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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

Category: Web Tools (page 2 of 17)

Web-based tools and applications.

Kenya’s Web Design Problem

"The African Scifi factory is a highend production facility located in Thika-Kenya, dedicated to re-establishing popular African science and fiction narrative using animation ..."

The African Scifi Factory in Thika, Kenya sounds like a great place. It looks like one too, their site looks pretty good. However, no one will ever hear of them or find them online through a search engine. That text above, it’s their meta name=”Description” tag, and it’s about the only thing that Google or any other search engine can see about them. They’re virtually invisible to the web.

It’s 2010 and we still have people designing websites in pure images (as above) or Flash. It doesn’t make sense. Why the need to hamstring yourself, your business and your clients by not designing an XHTML site?

The African Scifi Factory isn’t the only one, I’m just using their site as an example. We actually have designers being trained today who only learn how to use Flash. We have others who still don’t know how to handcode HTML and CSS. I still see CVs and resumes from “serious” designers who use Dreamweaver to create websites.

There are no borders on the web

We all need to realize that we live in a global ecosystem, especially online. There are no borders in this space.

If you’re a web designer who does crappy XHTML and CSS, then know that you’re becoming less relevant with every day that you don’t learn your trade better and update your skills. Kids in the Ukraine, Indonesia and elsewhere are eating your lunch. I can Google a PSD to HTML business in 5 seconds, take the top result, and have my designs put into excellent XHTML/CSS for as little as $45. Why should I use your services? What do you offer that’s so much better?

You’re not a quality web designer if you can only put together a fancy looking Photoshop file, that makes you a designer. A web designer needs to know how the HTML and CSS work, understand user-interaction and usability of the functions in the design and be able to create bulletproof markup.

Design and Coding

Interestingly enough, the programming community in Africa seems to be better off than the web design community. There seems to be a lot more quality programmers per capita than there are quality web designers per capita.

Why?

What will it take for us to take our web design skills as seriously as our programming skills?

[Update: African Scifi Site fixed by local Kenyan web designer]

A young designer by the name of Martin Kariuki decided to take the specific example of African SciFi Factory into his own hands after this blog post, and re-created the whole site in HTML. See his blog post and work on this here.

Great job by Martin for doing this! Impressive initiative and a nod to the goodwill in this community.

Mocality: Mobile Business Listings for Africa

It’s not often that you hear of a tech startup from South Africa who chooses to build and deploy their product to Kenya first. In fact, I’ve never heard of such a thing. However, that is just what is happening with Mocality, a mobile and web-based business listings and directory application built for Africa.

Mocality’s job: create a digital platform that makes it easy for business owners to promote and expand their businesses in Africa.

“As a business owner, you get free SMS, a contact list, a free mobile website and a free mobile business card.”

Mocality represents this change in the paradigm that we’ve seen coming on for years in Africa. An application built agnostic to the client platform (mobile phone or PC), where data is fed into whatever you use in a meaningful way. Where the mobile usage is just as rich as the PC use.

In fact, they’ve studied usage of mobile phones on their system and have seen the usage of smartphones to be so negligible as to not matter. As CEO Stefan Magdalinski says, “This is the Mocality reality: RIM, Android, Apple are 2% of usage.”

About the Team

Successful startups generally have great leaders, Mocality has that. Stefan Magdalinski (@smagdali) is a seasoned web veteran and entrepreneur, co-founder of Moo.com and an early entrant into the programming space in England in the mid-90’s, and just recently relocating to South Africa for Mocality. They have plenty of funding, from MIH, a subsidiary of Naspers Group (who has been eying Kenya with recent forays such as Kalahari and Haiya).

I’ve met with Stefan in Kenya and South Africa, and I’ve also had the chance to meet some of the members of his team here in Nairobi. The impression that I’m left with is that this is a serious startup, with plenty of funding and a great vision and a strategy put in place to pull it off.

How it Works

Mocality is built for Kenyan businesses that don’t have enough money (or value to gain) to advertise in a print directory.

Again, a paradigm shift. They’re saying that they don’t care about the big end of the power law of distribution (the big companies), only the longtail (small, marginalized businesses). This is apparent in the images below of their typical user:

  • SMS, WAP & Web tools (now J2Me, iPhone)
  • Businesses can self list
  • Geo-coding All business locations
  • Map view of business
  • Business toolkit:
    1. Add customers & suppliers
    2. Send bulk messages (400 free SMS monthly) (but with anti-spam controls)
    3. Send mobile business card
    4. Add details (e.g. Menus, Special Offers)
  • Website, google optimised (white hat only)

Important to business owners in this segment is that the platform is free. Services will be added to the platform over time that business owners can pay for, but currently the only cost to them is data or SMS usage on their own mobile phone to access Mocality.

Scaling using the Crowd

Initially, the Mocality team walked all over Nairobi getting businesses to put their listings on the platform. They were successful, and in about 6 months of hard work were able to get approximately 11,000 businesses listed. That’s good, but barely puts a dent in the number of companies operating in this city.

The team then launched a crowdsourcing option, where they experimented with allowing anyone in Nairobi to add their own (and other’s) businesses to Mocality, and they got paid a bounty to do so. Within the last 6 weeks they have as many listings entered as the previous 6 months. If you live in Nairobi and want to become an agent, you need a WAP-enabled cameraphone and only need to visit http://www.mocality.com/money.

That’s impressive, but the impact is even more apparent when you look at the visualization:

If you have a business in Nairobi, you can get your listing onto it by visiting www.mocality.com email to info@mocality.co.ke or SMS callme to 2202 from within Kenya.

Nairobi Hackers Descend Upon the iHub

I’m sitting at the iHub this morning, after just having given my welcome to the 40+ Nairobian hackers who have descended upon the place. They’re here to take part in the global Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) hackathon to develop tech solutions to pressing needs in crisis and disaster response.

It should come as no surprise that Nairobi’s technorati are well-versed in mobile solutions, that’s quickly becoming a competitive advantage in this city. So far we have groups coming up with solutions for amputee registration via SMS and USSD, An SMS solution to create distress texts, improvements to people finder apps and tracking of mobile payments.

Keep up to speed

This event goes through Sunday afternoon, it’s a full 36 hour hackathon. Watch as the devs in Kenya work with their counterparts in Australia, Indonesia, Brazil, the US and UK. Keep an eye out on the above resources to see what comes out of Africa!

RHoK Nairobi, Kenya

Africa Gathering Nairobi 2009 (day 2)

I’m here at day 2 of Africa Gathering in Nairobi, but can only spend part of the day here today, so it won’t be a full listing of all the talks. Day 1 talks are here.

I missed Nkeiru Joe’s talk about the sea and fibre cables. However, I’ve known and debated this with her for a long time. 🙂 Here’s her presentation on this topic, but to get the flavor on it you should talk to her or hear her speak.

Nkeiru Joes Africa Gathering Presentation – 2009

Digital Integration (lifestyle and webstyle)

David Nahinga, one of the organizers for Africa Gathering. He’s taking a few minutes to talk about the difference between digital culture and everyone else. How we need to use our time effectively, not try to be on 20 social networks and to prioritize the tools and platforms that we use that help us reach our goals.

It’s interesting, David is really doing a primer on why social media and digital tools are useful, and a reminder to use the “hard disk as another lobe of our brain.” Having a tight digital framework helps us to adapt quickly to a constant change, which is a characteristic of web lifestyle.

GotIssuez

Got Issuez Christmas logoMark Kaigwa is here to talk about his startup project called GotIssuez, which I’ve blogged about before. They are creating a digital means for Kenyans to talk about customer service issues – by mobile phone and the web. It’s an African social platform that crowdsources rants and resolutions from Eastern Africans on Products, Brands and Service Delivery. Users rant, rate and resolve issues, and where companies can get involved is in acting on the feedback.

Mark asks, “Do we as Africans have a problem with really listening?”

He draws lines from everyday customer service by businesses in Kenya, with the way that politicians operate, how police try to direct traffic and to the post-election violence last year.

“If the ballot box can’t bring me change, why should a suggestion box?”

The suggestion box is dead, or at the least it’s in need of a revamp. That’s why tools like GotIssuez, which is similar to Get Satisfaction in ideology, are important.

4 things that GotIssuez is doing to create change in the customer service space in Africa. (How do you get an African to believe in change?)

1. Creating community
Their community is made of people from Generation Y, with a very strong presence in universities. They’re the ones who will have a large voice in the future of Kenya. Providing a digital way to complain, but also a way to come up with solutions.

They’re using gifts and prizes as an incentive to get more people to use the platform.

2. Evolve Culture
In the beginning, the users who came to the site were there complaining about non-issue type items, like why they couldn’t get a date for valentines. Now however, the complaints are about mobile phone operators, ISPs, restaurants and things that others are having problems with as well.

3. Involve Companies
How do companies get feedback? How do they engage with customers online and offline? GotIssuez is trying to become the official voice of the people by providing a platform that both consumers and companies can use.

4. Change Circumstances
Actually create change by involving both ordinary people and companies. The example he used here was a popular coffee shop called Savannah that only has one bathroom. People weren’t happy about this and created a GotIssuez report on it. The managing director of Savannah was directed towards this and came up with a solution (finding nearby restrooms that people could use).

Mobile Cloud Computing

Simeon Oriko is a 3rd year student at University of Eastern Africa Beraton and he’s here to talk about mobile phones and cloud computing, and where the two meet. Mobile Cloud Computing is a combination of two major emerging technologies: Mobile computing and Cloud Computing. Both these technologies are increasingly growing at a high rate. The concept of Mobile Cloud Computing involves the integration of mobile phones and the internet (the ‘cloud’) to create a cheaper, more convenient way of accessing information and other resources on the internet.

simeon

“How do we give people access to information and other resources that allow them to be all that they can be?”

Simeon was driven to think about this knowledge gap as he went to different high schools and talked to students who wanted to learn about things, but couldn’t, which was holding them back from different professions and futures. The example he gives is of a young lady who wanted to be a pilot, but had no idea where to start.

The Mobile Web
Mobile phones are not the same as desktop computers, but people create sites and applications that don’t allow true access via the mobile phone. We have this hugely fractured space, with browsers, phones, operating systems that are so different that it’s impossible to operate in them.

4 problems:

  • Limited memory and storage – Various data formats are used and it depends on the device as to how powerful it is. Data storage is expensive. There are major interoperability issues between phones, so a different application needs to be created for each device.
  • Small display screens – Desktop version websites are optimized for 1024×768 pixels – and there’s no good solution for that on a mobile phone. Technical solutions exist using CSS and javascript… if your phone renders them
  • Flaky browsers – There are MANY mobile browsers (Android, Safari, Opera, s60, Opera Mini, Blackberry, NetFront, IE Mobile (old), Iris, Bolt, Skyfire, Obigo, Fennec, Teashark, etc…). They all vary in standards and modes of rendering
  • Bad Connections – Connectivity is spotty outside urban areas.

Cloud Computing

Solutions
Take processing away from the mobile phone and into the cloud – put it on the internet. For instance, if you want to upload a picture, you should be able to expand the storage space online from that which you have on your phone/memory stick.

Create a common platform that all the mobile phones try to share in common. Examples are the mobile web, SMS and USSD.

What will mobile cloud computing look like?

“Smartphones will increase in percentage, but that will not be the future. Feature phones will become more sophisticated, as more of the processing is taken away from the device and put in the cloud. Lower end phones will be the driving force, using SMS and USSD, even if they don’t have the mobile web.”

Applications will be of two types:

  1. Native apps will still be there (Android, iPhone, WinMo, etc.)
  2. Web apps will be used a lot more.

Faster mobile networks and improved network connectivity.

Simeon is working on Kuyu, a mobile web application that allows African devs to build African apps for real world African solutions.

Quick Hits Around African Tech

South African Startup Index
The Business Report is running a South African Startup Index using YouNoodle‘s API. Quite cool, I’d love to see someone do this for startups across Africa.

The Malawian Who Harnessed the Airwaves
Really, it’s an AfriGadget-type story on Gabriel Kondesi who constructed a radio station three years ago, using, among other things, three small transistor radios, car batteries, TV aerials, wires, and a radio cassette player.

A Rwandan software developer finds success
“Yves Kamanzi does not just study computer sciences, it is a passion which does not leave him when he gets out of the classroom. As a result, he has developed several administrative computer applications and despite fierce competition in the sector, he has been able to win over several companies. One program, which calculates employees’ net salaries, has proven especially popular.”

Musoni: mobile microfinance
Musoni is a new microfinance company in Kenya that is using mobile services for all their work. “Musoni will enable clients to repay their loans and deposit their savings using existing mobile money transfer products, such as M-PESA, Zap and Orange Mobile Money.”

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.

Quick Hits: Tech News

This week is turning into quite a week for tech news (that matters). Here are the ones catching my eye:

Opera Unite
“Opera Unite now decentralizes and democratizes the cloud.” A groundbreaking new initiative from the Opera team. This has the potential to be really big. I didn’t do my homework on this one, and after reading Chris Messina’s analysis, I agree this is lame.

BOKU launches
Mobile payments are going mainstream. BOKU’s system doesn’t require users to have a credit card or bank account.

WordPress 2.8
A big new release for the world’s top blogging platform. I, like Adii, am interested in how much people trust WP to get it right, and just update without doing any backups.

Digital Security
My friend Patrick Meier has put together what might be the best overview I’ve read on digital security in repressive environments. All the more important due to this week’s Iran events.

In completely unrelated news, I’m not working off of my normal MacBook Pro machine and it’s proving just how reliant I am on one device. Instead I’m working off of an Acer AspireOne netbook. While this is a great substitute and travel computer, it is definitely not anywhere near what I need as my daily workhorse. I find I am much less efficient.

Massive Africa Update on Google Maps

The Map-the-World and Map-Maker teams at Google have been making some major, and much needed, additions for Africa. With a large data push yesterday, Google Maps has one of the most impressive sets of maps on Africa that you can find.

There are now 27 more African countries that now have detailed maps, including:

Benin, Botswana, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gabon, Guinea, Gambia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Madagascar, Malawi, Mauritania, Mozambique, Niger, Nigeria, Reunion, Sierra Leone, Somalia, and Togo.

Comparing countries

What I wanted to do was compare old map tiles with new ones, but I didn’t have any screenshots to do that with. Instead I did a quick comparison of a few countries – those that were just announced vs ones that weren’t on the list.

A good example of this is found when comparing Mali to Burkina Faso in West Africa. There are significantly more town names in Burkina Faso, and all the roads either have names or numbers. In Mali, which hasn’t been done yet, there are some major roads outlined, few towns are named, and no minor roads to speak of.

Mali vs Burkina Faso

Also of interest, you’ll notice how the roads that should intersect at the borders, do not.

Here’s another interesting view of West Africa. You can clearly see that there has been a lot of data added for all of these countries, except for Liberia and Mali.

Google Maps in West Africa - May 2009

One other interesting map that I came across was of Mogadishu, Somalia. It appears that there either are no street names, or that the Google team working on this didn’t know what they were:

Mogadishu, Somalia - no road names

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)

The Grid in Tanzania and an African Mobile Phone Documentary

The Grid by VodacomThere have been a couple new entrants into the mobile and web space in Africa that I haven’t had a chance to review adequately. One of them is The Grid, by Vodacom. Also in this post is a new documentary on mobile phone use in Africa.

The Grid (Tanzania)

“The grid connects your cellphone and web browser into a social network that is aware of where you are. It uses cellphone mast triangulation to detect where you and your friends are and helps you leave notes on the places you go to”

The Grid launched into Tanzania in April. According to Vincent Maher, who heads up the project, there has been very favorable growth rates of the service.

Besides being a well designed and well integrated mobile/web social network, what I’m really looking forward to hearing about is The Grid’s location-based advertising unfold. For launch, they have partnered with Nandos, Sportscene, Jay Jays and Synergy pharmacies to deliver advertising within radii ranging from 0 – 10km from a users physical location. Vodacom has the muscle to pull this type of thing off, and the connections to create the advertiser relationships.

The Grid is really a direct competitor to Google Latitude (I’ve written about this here), something I’m really excited to see coming out of Africa.

Hello Africa

A documentary about mobile phone culture in Africa. I was excited to see the trailer for this last month, and the full version is now available. Find out more at ICT4D.at

Hello Africa from UZI MAGAZINE on Vimeo.

Before 2001, the year the first cell tower was erected in Zanzibar, people had very limited means of communicating with each other from a distance. Today, the situation is completely the opposite. Cell towers from main operators cover the whole island and people communicate all the time with their mobile phones. It is difficult to imagine how it once was before.

There are plenty of aspects about the ongoing changes that could be covered in a documentary, but the purpose of this fillm is not to elaborate and draw conclusions. The purpose is to catch the vibe, the know, show what’s going on right now. A snapshot of the Zanzibarian zeitgeist.

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