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Where Africa and Technology Collide!

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The Curious Case of Africa Blindness

Africa BlindnessA scotoma is a blind spot in your vision. Everyone has it, and it’s due to the lack of photoreceptors where your optic nerve exits your eyeball. Normally, it’s right at the center of your vision. It’s curious to note that most maps have Africa placed squarely in the center, and most are blind to it as well.

I’m a big fan of infographics, visualization tools that help us understand something faster than reading a long-winded explanation or a spreadsheet of data. It’s disappointed to see how Africa is usually missing from the global ones – especially in relation to technology.

I call this “Africa blindness”.

Luke Wertz linked one to me earlier today from the New Scientist on Twitter saying, “Notice anything missing from this image? Oh yea, the ENTIRE continent of Africa.”:

Global internet usage infographic

It’s a good graphic, really well designed and it does gets a point across. However, it’s missing two continents: Africa and Australia. Thank goodness, we’re not just dealing with Africa-blindness, but Oz-blindess too. 🙂

Here’s another great technology infographic, this time by XKCD where he’s showing the IPv4 space (that’s how you get an IP address). Note the glaringly obvious fact that the entire continent of Africa has the same-sized IP allocation as the likes of Apple and half as much as Japan.

XKCDs map of the internet - Africa

Is there a case for Africa Blindness in tech?

A part of me can understand how a graphic designer sitting in the US or Europe, tasked with creating a graphic, would bypass Africa. After all, if you’re not from the continent, you surely don’t think of it as having much relevance in the high-tech world. On top of that, it’s not always easy to find web and mobile data in Africa as it is in the rest of the world. The first is an issue of education and media focus. The second is far more serious of a problem.

You’d think that finding aggregate information on tech in Africa would be fairly easy to find. It’s not, at least not for free like it is for much of the rest of the world. If anyone should know this, it’s me. After all, this is what I spend a great deal of time tracking…

Tracking Mobile and Internet Services Across Africa

I’m continually frustrated trying to find the providers and costs of mobile phone and web services in African countries. This site was inspired by, and dedicated to, the many ranting and raving conversations amongst the technorati of Africa.

One of the issues is that the providers themselves do a shoddy job of getting the information out through convoluted (if any) marketing and price gimmicks. Another issue is that once you find out what services are available, you have no idea what to expect in terms of service levels and data speeds.

I decided to put together a site, African Signals, where people could leave information on the availability, costs and service levels of mobile phone and internet connections in their country. Right now there is a basic skeleton for every country, but it needs to be updated and improved.

Your Job:

Find your country and enter whatever you know about your local costs, speeds and service levels for mobile phone operators and internet service providers (ISPs).

Take 5 minutes and jump see if you can add anything new, or if the info is correct. Then, tell your tech friends from that country too, share this. It’s a resource, something for you to give to and to take from. It is strengthened by your information, and I hope that you in turn will benefit from it too one day.

Example pages

Liberia:

African Signals page for Liberia - mobile phone services

More good example pages, and a special thanks to:

[Note: Some might notice that I am repurposing a domain that I used to have a podcast on 2 years ago, but subsequently was abandoned.]

Debates on the Mobile Web at MobileActive ’08

We just finished a really good conversation on the the future of the mobile web at MobileActive ’08. Toni Eliasz of Ungana Afrika moderated a discussion where one side of the room was charged with arguing against the mobile web, and the other half for the mobile web. I sat on the “for” side of the room.

MobileActive '08

My Position

The web is made up of data, and we generally think of it as what we access via the PC. However, that same data can be accessed and added to through mobile phones as well. Whether its basic SMS, Java apps or direct web browsing. Data is data – how you access is what matters.

Some of the issues holding back penetration of the mobile web:

  • Accessibility – though this gets better every year
  • Cost – The reason why you can’t directly compare interaction or development of apps and services that use the mobile phone to the PC is because of the cost associated with data and SMS costs on mobile right now.
  • Interface – usability can be a major problem on Java apps, and 160 characters is very limiting.

But the basic truth remains. If you can access and contribute to the global databases of content, then you are in fact on the mobile web.

The mobile web is already here. It’s happening now.

Mobile Web Questions

Mobile Web questions
The questions we debated.

Rabble’s and Blaine’s Positions

Rabble, creator of Yahoo’s Fire Eagle, and Blaine, the original architect of Twitter, continued the discussion with me afterward. The claim here is that the only truly mobile web device is the iPhone, all else is negligible – maybe not in theory, but in action.

Rabble explaining how we access the Mobile Web

Rabble tells me that it’s much like saying that if you could get the web through this blurry glass, even if it’s feasible, it’s not useful or likely. He’s got a good point…

[final note: I was preoccupied while trying to post this with Rabble and Blaines’ conversation…]

Watching Zimbabwe: Sokwanele Charts are Damning

Part of you wants to ignore it and hope it will go away. Zimbabwe is such a messed up place that it hurts to even think about it. In the midst of it all, one group is making sure that actions and events are being documented: Sokwanele.

It’s amazing how simple visuals can take a bunch of data and make it real. Above is a chart showing the mayhem, broken down by type. It’s a sick story, but one that can be told in almost real-time because of our current technology.

This is why mapping and other visualizations are so important. Sokwanele is simply collecting the news reports then archiving and parsing them for information. When those stories come in ones and twos throughout the week, it’s easier to ignore. When they’re put forward as a body of evidence using visuals to show their aggregate statistics, it becomes damning and impossible to ignore.

That’s a busy map above. In fact, so busy that you’ll be surprised to know that it’s just the violence that has been perpetrated since the elections at the end of March. Anyone remember the “old” map, from way back then, 3 months ago? I do, and have the screenshot below:

By the way, both of those maps only show a small sample of what is being done. Not everything is reported to news organizations or directly to Sokwanele.

Some people might ask, “But, does Sokwanele’s map help at all?” I’m guessing that it doesn’t directly. However, what it does do is proved fodder for organizations inside and out to make an even stronger case against this repressive regime.

[Note: if you can handle graphically violent images, check out Sokwanele’s Flickr stream.]

On a Personal Note
Those of us on the Ushahidi team think on this stuff a lot. We’re not off trying to win mashup competitions and raise funding for further development because we think it’s a fun startup idea. No, we’re doing this because it matters and we believe our tool will help raise awareness and empower organizations to understand and activate against wrongs.

If anything, I’m compelled more than ever to figure out how technology can continue to create change in truly screwed up places.

Apparently, Ugandan’s Like to Drink

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

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

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

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

(hat tip Ethan)

It’s Always About the Data

I just got through reading an excellent post by Bret Taylor, ex-Googler and creator of FriendFeed, about the need for open data sets. He makes a compelling argument on how difficult and expensive it is to get any type of meaningful data that can really be used to make interesting web applications. I experienced this first-hand in the creation of eppraisal.com – getting good quality real estate data was not cheap or easy.

I think all of these barriers to data are holding back innovation at a scale that few people realize. The most important part of an environment that encourages innovation is low barriers to entry. The moment a contract and lawyers are involved, you inherently restrict the set of people who can work on a problem to well-funded companies with a profitable product. Likewise, companies that sell data have to protect their investments, so permitted uses for the data are almost always explicitly enumerated in contracts. The entire system is designed to restrict the data to be used in product categories that already exist.

Interesting, but how does this apply to Africa?
Depending on how you look at it, this is a great opportunity or a serious problem. For instance, it’s a problem for us on the Ushahidi project because it is difficult to get some of the detailed mapping data that we need in a usable format. However, if you’re an enterprising businessman you would realize how much un-digitized data is in Africa and would start doing something to create data sets and license that out.

Of course, you licensing that data out puts us all in the same quandry that Bret outlines in his post… That by it not being open and free, the barriers to entry are high(er) and only larger organizations with access to a lot of resources can utilize it. A catch-22 if ever there was one.

It only make sense to give up data, or collect data and give it away for free of the relative cost of doing that for each person is minimal. Anytime you need to use a lot of resources to collect data, then you deserve to charge a fair market price for it. So, while I’d love to have more free data available, I know that the challenges to getting there are quite steep.

A few sources of open and free data:

Twine – Misc.
OpenStreetMap – Geographical data
Freebase – Open shared database
OpenTick – Financial data
Numbrary – Numbers
DBpedia – Structured data from Wikipedia
Swivel – Misc and nice visuals
Jigsaw – business contacts
InfoChimps – Misc free data sets
NumberZoom – Phone numbers

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