Twitter is Slowly Coming Back to Africa

Over 2.5 years ago Twitter shut down all operations in Africa. Back then, in August of 2008, it really didn’t matter too much as the penetration rates for the service in Africa, and most of the world, were negligible. A lot has changed since then as Twitter has become a defacto communications too, and in many ways a new communications protocol, all over the globe.

Now, they really hadn’t “shut down” as the service is accessible always via the internet. What they had shut down was text messaging – SMS, due to non-sustainable business relationships with the mobile operators in each country. Since then, the Twitter team has grown, and their ambitions beyond North America, the UK and India have increased as well.

In Africa, three countries have it working; Nigeria, Kenya and Madagascar (Note: there used to be a fourth, but Cameroon has banned mobile Twitter as they go towards elections). Just send a text message with the word “start” to the following shortcodes in each country go get started:

Nigeria: 40404 (Airtel); 20644 (Glo Mobile)
Kenya: 8988 (Safaricom); 40404 (Airtel)
Madagascar: 40404 (VIP)

The Twitter team is working on relationships for expanding SMS service throughout a lot of countries in Africa. How those deals are structured with the network operators and why they’re slow in coming online with the service isn’t yet known.

You can find out which countries do have Twitter’s mobile SMS service on this page. You can also keep up with Jessica Verilli (@Jess), in charge of Corporate Development & Strategic Initiatives at Twitter, and the one who has been the most visibly active on the continent.

In San Francisco this week

I’ve spent this week in the San Francisco bay area going to meetings, speaking and discussing everything from the iHub to Ushahidi and AfriGadget.

University Students and the Aid Industry

Last night I spoke to a group of university students for 3 hours at the University of San Francisco to Wanjiru Kamau-Rutenberg’s class on “the Politics of International Aid and Development”. My bent is towards technology and the practical applications of such in Africa. I’m no expert on international aid, but that didn’t stop us from having a lively debate on what works and doesn’t work in Africa.

My main points were centered around technology allowing people to bypass government (and other) inefficiencies in Africa – creating opportunity where none existed before. In my experience, most aid programs don’t work, in fact we’ve seen more good come out of the mobile phone industry’s foray into Africa over the last 10 years than we’ve seen in the past 50 years of aid work.

Some questions that arose during the conversation, each of which we could have spent a day unpacking and dissecting in detail:

  • Can wealth generation alleviate the ills of Africa?
  • Is corruption trickle up or trickle down?
  • Should corruption just be seen as a “cost of doing business”?
  • What’s the most compelling innovation that you’ve seen come out of Africa?
  • Is there such a thing as “good aid”?

Google

This morning I spent some time with the Google.org and the Google crisis mapping team discussing ideas and thoughts about what we all did in the digital space around Haiti. More importantly we asked the question, “what are we going to do the next time a huge global disaster strikes?”

That’s an important question because we need to ensure that we’re further along next time. That, the next time disaster strikes we’re ready with a toolkit of useful applications and platforms that can all be deployed within just a few short hours.

One of the cool things to see was the Google street mapping vehicles parked in a row.

Citizen Space

There are more and more co-working spaces showing up all over the world, including our own iHub in Nairobi. However, one of the early pioneers in this was Citizen Space started by Chris Messina and Tara Hunt. My main purpose visiting was to see how it’s setup and how it has changed since I last visited a couple years ago.

My takeaways: big open space, desks and cool eclectic design. Rent desk space and have a cool vibe about it. I’m sure there’s more than this, but it’s what struck me during my short visit.

Twitter

Most of the afternoon was spent at Twitter where I gave a lunchtime presentation. Ryan Sarver, head of platforms and the API, asked me to do more general talk on innovation in Africa starting with AfriGadget. Having a good 50-60 Twitter employees listening in on AfriGadget, then a talk on mobile phones in Africa, and finishing with the Ushahidi usage in Haiti was interesting to say the least.

The questions asked made me realize that there’s a good opportunity for top-end Twitter employees (and likely other high-level techies from Silicon Valley) to stretch themselves a little bit, head out to Africa and really see what’s going on. They would probably get some ideas that caused them to be a little more creative back in the US.

A longer discussion was had with the leads for the Geo/Mapping team and the Internationalization team. More refreshing than anything else was realizing how open they were to outside ideas and how willing they were to listen. Twitter is doing a lot of things to make sure that their platform is more accessible all over the world, and I think we’ll see some pleasant surprises this year in Africa.

Summary

There’s obviously much more to discuss than this brief summary can do justice to, but not all of it can be put down at one time, or is even relevant at this stage in the game. What I’m excited about is the fact that more people in the Bay Area are talking about relevant issues to African technologists and that there are opportunities for the two groups to start interacting in ways that haven’t been that common in the past. There’s room for both sides to learn from the other.

Tags, Time and Location

On Friday I had a long conversation with Noam Cohen from the New York Times about Ushahidi and Twitter. He was doing some homework for an article he was writing on the increased value that geolocation data can add to the massive streams of data coming out of tools like Twitter, called “Refining the Twitter Explosion with GPS“.

A lot of our discussion was centered around location, especially since he was thinking of the Ft. Hood shootings and the value of location in determining useful information from the Twitter stream during that crisis. This is what we’ve built Ushahidi around of course, the idea that location and even small bits of information give us a better understanding of an unfolding crisis. This is just as true of mundane information, or trending topics in a locale, which is why Twitter is building a new geo infrastructure. It couldn’t be in better hands either, with both Ryan Sarver and Schuyler Erle on the team, what Twitter puts out will be top notch.

What was more interesting than just geographical references for information was the combination of two other big ways to parse this data: Time an Tags. We’ve started to see a lot more apps mixing time and location in the past year or two, and we’ll see more as the visualizations for it improve. Categorizing information, pictures and video by keywords (tags) have been around even longer.

TwitterThoughts

We need to see more combinations of tags, time and location in visualizations and platforms. I can’t think of anyone who does all three really well (if you can, please leave the link), though there are a number who do two of them incredibly well – including Flickr’s geocoding of images (tag + location), TwitterThoughts (tag + time) and TwitterVision (time + location), etc.

We have a widening stream of information. The lowered barriers for entry globally, and the encouragement by social tools, means we’re seeing exponential growth rates. Twitter alone saw an increase from 2.4 to 26 million tweets per day in just the last 8 months. We need some way to make sense of this information. Our ability to create information has far surpassed our ability to understand it in a timely manner.

Chris Blow outlined this best with a visual for Swift River for use in a presentation I did at TED this year:

information produced vs information processed

It’s a serious problem and one that only gets deeper with every month that passes. In most areas, it’s not a big deal, but when a crisis, emergency or disaster hits the misinformation and lack of understanding has very real consequences.

I’d love to see more work being done with all three: Time, Tags and Location.

An African Tech List on Twitter

A lot of people are on Twitter these days. So many, it seems that you can be overwhelmed by the number of people and it’s hard to find the right people to follow. To help with that, I’ve created a my own Twitter list that follows African Tech twitterers.

My plan is to keep this list pared down to only those who put out a good number of tweets regarding technology in Africa. I’ll be the biased curator, and hopefully it’ll be useful to others. This means that people will get dropped, and others added, from time-to-time. Don’t be offended if you’re not on it, it’s not personal, it’s just that I have to keep it small to be useful to others. Ping me if you think I should add someone.

You can get my curated African Tech Twitter list at http://twitter.com/whiteafrican/african-tech.

Here’s a widget with the list in it. You can get your own here, just enter “whiteafrican” and choose the “African Tech” list.

Other great Twitter lists:

Afritwit’s list of African twitterers (maxed out)
Alisdair’s development list
Sciculturalist’s Techies list
A list of Twitter employees
Tim O’Reilly’s Tech News list

Lastly, Listourious has a huge index of Twitter lists for you to peruse.

(You can always find me on Twitter at @WhiteAfrican)

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

NaijaPulse: Microblogging in Nigeria

I was pleased to find out about a NaijaPulse yesterday, through Loy Okezie at Startup Africa. It’s a new microblogging platform, like Twitter, except made to operate in Nigeria (Twitter used to be global, but shut that down to just the US, Canada and India last summer). Everyone is tied to a 140-character update limit, and as Twitter is showing, that is plenty.

NaijaPulse - Microblogging for Nigeria

I really like what NaijaPulse has done with connecting the service to Facebook and Twitter. That way users of the service don’t need to duplicate their entries in both systems. They’ve also created a group feature and support the OpenMicroBlogging protocol that let’s their service share with others easily.

Growing Africa’s federated microblogging network

NaijaPulse represents a significant step forward on the African continent: utilizing the web + mobile phone to provide communication services that can ultimately be built on top of. I know of one other project going on to do the same thing in another African country. My hope is that we see this implementation of federated systems continue to proliferate around the continent. Where we can find localized versions for every country, but that also allow you to connect to a broader network if you so choose.

From the founder:

“The idea of NaijaPulse is that instead of we Africans or Nigerians getting lost in Twitter, we can use NaijaPulse where we get to meet more people from the same background, country or even streets, in doing this we get more fun from this service because our stories will be more familiar and similar and our community will be more fun. But even so, we can still even sync to both Twitter and Facebook from NaijaPulse – its a win and win situation.”

This idea of a local microblogging platforms for each country/region is where I differ on opinion from Loy. I don’t think that NaijaPulse should try to go for an Africa-wide platform. Instead, they should focus on Nigeria and getting ordinary, non-tech people using their platform. Then, as other sites like this come online around the continent, they should link up and make sure their services are compatible (which should be the case, since they’ll all likely use Laconica).

The SMS problem

Currently, NaijaPulse does not truly support SMS functionality. Instead they use your carrier’s email gateway to send and receive messages. This is a problem, as it hamstrings the future growth of a “general user” consumer base that have only basic SMS-enabled phones, and no data plans, in Nigeria. The reason why is simple, it costs to send SMS messages (not receive). If you have a person that sends out an update, and they have 100 people receiving that update via SMS then it gets expensive. Who carries that cost?

There area two possible outcomes. First, that NaijaPulse figures out a business model that allows for them to cover the cost for their service (most likely it would include subscription model and/or advertising). Second, if they can draw enough of a following, they might be able to go the way of Mxit in South Africa. Their Java-based app sits on the phone, and so a lot of people have found a way to upgrade their phones and get a data plan.

What’s next?

I think we’ll start to see new microblogging services showing up in the “hot spots” of African digerati around the continent. Nigeria was an obvious first choice, followed by the South Africans, Ghana and someone in East Africa (Uganda).

Whoever does figure out a model that works in Africa could be sitting on a gold mine of users. If there was ever a simple communication service that can work well in almost every part of Africa, this could be it.

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.

Microblogging, Location and Emergencies

I’ve been using Twitter for a while now, and have thought quite a bit about it in Africa. More, I’ve thought about what the ramifications of Twitter pulling out of the global market means, and then thought quite a bit about Jaiku, Laconica and Mxit and various other chat/microblogging applications. There is, without a doubt, a move towards short-form updating via mobile and web, and it needs to be federated.

There’s something missing in this new mobile + web microblogging movement, and I think it’s location.

Thoughts on location and microblogging...

Why Location Matters

Most of us use these services for updating, and being updated, by our friends and interesting people. That’s the main use, and it will remain so. The truth is, you and I don’t really care to hear what any random stranger is doing, even if they are nearby. However, we do care what is happening on a very hyper-local level in the case of emergency or “big event”.

It’s somewhat like the “pothole theory” that I talked about earlier: you wouldn’t normally care about the pothole on a steet, unless it’s yours. It helps explain why we care about certain things.

If you use Twitter and have an iPhone, you’ll probably be aware of Twinkle – it’s an application that enriches your Twitter experience. In Twinkle, you can set your location and then a certain radius from which to receive twitter updates, even if they’re from perfect strangers. I think that’s the beginning of what we’re talking about.

However, again… I don’t want to just get updates from random strangers in my locale. I want to only receive the ones that are “important” to me. I want to be notified when there is an emergency, major traffic jam or something else pertinent to me.

The “What if…”

What if we created a way that a greater federated system of microblogging applications could also use location as an alert point?

Of course, my current world is colored by Ushahidi, crisis and emergency news coverage. I think of the ability to anonymously send in reports to a system like Ushahidi running in any country, and those who are part of this greater, extended and federated network would be updated – even if that person was unknown and anonymous.

Federated Microblogging, SMS and Location

Here’s a use case:

John is a Twitter user in Accra, Ghana. Anne has setup a local Laconica server with 5000 users in the greater Accra area. Eddie is not part of any of these networks, just an average guy with a mobile phone. Ushahidi is running in Ghana.

Users from the Laconica group can setup an “alert” for a specific radius from their location using Ushahidi, linked to their Laconica account.

An earthquake happens and Twitter and the Laconica server are ablaze with dialogue about what is happening. Eddie (our normal guy), sends an alert into the Ushahidi number, along with hundreds of other Ghanians who are not part of Laconica or Twitter. Anne, and the other Laconica users are receiving alerts (web and mobile) from within their set alert radius automatically, from completely anonymous people. Alerts on where people are trapped, who is missing, who is found, where not to go, and where help is needed most.

John, our Twitter user is updating Twitter, but it has no little local implications due to not being able to be used in Ghana (except via web). Local mobile users aren’t receiving his updates, and he isn’t receiving theirs.

I recognize that there are a lot of things going on in this scenario, and it’s imperfect, but it serves as a good setting to discuss some of the shortcomings of the current situation and the possible growth areas for them. It also talks to even bigger ideas and the greater impact in Africa of a real social mobile network that can connect people using only mobile phones and do it as needed.

There are some interesting things to learn and apply from location-specific alternatives to global SMS gateways (like FrontlineSMS), and I wonder where tools such as InSTEDD’s SMS GeoChat can be used here too.

More to come on “getting updates that matter” later, this is just some initial thinking on it. I’d love to hear your thoughts too.

Web and Mobile Tech Used in Election Monitoring

With the big US election cycle culminating in tomorrow’s election day there has been a lot of talk about monitoring of elections. Usually I see this type of debate taking place in other parts of the world – like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Nigeria. However, this time it’s at home, and while all the focus of the world is here, it makes an interesting time and case-study for the use of technology in monitoring of everything from election fraud, to fairness and accessibility.

This new generation of read/write technology using the web and mobile phones creates a situation where ordinary citizen have both awareness and opportunity to take part in an way that wasn’t possible in such great numbers only a few decades ago.

There are really two components; gathering information and then distributing that information in a way that is useful for two types of users. First, the general public. Second, the officials and/or media who can cause something to happen when a bad situation arises.

Our Vote Live

A list of web and mobile tools to monitor the US elections:

  • MyFairElection – Report your polling station’s
    condition on Election Day. (in partnership with ABC News)
  • TwitterVoteReport – Use twitter, SMS, audio call or an iPhone and Android applications to send in reports on Election Day. (in partnership with NPR)
  • Video Your Vote – Encourages people to video themselves voting and to upload those to YouTube. (in partnership with PBS)
  • VoterSuppression.net – A wiki where users can learn about and enter in reports of voter suppression.
  • Our Vote Live – A site documenting the voter assistance work of the Election Protection Coalition that uses a phone call-in system (866-OUR-VOTE).

(if you have more that I haven’t heard of, add the link to the comments below)

Twitter Vote Report

Cultural shifts and technology norms aren’t global

Ethan Zuckerman is wondering whether Twitter, or even mobile phones and the web, are the right tools for monitoring an election. He brings up the fact that using old-school technology like radio and TV can be even more useful in places like Ghana, and how that differs with the experience in the USA.

I think there are two things going on here.

First, the cultural use of technology is changing. We’re in that strange twilight zone between mediums where the population is split between overlapping islands of web usage, mobile phones, radio, TV and print.

Second, this cultural usage shift is compounded by having a two-tiered pattern of usage in different parts of the world. Ethan is absolutely right that one of the best tools in Africa is still the radio. However, that doesn’t translate to the US, where the country is too large for any one radio station to really hold sway. Many in the US tune into “national” radio personalities and shows, who have no “local” footprint. Calling in with your voting precinct’s flaws from Kooskia, Idaho wouldn’t make sense.

Thus the use of the internet, and mobile phone. We’re at a point where we’re trying to raise awareness, interactivity and reach. What happens when we get mass public awareness of a tool, married with an efficient and useful way to get aggregate data in local communities?

Final Thoughts

One item that isn’t up for debate is this. At this time you need to marry up the coverage and awareness power of traditional media (radio, TV and print) with the simple tools and platforms that use the web and mobile phones correctly to gather and disseminate information. What I find most encouraging is that most of the initiatives listed above are using the new tools and they are partnered with major media organizations that can muscle this out to a national audience.

(Side note: We were asked by a number of people if Ushahidi could be used for this. In short, yes – but the new alpha release of the software wasn’t ready until last week. Too late to play with here.)

Also read the PBS Mediashift article covering these services in greater depth.

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.