Liberian Tech: Barriers to Entry

Today was my first full day on the ground in Liberia, which I spent talking to a number of people about the mobile, internet and radio infrastructure – and, more importantly, the realities of their usage on the ground in the country. I try to not only talk to high-level executives and business officials, but also the implementers (people who really do the work), and laymen who just use the technology, but have no major tech background themselves.

A TV antenna in Monrovia, Liberia

Two of the guys I talked to run the IT department for a medium-sized NGO. One of these two, Joshua, is an engineering student at a local polytechnic, and we had a good discussion on why I’ve been having such a hard time finding young hackers and programmers in Monrovia. They came back with an interesting response on how the barriers in their country make it quite difficult to even get started.

A (very) brief background

Liberia came out of a civil war only a few short years ago. The infrastructure was torn apart (there is no electricity grid, rich people run generators), the university and education system are still trying to catch up, and no computer science degree is available. The mobile phone companies, due to not needing as much foundational infrastructure, have built out quickly and cover much of the main roads and major towns (I’ll have to do a whole post on this subject later). All internet connections come through VSAT connections, and they’re not reliable or cheap.

Barriers

Barrier: You can’t get online to get to all the free knowledge. Unlike many other parts of Africa, there are very few internet cafes here. Joshua explained that young people find it very hard to get out to them to get free knowledge online.

Barrier: The few jobs that there are in the ICT sector are generally with NGOs, a few businesses and government organizations. Only those with good connections get in, so a lot of smart young people miss. Why is this important? Only those in these jobs are able to get the training and certification to do higher paying jobs because they have to be flown out to the training centers – none are in-country.

Caveat

I’m on my first day here and will meet more people, so I still have more discovery to do on this topic. Though I do find it interesting that today, of the 5 tech people I met, not one was a Liberian grown and trained in Liberia. I think it’s fair to say that Liberia presents challenges that are steep to overcome, even by African standards.

African Cities Need Tech Coworking Spaces

African techies need community spaces. In Africa it makes sense to have this be part coworking space and part business and idea incubator.

A little background

There is an emergent, yet disconnected, technology community growing in many of the major African cities. The digital connection happens, primarily through email lists or message boards, and from time-to-time there are local physical meet ups, like the recent surge in BarCamps and other non-traditional meetings. What isn’t available is a place to meet that is always available and is made to engage and grow the community.

The VC, investor and business communities in Africa are beginning to see the value and need for web and mobile applications and services. At the same time these same individuals and organizations have no real avenue for engagement with the distributed and independent developer community. What they need is a hub, a place to go to find the young talent, invest in it, and offer monetary opportunities that re-invest in local technology growth.

These hubs would be tech community facilities in major cities with a focus on young entrepreneurs, web and mobile phone programmers and designers. It is part open community workspace (coworking), part investor and VC hub and part incubator. It is the nexus point for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in that area.

What it is

These hubs are community spaces that are open to all web and mobile phone developers. They are owned and supported by the local tech community and organizations that care about seeing this community grow.

It is an incubator, with an in-house investor who acts as advisor, who also helps to vette new entrepreneurs and ideas. It primarily operates off of a micro-VC model (a la Y Combinator) whereby approved entrepreneurs are given support for 3-6 months of work to create and launch their product or service. In that time, they are also given the chance to pitch the completed product to other investors, and are given support on business, licensing and legal issues.

It is where the young and old, new and experienced developers can go to hang out, learn from each other and work on joint projects. There is a real focus on making this open and available at those odd hours which hackers are prone to want to work in. It has a free high-speed internet connection, electricity, and an upbeat and fun environment to work in. It is where the local tech guys and user groups do their monthly and weekly meetings.

It is a coworking space, where freelance developers and designers can rent space (daily/weekly/monthly) and share common meeting rooms for business meetings. They are provided with spacious desks, high-speed internet access, conference rooms, a kitchen, unlimited network printing and faxing, couches and lounging area.

What it isn’t

It isn’t just a business. The end goal of the Innovation Hub in Nairobi is not to make money and be more profitable. Instead, it is to grow a stronger technology community in African cities, one where developers, designers, VCs and businesses are all better connected and mutually benefiting from the growth.

It isn’t a place for an outside sponsor to slap their brand on and call their own. This steals ownership from the local tech community and defeats the purpose of the facility.

Examples in action

They look different in every city, they take on the personalities of the communities that support them, and
(full list of known coworking spaces around the world)

Open Innovation Lab in Cape Town

There are a couple South African coworking spots. The Open Innovation Studio just opened in Cape Town, and I know there are a couple other space like Habitaz in Johannesburg.

Independents' Hall

There are quite a few running around the US right now. The most famous coworking spaces are Independents Hall in Philadelphia (run by my friend Alex) and Citizen Space in San Francisco (run by Chris and Tara).

Colab Orlando - sign

In Orlando, Colab just opened, which I visited today to get a feel for the space. And just recently, my friend Mark Grimes opened up NedSpace in Portland, Oregon.

The Hub London

The Hub is a chain of coworking spaces, you can find one in Cairo. The image above is from their London facility.

Ushahidi Updates from Nairobi

I’ve had a rather active 5 days in Nairobi. Eventful enough to give an update on what’s going on with the Ushahidi developers, the pilot projects and some mobile phone fun. I head out tomorrow for Johannesburg for the MobileActive conference, and will also be attending the Friday night meetup and Barcamp Jozi on Saturday.

Ushahidi Smartphone Developments

(more on the Ushahidi blog)
Steve Mutinda and his Ushahidi Java app

Steve Mutinda put together a working Ushahidi Java application – and surprised me with it, this Saturday. It works well, and he and Wilfred Mworia are hard at work on the Ushahidi API to ensure that this app and the Ushahidi iPhone app both can sync with the database easily.

Speaking of iPhone apps, Chris Blow and Joe Jones have finished making changes from the feedback received on the first mockups. Wilfred Mworia starts this week on his new iPhone to get this working. We’re thinking it will take about 3 weeks.

Ushahidi iPhone Interface v0.3
(We’re still looking for feedback on the iPhone screens)

Ushahidi Devs Meetup

Just last night we had a great Ushahidi dev meetup in Nairobi. The combination of brains and energy in the room was just incredible. We ate good food, got up to speed on the latest Ushahidi news, and had a geeky good time.

Checking out the latest Ushahidi build

One of our advisory board members was there as well, Patrick Meier, from the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. He fit right in, as he also grew up in Kenya and went to secondary school in Nairobi.

Jason Mule and Wilfred Mworia are going to start running monthly Ushahidi dev sessions, so get with them if you want to jump in.

Pilot Project Meetings

The last, but probably one of the more important things that I’ve been doing while in town, is the meetings I’ve been having with the different organizations that have agreed to test out the alpha release of Ushahidi. This is extremely important for us, as it gives us a chance at some feedback and direct hands-on experience with launching Ushahidi instances in the wild.

More updates on this as we get through them, but in short, everyone is very excited about being a part of the pilot and the potential for Ushahidi to change the way the gather and visualize information from the field.

Ushahidi Funding and a New Website!

Most of June I spent in Kenya, much of that time talking to developers and getting ready for the next big Ushahidi push. During that time there was a new article about Ushahidi being one of the “Ten Startups to Watch” in the Technology Review, which was exciting for us to say the least!

July and August have been spent working hard on getting the application rebuilt, the site redesigned and creating partnerships with other organizations. September is about launching the NEW Ushahidi.

A New Website

Now we’re off and running with a new website design, live today, that shows how our goals and focus have changed since things blew up in Kenya. (get a new Ushahidi button for your site.)

Funding

I’m very happy to announce that we’ve secured more than the $25,000 prize money from NetSquared (which has allowed us to do so much already). We have also just secured a grant of $200,000 from Humanity United!

Humanity United is an independent grantmaking organization committed to building a world where modern-day slavery and mass atrocities are no longer possible. They support efforts that empower affected communities and address the root causes of conflict and modern-day slavery to build lasting peace.

There is an obvious fit between Humanity United and Ushahidi, after all, we were founded on the same beliefs back in January in Kenya. Though we’re creating the Ushahidi engine as an open source project, our goal remains to see it used to better understand, give warning of, and recover from mass atrocities.

The Vision

Ushahidi is moving from being a one-time mashup covering the post-election violence in Kenya to something bigger. We are setting out to create an engine that will allow anyone to do what we did. A free and open source tool that will help in the crowdsourcing of information – with our personal focus on crisis and early warning information.

We see this tool being used in two ways:

  • First, to crowdsource crisis information by creating an online space that allows “everyday” people all over the world to report what they see during a crisis situation, and whose reports are generally overlooked or under reported by most media and governments.
  • Second, make that software engine free and available to the world, so that others can benefit from a tool that allows distributed data gathering and data visualizations.

We’re aiming to release an alpha version of it in just a few weeks for internal testing, and for alpha testing with pre-screened pilot organizations.

Volunteer Devs, Designers and Others

One of the reasons Ory and I were in Kenya was to talk to developers about helping with Ushahidi. We were overwhelmed with the amount of interest and the quality of the people who stepped up. So far we have a team working on mobile phones, a designers group, and a number of PHP experts. Go ahead and take a look at the development wiki as well.

If you’d like to play a part, get in touch and we’ll see where you can best fit in. You don’t have to be a developer or designer either.

[Credits: Richard “Ochie” Flores for the excellent design, Kwame Nyong’o for the beautiful illustrations, and Ivan Bernat for the spotless HTML/CSS markup.)

Press Release: Ushahidi Funding & New Website (PDF)