1997 - 14
1998 - 18
1999 - 21
2000 - 27
2001 - 31
2002 - 34
2003 - 44
2004 - 54
2005 - 46
2006 - 66
2007 - 56
2008 - 67
2009 - 42
2010 - 23
2011 - 8
2012 - 4
2013 - 1

Here are the top 6 girls schools (I had a hard time knowing which were strictly girls schools):

  1. 9 Moi Girls Nairobi
  2. 6 Kianda Girls
  3. 4 Pangani Grils HS
  4. 4 St. George’s Girls HS
  5. 3 Alliance Girls HS
  6. 3 Limuru Girls

Here are the top 12 boys schools (I think some might be mixed, like Kabarak):

  1. 29 Starehe Boys
  2. 19 Alliance HS
  3. 17 Nairobi School
  4. 16 Mang’u HS
  5. 14 Lenana
  6. 12 Strathmore
  7. 10 Moi Forces Academy
  8. 10 Moi HS Kabarak
  9. 9 Friends School Kamusinga
  10. 9 Highway Secondary School
  11. 9 Kagumo HS
  12. 9 Upper Hill HS

Where do we work?

The short answer, is all over the Kenyan tech sector, plus many other areas of government, NGOs and private companies. By far and away, most of the people on the list were either students or freelancer/self-employed. Some of the companies that stood out were; Kenya Power, Cellulant, FrontlineSMS, MobiDev, Safaricom, IBM, Kopo Kopo, Ushahidi, Stripe and Google.

Mobile and Internet Numbers for East Africa (2013 edition)

iHub Research continues to put out great research for clients. They also take time to put together the numbers for everyone else as far as what’s going on in our part of Africa.

Mobile & Internet Stats for East Africa

The most recent stats for East Africa’s mobile and internet usage have been put into an new infographic.

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Mobile and Internet use in East Africa, an infographic by iHub Research

Here is a dump of the data used for this infographic:

Kenya Mobile Statistics
(Population: 44,037,656 July 2013 estimate)
30,429,351 mobile subscribers
16,236,583 (41%) Internet users
3.6 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
251,567 fixed lines
78% teledensity

Tanzania Mobile Statistics
(Population: 48,261,942 July 2013 estimate)
27,395,650 mobile subscribers
5,308,814(11%) Internet users
4.3 billion outgoing & incoming SMS
176,367 fixed lines
61% teledensity
7,662,504,921 voice traffic

Uganda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 34,758,809 July 2013 estimate)
18,300,000 mobile subscribers
4,800,000 (3.2%) Internet users
520 million outgoing & incoming SMS
464,849 fixed lines
52% teledensity
215,110,452 voice traffic

Rwanda Mobile Statistics
(Population: 12,012,589 July 2013 estimate)
6,039,615 mobile subscribers
903,964 Internet users
26 million outgoing & incoming SMS
42,323 fixed lines
57% teledensity
1,470,290,068 voice traffic

Burundi Mobile Statistics
(Population: 10,888,321 July 2013 estimate)
2,995,000 mobile subscribers
157,800 Internet users
80,039 fixed lines
2% teledensity
157,800 voice traffic

Sources:
http://www.telegeography.com/products/commsupdate/articles/2013/03/19/u-com-burundi-adds-mobile-banking-to-drive-customer-growth/
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.independent.co.ug/news/news-analysis/7332-telecoms-gear-for-turf-wars-in-2013
http://www.independent.co.ug/business/business-news/7748-airtel-warid-merger-shakes-market
http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/07/22/ozabs-econet-burundi-subscribers-idAFJOE76L0EY20110722
http://www.cio.co.ke/news/top-stories/Africell-buys-Tigo-to-expand-in-Sierra-Leone
http://dlca.logcluster.org/BDI/logistics-services/index.html
CIA World Factbook

2011/2012 Stats and Infographic

Here’s the 2011/2012 numbers for all of the countries in East Africa, plus some bonus numbers around mobile money at that time.

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

2011 and 2012 East Africa mobile and internet statistics infographic by iHub Research

See the old ones from 2011 in Uganda, Kenya and Tanzania. You can also see the some 2012 numbers on the iHub that they put together as well.

Designing a Kenya Shilling Symbol

I make no bones about my admiration for the team at Ark Africa, who I think are possibly the best design house in East Africa. They tend to take on projects of their own, just to think through the problems and come up with something that’s truly useful. Other examples of this are when the building of the new Thika road was going on and there were no signs, they created the signage for it. They’ve also taken the Kenya coat of arms and re-touched them as a screen-friendly version for smaller devices and very small prints.

ARK | Kenya Shilling Symbol

ARK | Kenya Shilling Symbol

In possibly my favorite Ark project to date, they’ve decided to design a Kenya Shilling symbol. We have this problem where we don’t have a simple symbol (such as $, £, €, ¥, etc) to use, nor do we have a clear way of writing it. We use “Kes” or “Ksh” both interchangeably.

This is one idea that I hope gets traction with the right people. The government, if it had thought to do this, would have paid a company a lot of money to get to this same point. I hope they take the gift given to them here.

Building the BRCK: A backup generator for the internet

Why do we rely on equipment made for the Berlin, Orlando and Tokyo when the conditions we have in Nairobi, Lagos or New Delhi are completely different?

The BRCK is Africa's answer to internet connectivity

Today we’re announcing the BRCK: The easiest, most reliable way to connect to the internet, anywhere in the world, even when you don’t have electricity.

We have a BRCK Kickstarter going, where we’re asking for your on taking it from prototype to production.

The BRCK is a simple, and it came from us asking:

“How would we design a redundant internet device for Africa?”

It would need to do the following:

  • A router for 20 people
  • With 8+ hours of battery for when the power goes out
  • That fails over to 3g when the Internet goes out
  • That travels, so you become a mobile hotspot
  • With cloud-based backend that supports every country
  • On device with both a software and hardware API

As a web company, being connected to the internet when you need it is a big deal, small outages cause lag that ripple through the organization. Even in Nairobi with it’s 4 undersea cables and growing tech scene, we still have power and connectivity problems. Could we do something to scratch this itch of ours that would help others too?

Since we travel a lot, we decided that it needed to work in every country. The BRCK had to work when the power was off for a full day (8 hours), had to fail over to 3g internet when the ethernet didn’t work, it also had to work in any country we were in, by just changing the SIM card. At the same time we wanted it to be accessible for both software and hardware extensions by others.

Having a BRCK cloud means that you can login to your device from anywhere in the world, load apps and services on to it, such as a VPN, Dropbox or other services and also control sensors and other devices connected to the hardware. We think that the BRCK model of both a software and hardware API represents the glue that will make the internet of things work.

As Ushahidi we’ve always used simple technology to create tools and platforms that work for us in Africa, and which is also useful globally. This holds true for the BRCK too. We’re redesigning technology that’s been around for years, but making it work for our needs in Kenya.

BRCK-header

Some History

A year ago I jumped on a plane from South Africa back to Kenya without my book and my phone battery almost dead. Funny enough, these happenstances which leave me bored and with nothing to do but think have lead to my most interesting ideas (I’m sure there’s a lesson in there somewhere…). I subsequently broke out my notebook and started sketching out what I thought would be a fun hardware side-project for Ushahidi’s core team that would give us something to work on, when we were too fatigued with the normal coding/work.

We live in possibly the most interesting time for technology in history, where we’ve created this incredible thing called the internet, connecting us globally while at the same time getting to the point where the people who can code software can also “do” hardware. An era where analog and digital are democratized and the making of both attainable by anyone with a computer.

Making things is hard. It’s harder in Africa. I can’t overnight an order of processors, boards or 3d printing filament here. There aren’t an over abundance of local fabrication facilities or tools, and the milling machine you find might be in disrepair and take you two days to calibrate. We’ve got our work cut out to create the right spaces for prototyping and small-scale fabrication on the continent.

We actually started with Jon Shuler doing a lot of the early builds being done by him at his home in California. I’d bring these builds back to Brian Muita and team in Kenya where he was hacking on the firmware to make the system work. All the while hoping that air travel security would let me through with what to all appearances looked like a remote detonation device…

The BRCK being built at the University of Nairobi FabLab

By prototype version 5 we were in Nairobi with a bunch of plastic, using the University of Nairobi’s FabLab to mill the body. There was a fair bit of repair and adjustment needed on the machines to make it work. Like most things in Africa, you either fix what you have or you don’t do it, because there isn’t another option. After a couple days we got it within close enough allowances that we could do it. It still wasn’t pretty, but we knew it would work by then.

That was all just the hardware bit. Concurrently we wireframed the software side, ensuring that this device was much more useful than just a MiFi on steroids. The BRCK Cloud falls directly in Ushahidi’s software development wheelhouse, so we set about creating a simple responsive interface that would work on both phones and big screens.

BRCK setup - mobile web

The software side does three things:

  • A simple setup interface with only 3 form fields. Router setup is scary and hard, so we’re trying to take the pain out of it.
  • A dashboard, so you can see if your BRCK is running on backup or primary power, how fast your current internet connection is, your provider, and how all of these have done over the last hour, day, week and month.
  • A marketplace for free apps and services, as well as the place for others to offer up their own creations to the rest of the BRCK users around the world.

While having a device that was remotely programmable and that could run its own apps and service is important, we realized this was only half of the equation. We would need to create a similar interface for hardware creators and users. This means we needed the device to have hardware ports for everything to connect to, from temperature sensors to Raspberry Pi’s (as an aside, I want to get a Raspberry Pi hooked into the BRCK, thereby making a small, working server). We also decided to put special hex nuts at the top that would allow you to pop the top and get into the guts easily to do your own re-jigging.

The plan for the future is that you’ll be able to stack components under the BRCK like Legos, so that if you need an additional battery pack, a temperature sensor, solar charger, or other product you could do so with ease.

For a full rundown of the all that the BRCK can do, check out the Kickstarter. If you want to get into the real details, see the spec sheet.

Final Thoughts

This week I’m in Berlin to speak at re:publica – and as this post goes live I’m finalizing my talk. I find myself driven to tell the story of Africa’s great potential and growth, tempered by my experience building companies, communities and products here. I see the other entrepreneurs, hungry to create new products and driven by the same powers that are seen in their European and American counterparts. Here, it’s a harder road to hoe in many ways, it takes more grit, more determination and more belief in a future that is not yet realized to do it.

I look at the success we’ve had as Ushahidi and what this new hardware product means to us, and I’m humbled that we have the luxury to self-fund the R&D to get it to this stage, while so many my peers are struggling to take great concepts to even the prototype stage. The opportunities afforded us by our international awareness, the advantage of attracting and hand-picking the top talent that come through the iHub, the ability to have funds that we can risk on a half-baked original idea, a Board who believes in us and trusts our decisions – these are what I’m grateful for.

For this same reason, we’re committed to making a difference for our friends and peers in Nairobi. We’re going to build a makerspace through the iHub that allows others to start from a better position. A place that will give hardware hackers and entrepreneurs a chance to get trained on tools and machines, meet their peers and take risks on their own crazy half-baked hardware ideas. We’re calling this Gearbox.

Gearbox - an iHub Nairobi initiative for makers

We’re looking for corporate, academic and other partners right now to make it a reality. I’ll write about it more at another time (as this post is already too long). However, if you’re interested in being a part of this initiative, do let me know.

The Kenyan Blogosphere Still Has Great Talent

If you were blogging back in 2005, it was amazing to see the talent and energy found in the African blogosphere, and Kenya was a leader amongst the countries involved. I’ve spent a lot of today working through 350+ blogs who were nominated for different prizes for the annual Kenya Blog Awards put on by the Bloggers Association of Kenya (@BAKE_ke). It’s humbling to see so much quality. As a judge, certain categories are extremely difficult due to the parity of the entrants.

Who knew that we had such interesting food and fashion blogs? I certainly didn’t, and was happily sending the food links to my wife as I read through them. The photo bloggers are insanely good, but that shouldn’t be surprising to most of us. The Creative Writing category was huge, in both size and number of quality writers, we truly are blessed in this country – people have a way with words.

Kenyan bloggers Sharon of ThisisEss has her photo taken by Steve Kitots (both linked below)

I thought this picture was great, as it takes two Kenyan bloggers – Sharon of ThisisEss and photographer Steve Kitots (both linked below)

Since I can’t name who I’m pegging as my favorite, I thought I’d just throw a couple links here to show you who’s blogging well in different categories. [Note, I'm only throwing down 5 of the 15 categories here, and listing a bunch in each one, in no particular order.]

Photo Bloggers of Kenya

Mwarv
Mutua Matheka
Steve Kitots
Joe Makeni
Louis Nderi
Ben Kiruthi

Food Blogs from Kenya

Healthy Living
Kula Chakula
Delish
Pendo la Mama
Foodie in the Desert
Yummy

Fashion, Beauty and Style Blogs of Kenya

This is Ess
Nancie Mwai
Toi Market
The Vonette Way
K Smith Diaries
The Funshion Mistress

Kenya’s Entertainment and Lifestyle Bloggers

Niaje
Hood Junction
Kimani wa Wanjiru
Mr. Young Scholar

Creative Writing Blogs in Kenya

Even Angels Fall
Cizoe_Poetry
Biko Zulu
AIDEEDYSTOPIA
Kenyan Voice
Potentash
Mwende the Dreamer
Fasihi Arts
deMaitha’s Blog
Minamilist Eric
Do Not Feed the Bloggers

(I told you there was a lot on the creative writing side, this isn’t even all of them…)

To those of you who write these blogs, keep it up. You’re doing an amazing job of capturing the essence of Kenya and providing an open discussion forum for all to take part in. You’ve made my life quite a bit more difficult, having to choose my top picks, but it’s been worth it due to the reminder I received of how the blogging talent is still here in Kenya, still growing and better than before.

See 2012 winners

Tech Links Around Africa, March 2013

[Last week I had a security problem with WordPress, which is fixed now, my apologies for any inconvenience]

Pivot East, our East African pitching competition, will be held in Uganda for the first time this year. Get your applications in, and plan your travel for June 25-26th in Kampala.

Bosun Tijani and the ccHub are part of what I think is a fantastic idea. Instead of building a “tech city”, they’re creating a “tech neighborhood” in Lagos, Nigeria with many partners.

Nigeria's I-HQ project

The three types of tech incubators in Africa. I disagree a bit here, but will save that for another post.

A long essay, comparing Kenya and Rwanda’s efforts to become the tech hub of East Africa.

Surprising no one, Uganda’s mobile money service eclipses traditional banking with 8.9m users (compared to 3.6m for banks).

Good article by The Next Web on how winning in African tech is a patience game.

Not specifically about Africa, but here’s a great graphic that maps out the alternative financial ecosystem, of which mobile money plays a significant role.

I love this Africa-inspired Foosball table design, which would be made better without all the NGO crap on it.
African-foosball

Personal Link Updates:

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

Kenya’s 2013 IEBC Election Tech Problems

TL;DR – Kenya’s IEBC tech system failed. I started a site to collect notes and facts, read it and you’ll be up to date on what’s currently known.

Kenya’s IEBC (Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission) had an ambitious technology plan, part based on the RTS (Results Transmission System), part based on the BVR (Biometric Voter Registration) kits – the latter of which I am not interested in, nor writing about. It was based on a simple idea that the 33,000 polling stations would have phones with an app on them that would allow the provisional results to be sent into the centralized servers, display locally, and be made available via an API. It should be noted that the IEBC’s RTS system was a slick idea and if it had worked we’d all be having a much more open and interesting discussion. The RTS system was an add-on for additional transparency and credibility, and that the manual tally was always going to happen and was the official channel for the results.

The Kenya IEBC tech system elections 2013

On Tuesday, March 5th, the day after the elections, the IEBC said they had technical problems and were working on it. By 10pm that night the API was shut off. This is when my curiosity set in – I didn’t actually know how the system worked. So, I set out to answer three things:

  1. How the system was supposed to work (Answer here)
  2. Who was involved and what they were responsible for (Answer here)
  3. What actually failed, what broke (Answer here)

Turns out, it wasn’t easy to find any answers. Very little was available online, which seemed strange for something that should be openly communicated, but wasn’t. We all benefit from a transparent electoral process, and most especially for transparency in the system supposed to provide just that.

So, I set up a site to ask some questions, add my notes, aggregate links and sources, and post the answers to the things I found on the RTS system. I did it openly and online so that more people could find it and help answer some of the questions, and so that there would be a centralized place to find the some facts about the system. By March 6th, I had a better understanding of the flow of data from the polling stations to the server and the API, and an idea of which organizations were involved:

  • Polling station uses Safaricom SIM cards
  • App installed in phone, proprietary software from IFES
  • Transmitted via Safaricom™s VPN
  • Servers hosted/managed by IEBC
  • JapakGIS runs the web layer, pulling from IEBC servers
  • Data file from IEBC servers sent to Google servers
  • Google hosted website at http://vote.iebc.or.ke
  • Google hosted API at http://api.iebc.or.ke
  • Next Technologies is doing Q&A for the full system

IEBC tech system diagram

Why now? Why not wait a week until the process is over?

It’s been very troubling for me to see people speculating on social media about the IEBC tech system, claiming there have been hackers and all types of other sorts of seeming misinformation. Those of us in the technology space were looking to the IEBC and its partners for the correct information so that these speculative statements could be laid to rest. I deeply want the legitimacy of this election to be beyond doubt. The credibility of the electoral system was being called into question, and clear, detailed and transparent communications were needed in a timely manner. These took a long time to come, thus my approach.

Interestingly, Safaricom came out with a very clear statement on what they were responsible for and what they did. Google was good enough to make a simple statement of what their responsibilities were on Tuesday. both of these companies helped answer a number of questions, and I hoped that the other companies would do the same. Even better would have been a clear and detailed statement from the head of IEBC’s ICT department to the public. Fortunately they did provide some general tech statements, claimed responsibility, refuted the hack rumor, and made the decision to go fully manual.

My assumption was that since this was a public service for the national elections, that the companies involved would be publicly known about as well. This wasn’t true, it took a while asking around to get an idea of who did what.On top of that, In a country that has been expounding on open data and open information, I was surprised to find that most of the companies didn’t want to be known, and that a number of people thought it was a bad idea to go looking for who they were and what they did. I wasn’t aware that this information was supposed to be secret, in fact I assumed the opposite, that it would be freely announced and acknowledged which companies were doing what, and how the overall system was supposed to work.

I’ve spoken directly to a number of people who are very happy that I’m asking questions and putting the facts I find in an open forum, and some that are equally upset about it. Much debate has been had openly on Skunkworks and Kictanet on it this, and when we debate ideas openly we fulfill the deepest promise of democracy. My position remains that this information should be publicly available, and the faster that it’s made available, the more credible the IEBC and it’s partners are.

By Friday, March 8th, I had the final response on what went wrong. My job was done. Now it’s up to the rest of the tech community, the IEBC and the lawyers to do a post-mortem, audit the system, etc. I look forward to those findings as well.

Finally, I’ll speculate.
My sense of the IEBC tech shortcomings is that it had very little to do with the technology, or the companies creating the solution for them. It was a fairly simple technology solution, that had a decent amount of scale, plus many organizations that needed to integrate their portion of the solution. Instead, I think this is a great example of process management failure. The tendering process, project management and realistic timelines don’t seem to have been well managed. The fact that the RFP due date for the RTS system was Jan 4, 2013 (2 months exactly before the elections) is a great example of this.

Some are saying that the Kenyan tech community failed. I disagree. The failure of the IEBC technology system does not condemn, nor qualify, Kenya’s ICT sector. Though this does give us an opportunity to discuss the gaps we have in the local market, specifically the way that public IT projects are managed and the need for proper testing.

It should be said that all I know is on the IEBC Tech Kenya site, said another way, read it and you know as much as me. There is likely much more nuance and many details missing, but which can only be provided by an audit or the parties involved stepping forward and saying what happened.

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