Archive for August, 2009

Carnival of Carnivals Aug. 31, 2009

Cirque Rider, from Rae Belkin

Carnival is the current festive term for a news roundup, particularly if it’s participatory. It’s much happier than news in brief. Here are three I enjoy.

Have a carnival or roundup you like? Add your favorites in the comments.

Carnival of the Mobilists

Writers on mobile and wireless take turns hosting Carnival of the Mobilists. This week’s (#189) is on MSearchGroove, and is heavy on market trends rather than usage scenarios. I did enjoy the host’s new podcast for the inside scoop on SpinVox. SpinVox promises to automate transcription of voice mail messages to readable text. This is understandably attractive to mobile users and venture capitalists alike. However, human transcription is still a big part of the system. If that problem remains, SpinVox is left with cheap data entry based in developing nations, an operation that doesn’t scale, and questions about financial management.

The Weekly Sift (Politics)

(OK, I know the Sift doesn’t travel or rotate authorship. But it’s still an excellent blog roundup. So I’m sneaking it in under the Carnival tent.)

I used to read a lot of US political blogs. Now I rely on The Weekly Sift. Doug Muder chooses his sources for their insight, and adds much of his own as well. Doug is a skillful explainer – he started out as a mathematician before writing computer guides, and now blogs on politics and religion. Each Sift includes two or three in-depth stories plus a collection of short notes. I’ve known Doug for years, and his calm, humane, and sometimes bemused tone shines through his clear prose.

In the Short Notes from today’s Sift:

You’d expect the people who study visualization methods to have a really kick-ass way to visualize their subject matter. They do. Move your mouse around and watch for the pop-ups.

Amidst the forests of cone trees and decision trees I encountered the hype curve.

Gartner hype cycle

Incidentally, I’ve seen that curve recently in CGAP’s article on the hype cycle in mobile banking, and I keep hearing that microfinance in general is moving through its Trough of Disillusionment phase.

Encephalon (Brain and Mind)

For neuroscience and psychology, Encephalon is your source. Edition #74 is hosted at Neuronarrative and is enlivened by Python (Monty) humor. The topics are anything but lightweight, however! Free will, emotion, and intention… criminal behavior… brain fitness software… schizophrenia…

…and a spirited defense of flowcharts!

August 31, 2009 at 6:38 pm Leave a comment

Tear down that (mobile garden) wall

Hear that rumble? It’s Wednesday’s big mobile announcement. Handset giant Nokia enters m-banking.

Nokia Money has been designed to be as simple and convenient as making a voice call or sending an SMS. It will enable consumers to send money to another person just by using the person’s mobile phone number, as well as to pay merchants for goods and services, pay their utility bills, or recharge their prepaid SIM cards (SIM top-up). The services can be accessed 24 hours a day from anywhere, meaning savings in travel costs and time. Nokia is building a wide network of Nokia Money agents, where consumers can deposit money in or withdraw cash from their accounts.

The service will be first demoed at Nokia World on the 2nd and 3rd of September 2009 in Stuttgart, Germany. It’s planned to be rolled out to selected markets beginning in early 2010. But given more than 4 billion mobile phone users and only 1.6 billion bank accounts, Nokia clearly sees enormous opportunity.

As CGAP notes, Nokia had already begun moving into services in developing countries.

This isn’t Nokia’s first move into providing content to a low-income clientele using the company’s handsets. In April, Nokia announced it completed trials of its Life Tools service. It’s icon-based, which Nokia says helps reduce language and literacy barriers. Its services are geared to farmers (customizable commodity prices, weather, seed and fertilizer availability) and students (English lessons, exam prep). It works on a new generation of handsets which Nokia has targeted at value-conscious customers who want browsing on the cheap. So far, that’s two Nokia phones running around USD 100, so there’s still a lot of distance to cover in cost and range of devices. But the idea behind Life Tools is exciting: browsing at a price affordable not to the economic elite, but hundreds of millions of more ordinary consumers.

Earlier this year Nokia invested $70 million USD in mobile payment company Obopay, which is providing the payment platform for Nokia Money. But Nokia intends the service to be open and interoperable with other payment services as well.

Ken Banks of kiwanja.net notes that this challenges the exclusivity many African m-banking operators enjoy, but may lock customers into a handset rather than a carrier.

This would be a direct challenge to many existing models which require users to switch networks, or to be on the same network as the mobile service they’re looking to use. In addition, it looks like Nokia Money users can sign-up without needing to swap out their SIM cards, making up-take of the service considerably more efficient logistically. If this thing were to grow, it could grow fast.

…As if (very) successfully designing and building low-cost handsets for emerging markets wasn’t enough, Nokia continue to increase their offering of emerging market-specific services through their low-cost phones. Last year it was agriculture and education. Today it’s financial services.

I’ve never been one for predictions, but this one has certainly come true. Again, writing last November:

“…So, what next? Nokia develop a mobile payments platform and embed the client into all of their emerging market handsets? Imagine, a single company controlling the entire mobile technology value chain would make interesting viewing. It could well be the answer to the age old fragmentation problems suffered by the ‘social mobile’ and ICT4D space, but would this give the Finnish giant Google-esque powers?”

And then there’s the cost of the voice calls or SMS messages to consider. African mobile analyst Steve Song has been fierce on this issue. Even in developed countries SMS charges are large compared to the incremental cost of providing them. But in Africa, SMS charges comprise a startling percentage of income. Poor Africans spend over 50 percent of their disposable income on communications. Why? Increasingly, you need a phone even to get a ditch-digging job.

Steve takes a critical look at Nathan Eagle’s txteagle micro-work service, in which small tasks are distributed via SMS and completed at piecework rates.

In [Nathan’s] talk he points out that the Kenyan incumbent, Safaricom, will earn a billion USD in revenue this year. Minutes later he highlights the fact that his initial attempts to establish SMS-based real time blood-bank monitoring in Mombasa failed because nurses were unwilling to pay the cost of an SMS to update the database. He says:

“… if you’re working at a local hospital, a text message is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage …”

Now put those two facts together. A billion dollars in revenue and an SMS is a substantial fraction of your day’s wage [emphasis added]. Hmmm.

Nathan had to resort to paying nurses the equivalent of three SMSes for every day they updated the blood-bank. I love the ingenious way he found to make the system work but it does highlight what a throttle to innovation the high cost of communication is.

Eventually, it may be data services to the rescue as Africa is better connected via undersea cables to broadband networks. Nokia is integrating Skype into its devices. Steve Song sorts through the issues in a series tagged WGSDIA, “What Google Should Do in Africa“; recommendations include offering web-based versions of Google’s SMS services, and lobbying for better SMS rates.

In the meantime, phone users are doing their own end run on the cost of voice calls and SMS messages. Many use:

…the practice of “beeping” or “missed calling” between mobile phone users, or calling a number and hanging up before the mobile’s owner can pick up the call. Most beeps are requests to call back immediately, but they can also send a pre-negotiated instrumental message such as “pick me up now” or a relational sign, such as “I’m thinking of you.” The practice itself is old, with roots in landline behaviors, but it has grown tremendously, particularly in the developing world.

This comes from Jonathan Donner’s delightful research article on the rules of beeping: who beeps whom, who’s expected to pay for the call back, and how not to beep too much.

August 27, 2009 at 12:58 am Leave a comment

Mozilla Service Week Sept. 14-21

Able to lend a (geeky) helping hand to your community? Or are you involved with an organization needing technical assistance? Register now for Mozilla Service Week, and let the matchmaking begin!

Spread Firefox Affiliate Button

During the week of September 14-21, 2009, we’re asking individuals to step up and make a difference by using the Web to better their community. We’re looking for people who want to share, give, engage, create, and collaborate by offering their time and talent to local organizations and people who need their help.

Mozilla believes everyone should know how to use the Internet, have easy access to it, and have a good experience when they’re online. By utilizing our community’s talents for writing, designing, programming, developing, and all-around technical know-how, we believe we can make the Web a better place for everyone.

Mozilla has a history of changing the world – and the Web – in all kinds of amazing ways. When members of our community decide to take action, they can make a serious difference:

  • Teach senior citizens how to use the Web.
  • Show a non-profit how to use social networking to grow its base of supporters.
  • Help install a wireless network at a school.
  • Create Web how-to materials for a library’s computer cluster.
  • Refurbish hardware for a local computer center.
  • Update a non-profit organization’s website.
  • Teach the values of the open Web to other public benefit organizations.

As you can see from the list above, you needn’t code or design to be of tangible help. Get someone set up on Skype or webmail. Show them how to shop online. Enable Facebook on their mobile phone. Heck, you could even start up their blog.

August 21, 2009 at 1:07 pm 1 comment

Crowdsourced election protection

In following innovative uses of SMS (text) messaging, I’ve been delving into the work of Ushahidi. The name means “testimony” in Swahili, and the platform crowdsources crisis information such as political upheavals or natural disasters. Anyone can submit updates through text messaging using a mobile phone, email or web form.

Ushahidi was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008.

In breaking news, Alive in Afghanistan is using the Ushahidi mapping system to report election irregularities.

Map of citizen-reported Afghan election irregularities

Text messages are collected via Frontline SMS, another great system which uses free open source software to turn a laptop + mobile phone into a central communications hub. Easy to set up, portable, and resilient: just what is needed in chaotic circumstances.

The next issue is what to do with the flood of information that comes in beyond a heat map of incidence reporting. What do you pull out of the SMS or Twitter stream? What’s credible? What’s important? In particular, how do you deal with the first three hours of a crisis? Ushahidi founder and TED fellow Erik Hersman is tackling that problem now.

Graph: Quantity vs. quality of hour by hour crisis reporting data

A small team at Swift River is looking to the crowd to filter data as well as generate it.

Swift … is an initiative that seeks to do two very important things, both of which are crucial for not just Ushahidi, but for many emergency response activities in the future. First, it gathers as many possible streams of data about a particular crisis event as possible. Second, using a two-part filter, that stream of data is filtered through both machine based algorithms and humans to better understand the veracity and level of importance of any piece of information. –Erik

See it in action at Vote Report India.

August 20, 2009 at 11:32 am 1 comment

Maker Faire Africa showcases ingenuity


George Odhiambo's bicycle-turned-bellows

Bicycle-turned-bellows for metal fabrication

Maker Faire Africa in Ghana just concluded, and the pictures are fabulous. Dive into the Flickr pool.

Even better, follow AfriGadget’s coverage for highlights. Local materials and resalvaged parts, plus ingenuity applied to everyday problems, yield great engineering.

  • A team from Accra Polytechnic set up a home-brew radio station, complete with antenna, which broadcast for the duration of the festival.
  • A rural Ghanaian inventor shared three devices from his smithy: a corn planter, a shea nut roaster, and a soap cutter.
  • Bicycle parts and pedal power are key to many inventions, including Tanzanian Bernard Kiwia’s hacksaw, windmill, cell phone charger, drill press and water pump.

And speaking of bicycles and windmills, young design rockstar William Kamkwamba received a warm reception. William’s now a TED Fellow whose story is captured by book and film, but here’s how he got started:

Due to severe famine in 2001, his family lacked the funds to pay the $80 in annual school fees and William was forced to drop out of school a few months into his freshman year. For five years he was unable to go to school.

Starting at 14, rather than accept his fate, William started borrowing books from a small community lending library located at his former primary school. He borrowed an 8th grade American textbook called Using Energy, which depicted wind turbines on its cover. He decided to build a windmill to power his family’s home and obviate the need for kerosene, which provided only smoky, flickering, distant and expensive light after dark. First he built a prototype using a radio motor, then his initial 5-meter windmill out of a broken bicycle, tractor fan blade, old shock absorber, and blue gum trees. After hooking the windmill to a car battery for storage, William was able to power four light bulbs and charge neighbors’ mobile phones. This system was even equipped with homemade light switches and a circuit breaker made from nails, wire, and magnets. The windmill was later extended to 12 meters to better catch the wind above the trees. A third windmill pumped grey water for irrigation. Around that time, he also built a radio transmitter using broken radio cassette players, hoping to broadcast popular music interspersed with HIV prevention messages.

Subsequent projects have included clean water, malaria prevention, solar power and lighting for the six homes in his family compound; a deep water well with a solar powered pump for clean water, a drip irrigation system, and the outfitting of the village team Wimbe United with their first ever uniforms and shoes.

Leading into Maker Faire was the month-long International Development Design Summit. This MIT-organized collaboration emphasizes the creation of workable prototypes to solve pressing problems such as cassava or groundnut processing, chlorinating water, and plastics reuse. Again, AfriGadget has an overview, and many of the prototypes showed up at Maker Faire.

Rice thresher prototype

Rice thresher

The IDDS process was highly iterative, with repeated visits to the villages to gather requirements and discuss alternatives. Niall Walsh writes of the teams’ final, nervous visits to Ghanaian villages to show off their final prototypes.

Each team set up their prototype and encouraged the villagers to come forward any attempt to use it, and the children present at the meeting certainly didn’t need to be asked twice! A scramble ensued to see who could grab the threshed groundnuts, before the kids made their way over to the Kid Friendly latrine team, to try out their prototype. The adults present were also not slow at providing feedback for the teams, and all seemed genuinely in understanding not only how the project worked, but also how it was made, which was a crucial point.

…“Actually having fifteen or so young men come up to me and ask how they could go about making some Chlorine Production prototypes of their own has had a big impact on how I view the project”.

…Sometimes incredibly simple things can often be overlooked by teams as they get caught up in the intricacies of their design. The Rice Threshing team ran onto this on their visit, with the standout comment being, “how can you make it bigger, and thresh more out of it?”. The rice team had been understandably worried about the size of their rather large machine but when looking at it from a rice farmers perspective, one can easily understand how quantity could be the major issue!

August 17, 2009 at 11:54 am Leave a comment

News In Brief, Aug. 13, 2009

This week’s research focuses on technology infrastructure for emerging markets. As usual I pick up other things along the way.

I’m keeping tabs on banking trends that go beyond microcredit to other financial services.

  • The topic got my attention at Microfinance California 2009. Slides from the panel on “Beyond Microfinance Lending: New Consumer Products” are available. Sarah Gordon of CSFI reminded us that 40 million people in the US are un- or under-banked, and that underbanked isn’t subprime (pdf). The panelists (Prosper Marketplace, Progreso Financial, Community Financial Resources, and Pacific Community Ventures) touched on debit cards, bill paying, health care reimbursement, savings, and investment services.
  • This week, the Gates Foundation announced $350M in grants for international projects to help the poor build savings. Poor rural people incur large expenses to put their money in distant banks. Or, they attempt to stockpile cash, jewelry, extra building materials and spare animals – but “stuff gets stolen, animals die,” and informal savings lose a fifth of their value. Instead, these projects will let people store and access cash deposits via their local post office, lottery outpost, or cellphone account.

And this afternoon, Thursday 8/13, I’ll be at PARC to hear Marissa Mayer speak on “Innovation at Google: The Physics of Data.

Technologies for sensing, storing, and sharing information are driving innovation in the tools available to help us understand our world in greater detail and accuracy than ever before. The implications of analyzing data on a massive scale transcend the tech industry, impacting the environmental sector, social justice issues, health and science research, and more. When coupled with astute technical insight, data is dynamic, accessible, and ultimately, creative.

August 13, 2009 at 11:56 am Leave a comment

Today’s flair is No on IE6

I get as annoyed as anyone with Internet Explorer 6’s awkward rendering of websites. Been struggling with it here, actually. Mashable has an overview of current IE6 woes and the looming disaster that is the collision between IE6 and HTML5.

So I happily blazoned my Twitter avatar with an IE6 Must Die Twibbon.

twitternoie6icon

Many other decorative badges are available for whatever cause you may support.

August 7, 2009 at 11:05 am Leave a comment

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