Phone and Internet Mesh for African Villages

In the words of Steve Song, Village Telco is “an easy-to-use, scalable, standards-based, wireless, local, do-it-yourself, telephone company toolkit”. He’s just put out a new video making it very clear just how useful this system is.

The team over at Blinktower has done an exceptional job of creating a short, concise and eminently understandable video of what Village Telco is.

The Village

Often, we get caught up in our high tech wizardry and get overly excited about the newest Android app or the best new web app built in African Megalopolis #5. And by “we”, I mean “I”, since I too am a tech guy who is endlessly intrigued by the latest, newest and shiniest.

What we forget is the village. “Up country”. What happens when we get comments like this last week from the new CEO of Safaricom, Bob Collymore, threatening to do away with their rural network:

We’re OK with losing market share (faced with unrealistically low rates) and focusing on Nairobi and high-income communities. The people in remote districts are receiving calls (more than making them). If rates decline, why should I continue to do that?”

Some rural communities have never had connectivity of any kind, voice or data. Others have it now, but could lose it if their revenues don’t prove to be high enough for big operators. Who is going to fill that niche?

I think the answer lies in technology like Village Telco. It’s a business, not an aid program. Where an entrepreneur can get a link to the network started (or not), and then mesh out from there to the whole community. People pay for access, and profits can be made.

For the last few years, a dedicated team of enthusiasts have been building the initial hardware and software. Both of which are open source. It’s a low-cost way to get into the telco business. Here’s to hoping that more entrepreneurs take a serious look at rural connectivity.

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)

IntraHealth and Open Source in Africa

A couple weeks ago I was approached to be a part of the IntraHealth Open Council, representing Ushahidi. The IntraHealth Open campaign is about driving open source technology into the health sector across Africa. I’ll be the first to say that I know little about the healthcare sector, however I’m a part of, and a big proponent of, using open source technology where it makes sense in Africa. Having no idea of who, or what this initiative was, I asked for more information and after a discussion with one of the initiators (Heather LaGarde) I decided to join.

“Another important barrier to the rapid implementation and sustainable use of eHealth solutions in developing countries is the recurring, and often costly, licensing and upgrading fees of proprietary software. Open source systems, based on licenses that ensure users’ freedom, no recurring fees, and that work with the principles of sharing and collaboration, offer the promise of filling this gap.”

What Heather and the team have done is create a campaign that brings in some big name recording artists, like Youssou N’Dour and Peter Buck of R.E.M. Beyond the big names and the campaign as a whole, I think what’s important is that it brings a whole new level of attention, from a much more consumer-side sector, to the need for using open source software in Africa.

Examples of open source in African healthcare solutions:

  • OpenMRS, a community-developed medical records system
  • Baobab – Open source hardware and software for clinics
  • IntraHealth’s iHRIS human resource information system
  • OpenELIS laboratory/diagnostics information system
  • OpenROSA mobile data-collection toolset

OPEN Remix

Youssou’s song, “Wake Up” is available on the EP, but he’s also put it out there under a open-source license. You can download the remixes – or make your own remix – and make a donation.

Personally, I hope they make money, but that’s not really the big deal. More important is the awareness raised for open source initiatives, even beyond healthcare, in Africa.

Negroponte on the New (lowercase): olpc

Nicholas Negroponte comes up on stage at TED and tells us that, due to the OLPC, there’s a whole new product line: Netbooks. However, they copied all the wrong things. Next thing you know there are a couple being thrown around the stage, and he’s asking us how well a netbook would stand up to that, or being submerged in water, or being sent to Africa…

My question is about how well an OLPC works when you just open it up…? :)

“Commercial markets will do anything they can to stop you, even when you’re non-profit, even if you’re a humanitarian organization.”

Now we want to build something that everybody copies. Go from the OLPC to the olpc (lowercase). That’s what’s going to happen over the next 3 years. Open source hardware: where you publish all the specs and all the designs so that anyone can copy it.

In a side conversation with Ethan Zuckerman here, this is what they should have done 3 years ago, and it would have saved them a lot of heartache.

Cameron Sinclair adds via Twitter, “OLPC to be open sourced. email nn@MIT.edu with ideas about olpc. I suggest adding SketchUp and making it o.l.p.innovator”

No Connectivity, No Phone, No Electricty, No Problem

solarnetoneNext time I’m in Orlando, I’m going to see Scott Johnson. He lives about an hour away in Daytona Beach and has developed a solar-powered Internet “hub” system (running Ubuntu GNU/Linux) that he builds to order. In the video below, he talks about the what, why and how of his system. Incredible work, and well worth watching.



GNUveau Networks builds solar-powered computer networks for remote villages from roblimo on Vimeo.


SolarNetOne

His objective is to bring computers and the Internet to places that have no connectivity, no phone service, and no electricity.

On the wiki, I was able to see that there is a SolarNetOne installation running in Katsina State University, Nigeria right now, providing wireless connectivity and “Internet Cafe” access to hundreds of people. Scott also tells me that they’re in Tunisia and Benin as well, with more requests coming all the time.

Find out more on his website at GNUveau Networks.

(h/t Christian Ledermann)
(thanks to Roblimo for getting me better embed code for the video)

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)

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