IGF 2011, a busy week in Nairobi

It’s been a busy couple days with the IGF meeting in Nairobi. I sat on 2 panels, one on cloud computing and how it relates to emerging markets, and another on privacy and security in an open data, realtime, networked world. Both extremely interesting, where I had to put my iHub and Ushahidi hats on to answer questions.

We also had some fascinating guests, including Vint Cerf (Google), Richard Allan (Facebook) and the VP of the EU.

VP of the European Union

It started off with helicopters and bodyguards as the European Union Vice President, Neelie Kroes, visited, speaking with a number of startups operating out of the iHub and the m:lab. We made the case for the open web and the light touch that the Kenyan government has had in regulation and why that has allowed innovation to flourish here.

Neelie Kroes, VP of the European Union, visits the iHub in Nairobi

Facebook

Richard Allan is in charge of policy for Facebook in Africa, the Middle East and Europe (I put them in that order on purpose AMEE sounds better than EMEA, after all.). It was especially fascinating to have someone of Richard’s calibre within Facebook visiting so shortly after the big changes that the social network has had in the last week.

Richard Allan, in charge of Africa, Middle East and Europe for Facebook visits the iHub

There was a healthy discussion around privacy, the new HTML5 “Spartan” push at Facebook, and thoughts around how local devs could take advantage of the Facebook platform to make apps and money. He also mentioned that any dev could go to their jobs area and start testing to see if they’re good enough to make the team.

Vint Cerf (Google)

Yesterday Vint Cerf, one of the founding father’s of the internet and a VP at Google, spent the whole afternoon with a room full of us at the iHub. Besides the surreal stories he told of getting the this whole internet thing going, he also provided some much needed context into why things work like they do now and where we might be going with the internet in the future (the answer to that, apparently, is space).

Vint Cerf, Google VP and a founder of the internet, visits the iHub

A big thanks to all of the community members who came and spent time with the guests, sharing their insights into the local startup and programming space. A big thank you to the VIPs for coming, and we hope to see them again.

Facebook Zero: A Paradigm Shift

Just a week ago I was in Cape Town talking about how entrepreneurs in Africa are looking at the prepaid mobile phone market and are trying to solve for the cost structures for data provided by the mobile carriers. Who knew that internet giant Facebook would beat them to it?

Facebook ZeroThis week Facebook launched 0.facebook.com, where they worked out deals with 50 mobile operators in 45 countries to either zero-rate data costs coming to that URL, or paying that data cost themselves. This means that anyone, even those with no airtime on their mobile phone, can still take part in Facebook.

“Thanks to the help of mobile operators we collaborated with, people can access 0.facebook.com without any data charges. Using 0.facebook.com is completely free. People will only pay for data charges when they view photos or when they leave 0.facebook.com to browse other mobile sites. When they click to view a photo or browse another mobile site a notification page will appear to confirm that they will be charged if they want to leave 0.facebook.com”

Interestingly enough, 5 of the 6 largest Facebook using countries in Africa do not have access to this service yet: Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Ghana and Kenya.

Top Facebook Countries in Africa

Facebook Zero is launching in these countries

Why this matters

What has happened is that Facebook, even with all of their problems and questionable ethical moves on privacy issues, still have a great strategist with a global perspective in their midst. What they have realized is that the only way to increase penetration in the developing world is to cover the data costs for their users (or, if lucky, snooker a mobile operator into not charging them for it).

I pay for someone to visit this blog. I pay my web hosting fees and that means that you can visit it for free. Almost. Unless you’re on a free WiFi service you still have to pay your ISP to connect to the internet. This is akin to me paying off your ISP for when you visit my website.

It’s a big deal, and I think we’ll see a lot more of this happening. It raises the bar for everyone else. If you want to play in this league, you now need to pay off the mobile operator for the traffic that goes your way. Meanwhile the mobile operators laugh all the way to the bank – it’s a huge win for them, and a big score for mobile web consumers in the developing world.

Obama’s New Media Strategies for Ghana

A couple weeks ago I had a discussion with President Obama’s New Media team, where we talked about what they might do to reach out to ordinary Ghanaians on his trip next week – which will culminate in his speech in Accra on July 11th. There is a lot of excitement in Africa around Obama, and this trip is going to set the continent humming.

Obama in Ghana - 2009

WhiteHouse.gov/Ghana isn’t live yet, but on July 11th, it will become available. They are going to stream the talk at whitehouse.gov/live.

It’s a fairly interesting initiative to undertake, with a slew of problems, as you try to engage with as many individuals in an open travel campaign as possible. At the same time, you know that any channel you open up will get absolutely flooded with incoming comments, questions and spam of every sort. In the end, the team decided that Radio, SMS, then Facebook would be the primary new media access points – and in that order.

Radio, SMS and Facebook

Radio is still the number one communications medium across Africa, and Ghana has a particularly vibrant and active one with a lot of local and national community interaction.

As everyone knows, mobile phone penetration has grown at an explosive rate in Africa, this means that SMS is a fairly democratic means for getting feedback from people of every demographic across the nation. (Funnily enough, not available to US-based residents – more below on that)

Lastly, there are no major homegrown web-based social networks in Ghana, and like many other countries across Africa Facebook has a decent amount of penetration. In Ghana, it’s at 100,000+, so it makes the most sense for the new media team to engage and interact without splitting their energy over too many services. Having Twitter on as a backup is natural, as there will be a great deal of chatter there as well.

The details (from the White House)

SMS. We’re launching an SMS platform to allow citizens to submit questions, comments and words of welcome (in English and in French) . Using a local SMS short code in Ghana (1731) , Nigeria (32969) , South Africa (31958) and Kenya (5683), as well as a long code across the rest of the world*, Africans and citizens worldwide will be encouraged to text their messages to the President. SMS participants will also be able to subscribe to speech highlights in English and French. Long numbers for mobile registration pan-Africa: 61418601934 and 45609910343.

This SMS platform is not available to US participants due to the Smith Mundt Act (The act also prohibits domestic distribution of information intended for foreign audiences).

Radio. A live audio stream of the President’s speech will be pushed to national and local radio stations during the speech. After the speech, a taped audio recording of the President’s answers to the SMS messages received will be made available to radio stations and websites. The President hopes to answer a variety of questions and comments by topic and region. The audio recording will also be made available for download on White House website and iTunes.

Video. The speech will be livestreamed at www.whitehouse.gov/live. The embed code for this video is available so you may also host the livestream on any Website.

Online chat. We will host a live web chat around the speech on Facebook (it will be at http://apps.facebook.com/whitehouselive). The White House will also create a Facebook “event” around the speech wherein participants from around the world can engage with one another. A Twitter hashtag (i.e. #obamaghana) will also be created and promoted to consolidate input and reaction around the event.

Obama talks about his upcoming trip

Part 1

Part 2

Location, Mobiles and Social Networks

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

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

Enter Google Latitude

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

Google Latitude Screenshot

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

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

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

The competition

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

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

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

Nokia Ovi

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

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

10 Great Reads Around Africa

Nigerian Banking Survey

Jeremy has a quick rundown of some numbers, such as:

“53% of Nigerian adults have access to a mobile phone, yet 74% of the adult population has never been banked”

(Full report: 7.3Mb PDF)

Vodacom South Africa’s Mobikasi

Vincent breaks out with his first new tech release since moving to Vodacom, it’s a location-based mobile phone accessible documentary on Soweto in South Africa.

“The location-based documentary looks at people, music, fashion, social issues and places of interest. Instead of showing the twenty-five minute documentary in a linear fashion from start to finish, Mobikasi splits the content up into twenty-five inserts of one minute each.”

Nominating Peace Heroes in Kenya

Unsung Peace Heroes in Kenya

The Ushahidi Engine is being used to run a new non-disaster related site called Peace Heroes, which hopes to highlight ordinary Kenyans who did extraordinary things to promote peace during and after the post-election crisis earlier this year.

Thoughts on a web cloud for Africa

“While all the pieces had been floating around in my head for a while I am just now understanding that we really need to drag very little out to Africa for them to have incredibly powerful technology in the palm of their hand (and that such thinking is inherently poisonous) and that we are better off attempting to facilitate the connection of their handsets to The Cloud in order to assist with effecting positive social change.”

O3b’s first internet package

The O3b Network is offering it’s first bundle. “Quick Start Africa” is a, Carrier Managed Service designed for Telcos and ISPs on the African continent who need a high capacity, ultra low latency, carrier class IP trunking solution.

“Life is Hard”

Niti Bhan talked about this at the Better World by Design conference. Breaking down why life is so difficult for the poorest people in the world and what can be done when trying to address these issues.

Facebook Garage in Uganda

Jon Gosier of Appfrica.net is heading up a Facebook Garage in Kampala on December 13. It’s a great chance for programmers to get out and get comfortable with the Facebook platform, and also to meet some of the devs. Get more info at the Facebook event page, and the Appfrica wiki.

Mobile finance – indigenous, ingenious, or both?

A must-read post by Ken Banks. “It’s not that people don’t understand banking concepts, it’s just that for them things go by a different name.”

A GPS in every SIM card

Talk about a game changer:

“…a highly accurate GPS receiver and an antenna into the SIM card, enabling network providers to deploy both legally-mandated and commercial applications for all mobile phones, with no need for software or hardware changes.”

Uganda-Congo border images


Congo-Uganda border picture by Glenna Gordon

Glenna Gordon writes a blog out of Uganda called Scarlett Lion, besides great insights, she also has some of the most amazing photography I’ve seen from there in a while. Check out here professional website to see more.