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.

The Blackboard Blogger of Monrovia

Alfred Sirleaf is an analog blogger. He take runs the “Daily News”, a news hut by the side of a major road in the middle of Monrovia. He started it a number of years ago, stating that he wanted to get news into the hands of those who couldn’t afford newspapers, in the language that they could understand.

Liberias Blackboard Blogger

Alfred serves as a reminder to the rest of us, that simple is often better, just because it works. The lack of electricity never throws him off. The lack of funding means he’s creative in ways that he recruits people from around the city and country to report news to him. He uses his cell phone as the major point of connection between him and the 10,000 (he says) that read his blackboard daily.


Liberia’s Blackboard Blogger from WhiteAfrican on Vimeo.

Not all Liberians who read his news are literate, so he makes use of symbols. Whether it’s a UN or military helmet, a poster of a soccer player or a bottle of colored water to denote gas prices, he is determined to get the message out in any way that he can.

Liberia - Daily News props

Advertising works here too. It’s $5 to be on the bottom level, $10 to be on the sideboard and $25 on the main section. He doesn’t get a lot of advertising, and but he manages to scrape by.

His plans for the future include decentralizing his work, this means opening up identical locations in other parts of Monrovia, and in a few of the larger cities around the country. I don’t put it past Alfred either, he’s a scrappy entrepreneur on a mission to bring information and news to ordinary Liberians. He’s succeeded thus far, and I would put my money on him growing it even further.

Alfred Sirleaf talking to a news reader

(Also, read the NYT piece on him from 3 years ago)

(note: title for this post stolen shamelessly from Rebecca’s Pocket)

Rural Community Radio in Africa

DSC_0265 Tuareg radio deejay

It’s not true if the radio doesn’t say it.

That was a reply from a rural Liberian farmer to Malcolm Joseph, the managing director of the Center for Media Studies in Liberia. He shared that with me as I discussed the way communication has happened between the media and the public here over the past few years. It’s an interesting challenge, trying to marry up communication channels and technology mediums to be as effective as you can be across a varied and spread out demographic.

Radio is important. It’s still the main way that rural groups get their news. Newspaper circulation drops drastically outside of the cities. While many countries have at least a couple of radio stations of national reach, you still find a number of smaller radio stations that work within districts, down to the the real rural community radio stations that operate with a 5-10 kilometer radius.

The question we have to ask ourselves is, how do we connect better through this medium? It’s not good enough to just say that, “mobile phone coverage is good enough”. Even though the mobile coverage might be good, the credibility and community-inclusiveness of even a small radio station means that it cannot be ignored when trying to reach ordinary Africans. Add in illiteracy rates, which are typically higher in rural areas, and it becomes even more important.

Not ever web or mobile service needs to consider this, but we all need to think better on how to integrate radio into the mobile and web world in Africa. This isn’t just a post for aid and development groups either, it’s for people who want to create digital services that reach beyond African urban settings.

More thoughts and resources:

30 Great African Tech Blogs

A conversation on Twitter with Marshall Kirkpatrick of RWW about the top tech blogs to read in Africa made me realize that there is no great list to start from. Most of us just have them in our head, RSS feeds or blogrolls. Some of them don’t update frequently enough, and many of the range across topics, but all of them are useful if you are trying to figure out what is going on in technology around Africa.

Here is a list of African tech blogs that I follow. Hopefully it can be a resource, and a good place for everyone to start from when exploring the mobile, web and general tech space in Africa:

General Web and African Tech

AfriGadget – Stories of low-tech African ingenuity and innovation
Afromusing – Juliana’s insights and thoughts on alternative energy in Africa
Appfrica – Pan-African and Ugandan web and mobile tech developments
Bandwidth Blog – Charl Norman’s blog in South Africa
Bankelele – One of East Africa’s top business bloggers, also has great insights into the business side of African technology
Build Africa – Matt’s musings on technology in Africa
Charl van Niekerk – Always insightful post from one of South Africa’s great coders
Coda.co.za – One of Africa’s very best web designers
Dewberry – Shaun’s frenetic blog on general, and South African tech
My Hearts in Accra – More of generalist these days, but excellent analysis of African tech space by Ethan Zuckerman
Henry Addo – A perspective on tech from Henry in Ghana
Geek Rebel – Henk’s blog on entrepreneurship and technology
Matthew Buckland – From one of the pioneers, and big thinkers, in the South African media space
Mike Stopforth – Entrepreneur and South African social media nexus point
Nubian Cheetah – Thoughts and news on West African tech
Oluniyi David Ajao – Web coverage from Ghana
Open Source Africa – Just what the name describes… talking about open source development in Africa
Paul in Sierra Leone – hardware tech news from a very hard place to get news/info from
Startup Africa – Tracking mostly South African web startups
Startups Nigeria – Just what the title says
Stii – One of my favorite true coder blogs out of South Africa
Timbuktu Chronicles – A must-read covering pan-African technology, from web to mobile to hardware
Bits/Bytes – Coding thoughts by the unique and always hilarious “M” from Thinker’s Room.
Vincent Maher – Vincent’s excellent, fun and controversial blog on all things South African tech
Web Addict(s) – From the mind of Rafiq, opinionated coverage and thoughts on South African tech

African Mobile-focused Blogs

Epic Mobile – mobile phone tips and tricks from South Africa
Jopsa.org – (aka Mobiles in Malawi), thoughts by Josh Nesbit in Malawi
Kiwanja – Ken Banks on mobile usage and his FrontlineSMS app, much of it in Africa
Mobile Africa – A great resource for mobile news across Africa
Mobility Nigeria – track what’s happening in the Nigerian mobile phone space
Fring – the only tool/app on this list

5 Non-blog Tech Sites and Tools for Africa

Afrigator – the defacto blog tracking tool for African blogs
Amatomu – the South African blogosphere tracker
Mobile Active – Katrin does a good job of finding reports and stories about mobiles in Africa
Muti – mostly South African tech news and gossip, a reddit/digg for interesting African news/blog links
Videoreporter.nl – Ruud’s videos consistently have great tech stories
Akouaba – A French language blog tracker for West Africa

The, “If I missed it”…

I likely missed many blogs that should be on this list. Please add them to the comments below. I know I’ve missed quite a few Francophone and Arabic ones, so PLEASE add those especially.

Additions (aka, ones I missed):

Many Possibilities – Steve Song on open source in Africa
Africa 2.0 – A French language blog talking about all things new media in Africa
Subsaharska – Miquel, building a blogging tool for Africa (Maneno)
Arthur Devriendt – French blog on web tech in Africa

ZuQka: Social Networking and News in Kenya

zuQka in the newspaper

My first day back in Nairobi after a couple months, and I see some new website being heavily promoted in my Daily Nation newspaper. In fact, it’s got a full 16-page mini newspaper all about it. It’s called zuQka, and it tells me that I’ll “be famous” if only I register. I pop over to the site, but I’ve got 1hr 15min 11sec before it goes live.

Wondering what this is all about, I start to dig around trying to find out who is behind it. Low and behold, after a quick Whois search, I find out it’s none other than Kahenya Kamunyu. A local tech VC and entrepreneur, head of Virn.net and who I interviewed at Barcamp Nairobi this summer. He’s an outspoken advocate for African-born and built technology developments, and it looks like he’s putting his money where his mouth is. Now I know what he’s been hinting at on Twitter for the past couple weeks…

So, what is zuQka?

From what I can tell, it’s a portal site for weekend entertainment around Nairobi, but with a social networking component as well (video, audio and blogs). It’s a cross-medium service too, marrying newspaper with the web. Honestly, I learned more in those 16 pages about stars like Angela Angwenyi, Amani and Daniel Ndambuki than I would have thought. Besides entertainment stars, it has coverage of auto, gadgets, pubs and the weekend calendar.

I kind of wonder what I’ll find once the site opens up. I also wonder what Kahenya has to say about it…

[Update: I was able to talk to Kahenya and they’ve had some server issues, making the launch a little sketchy. Like any new big website, this is understandable, check back in 2 weeks would be my suggestion.]

Site is live

(as you might be able to tell, I’m blogging this in a stream over a couple hours).

I haven’t been able to get in touch with Kahenya yet, likely because he’s busy trying to get this site live and all the kinks worked out. The site is live now though, with a couple minor errors. Like any newly hatched web service, things are a little slow and since it’s a user-generated content site, there’s not much content yet. This should change with time.

The zuQka dashboard

Overall I like the dashboard. The techie in me really likes that they used the Simile timeline for the calendar, makes a lot of sense. The profile page is extensive and there seems to be a lot of options to add content on the site. My plan is to come back later when it loads faster and I can see it with more users.

What Twitter’s Global Failure Means for Africa

Biz Stone let the world know that Twitter’s SMS service is no longer active in Africa – or anywhere outside of the US, Canada and India. To most people in Africa this means absolutely nothing, as the penetration rate for the service never moved beyond the few fringe users amongst the technology elite.

Why this is Important

I’m guessing that at least half of this blog’s readers are wondering why they should even care about this news. After all, it sounds like some new trendy mobile/web app has failed to expand outside of North America – how is that news for Africa?

Twitter represents a change in communication. By acting as a global gateway for updates via SMS (or the web), that then updates all of your followers, Twitter succeeded in breaking ground in one-to-many messaging. There have been a couple times over the past year where Twitter was used in Africa to get news out that wasn’t possible in any other format.

Two examples come to mind, specifically addressing humanitarian uses; first, there’s the case of it being used in Egypt to help a jailed user, and second was when Juliana used it during the Kenyan post-election violence to update about events in Western Kenya in lieu of a blog post.

Soyapi wrote a post a couple months back talking about the potential for Twitter in Africa. In areas like Africa where mobile phone penetration far outstrips internet penetration, Twitter ends up being an incredibly good way to update friends, family – or in the case of businesses and government, the general public – about things that are happening.

“Realizing that a lot of people in the developing world have migrated from their home villages to cities both within and outside their countries and continents, they still need to some updates about the goings-on in their home towns.”

What’s Next?

In our globally connected world, if your service can’t cover the globe, then you need to open it up for communication between similar services. What we really need is a platform that allows Twitter-like applications to “talk” to each other globally. If I set up a similar platform in West Africa then there should be a way for Twitter users in the US to also accept my updates. Closed gardens in this case create single points of failure. (I’m interested in the less restrictive Identi.ca platform.)

This global contraction by Twitter creates opportunities for others. Jaiku, recently purchased by Google, now has the ability to grow deeper into other regional markets. And, if nothing else, Twitter has done us all a favor by launching a global pilot project that proves out the usefulness of this type of service. Launching country- or region-specific clones of this same type of service is now a real option.

Africa.Alltop.com – A Little Backstory

A couple weeks ago Ellen Petry Leanse and Kaushal Jhalla announced that they wanted to put on a Barcamp Africa for afrophiles living in the San Francisco area. They’re both good friends of Ushahidi and we liked the idea, so David and I jumped in where we could (David created the logo). Ellen is also happens to be very well connected in the Bay area, she used to work as an Apple evangelist back in the day alongside Guy Kawasaki, and was directly involved in the success Ribbit has seen lately.

Due to that connection with Guy Kawasaki, the next thing I knew I was being asked for a list of potential blogs and news services to be a part of a new Africa category on Alltop.com – Guy Kawasaki’s news aggregation site. Being a technology blogger first, most of my contributions were in that field. Many of them taken directly from my RSS feed reader, as there hasn’t been a blogroll here in years (due to a glitch in my sidebar that I never fixed…).

Africa.Alltop.com

Few other people I know had access to, or cared enough, about Africa to get Guy to create the new Africa.Alltop.com. However, Ellen has a strong desire to see increased innovation and change happen, and she is particularly well connected and knowledgeable in technology. Her connection to Africa was solidified as she and her son were caught in Western Kenya during the post-election violence in Kenya earlier this year (an amazing story that I hope everyone gets to read sometime). She comes directly out of Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point“, I’m just not sure which category she fits in yet.

I’ll be interested in seeing how the list on Alltop grows and morphs over time. For the time being I’ll use it as a supplement for my daily Africa news. I’m just happy that African news and bloggers are gaining additional attention outside of the traditional African blog echo chamber.

If you think there is a good pan-African blog that was missed, or just a really good African blog with a wide readership, make sure you suggest it.

Sidenote

As is increasingly true, the best place to follow each of these individuals/events is on Twitter at:

Twitter.com/chep2m – Ellen
Twitter.com/ksjhalla – Kaushal
Twitter.com/guykawasaki – Guy
Twitter.com/barcampafrica – Barcamp Africa