Posts tagged ‘Africa’

SwiftRiver sorts realtime social media streams

We are drowning in information, while starving for wisdom. The world henceforth will be run by synthesizers, people able to put together the right information at the right time, think critically about it and make important choices wisely.

E.O. Wilson, Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge

How can we evaluate citizen media for breaking news? Hurricanes? Earthquakes? Contested elections? Crowdsourced crisis information produces a flood of data. Individuals send emails, write blog posts, text friends, post to Twitter. Popular tweets are echoed and amplified. Eyewitness reports may be reliable, or mistaken – or planted disinformation.

SwiftRiver, an initiative of the Ushahidi project, aims to help humans aggregate and evaluate streams of social media. SwiftRiver is an open source platform for managing realtime data streams. Its services can be combined in different ways to serve the needs of crisis responders, journalists, and so on.

The first such app is Sweeper (now in beta), which intelligently filters data feeds for volunteers who then validate and geolocate the information.

Jon Goslin, TED Fellow and SwiftRiver director, talks about the five services underlying the apps.

  • Natural language processing to extract meaning.
  • Location context: considering how local the source is to reported events.
  • Reducing duplicates, especially those from Twitter.
  • Accounting for popularity separately from accuracy.
  • Reputation management: authority accruing to those for those who have a history of valued posts.
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August 31, 2010 at 3:45 pm Leave a comment

ICT4D Twitter Chat, November

Wayan Vota at ICTWorks convened a lively chat today on information & communication technologies for development – or ICT4D. Expect to see another chat in December.

The hour flew by! After introductions we highlighted projects we admire, projects that have failed, and the problems with cloud computing in developing nations. (On that last point, I note that you can’t even get reliable access to the cloud in the US, depending on which smartphone you’re carrying or which highly-attended tech event you’re at.)

From the chatlog archive, here are some favorites:

The barrier is the carrier. (@jongos)

…we think lots of sun with intermittent rain then! offline needs to work seamlessly with infrequent on-line? (@meowtree)

My thoughts on cloud4d lately have steered toward a highly local, in-country cloud. Reliance on undersea cables too risky. (@downeym)

Donor agencies sobering up after being drunk on internet. (@travis_a)

…second hand, inexpensive, locally sourced equipment > new and shiney equipment that fails in dust and heat (@theresac)

Seems people still thinking, develop in West and take it to Africa who lags. Need to develop in Africa within resource & context (@africastrategy)

Technology is easy. Issues around geography, language, culture, true empowerment and paths to adoption are challenges. (@kiwanja)

Other discussion:

If you have a project that does originate in a developed country, how do you bridge the gap to the developing country? Several people pointed to stories of close on-site collaboration, even co-design, with local experts and users. Remote mentoring, say in the style of MicroMentor, is an additional tool.

How are people attracted to a new service, and what keeps them there? Agriculture, health, and education applications get the press – but it’s music, social media, sports, entertainment, and (yes) porn that have driven adoption in developing and developed nations. In terms of infrastructure, there was also criticism of mobile ICT buses (in India and Rwanda) as less effective, compared to stable ICT centers that become a predictable fixture in a community.

There are two more leads I’ll be watching. First, Cyclos, which provides free and open source banking and mobile payment tools. Second, Question Box, a project creating local information kiosks via mobile networks, has also gone open source.

Update: Take a look at Movirtu, a very smart mobile phone-sharing infrastructure for people earning less than $2 USD a day.  Users have a card plus PIN, and log into their mobile account using any phone on the same network as their account. The people who lend out the phones are rewarded with credits. And users can designate someone who is online more frequently to receive notifications, so they don’t miss important messages or money transfers.

November 13, 2009 at 1:00 pm Leave a comment

Solar Sisters: Barefoot women solar engineers

Illiterate, poor African women aged 35-55, many of them grandmothers, leave their families to spend 6 months training in India to be solar engineers. At the Barefoot College in rural Rajasthan they work with their hands, identifying parts by color and relying on oral instruction and sketchbooks. There’s not a lot of electrical theory.

But upon returning to their villages, these women have the skills to solar electrify tens, even hundreds, of houses. Across Africa, 60 engineers have electrified 40 villages at a cost of only 1.5 million USD.

Here’s the video (via ICTworks).

The Barefoot College model is one of radical self-reliance for the poorest of the poor. Management, control, and ownership of the technology lie with the community. The village decides how much to spend on electrification, and chooses the woman who will receive the training. And it is the community itself that certifies the woman as a solar engineer, acknowledging her training and supporting her ongoing work.

The Barefoot College video points out “universal lessons” from the African project.

  • Any illiterate woman from any part of Africa, even if she has never left home, can be trained in 6 months in India to be a confident and competent solar engineer. (There are Barefoot Colleges throughout India. It would be interesting to see how the model and code of conduct translate to Africa.)
  • Prepare the community first by having them make major decisions on behalf of the whole village, and only then bring in technology.
  • Keep urban based “paper-qualified” solar engineers out of the process. A top-down approach doesn’t work. External experts don’t have the vision, faith, or courage to train women as engineers. They also lack the communication tools to speak to villagers as equals.
  • No paper certificates are issued; experience shows that in programs where men are paper-certified, they immediately leave their villages for the cities. (I believe that by training older women, the Barefoot College designers are deliberately choosing a population that will be less likely to leave for the city, paper certificate or no.)
  • A partnership model, where initial training and materials are donated but expertise and ongoing expenses reside in the village, can work to reach the very poorest.

The video glosses over the process of choosing a woman to receive this training, and the effects on her life and her family’s life. In India women of differing ages have become barefoot solar engineers. This story of 19-year-old Kausalya hints at some of the difficulties.

Kausalya of Buharu village in Tilonia, presents another heartening story. All of 19, Kausalya is adept at fixing and maintaining solar energy systems. What she is also good at is local governance. She used to attend the village night school when Barefoot College introduced the Bal Sansad, or the Children’s Parliament. The concepts of local, state and central governments were explained to school students, who were encouraged to compete for the posts of ‘MLAs’ (legislators) for the Bal Sansad. Prompted by other girls who were too timid to take on male students, Kausalya filed her nomination. She was the token candidate of the entire female electorate, and bagged the post from her school.

Then followed the prime ministerial contest in which all the ‘MLAs’ from over 50 schools in Tilonia contested. Once again she got all the girl votes, while some infighting among others got her a substantial chunk of the boy votes. Kausalya became the prime minister of the Bal Sansad at the age of 13. In three years of heading the Sansad, Kausalya’s ‘cabinet’ solved a host of problems – from the lack of electricity in one village school, to the local sarpanch trying to usurp the land of another. At the end of her term, Kausalya’s parents discontinued her education, and she took up solar training at SWRC.

Life took another turn when she came of age and was packed off to her husband’s home (she had been married when just a few years old) in Jaipur’s Pandwa village. Here too, Kausalya worked on the infrastructure of Pandwa, including solar lights and a new water pipeline. Unhappy with her ‘activism’ to begin with, her husband and parents-in-law gradually came to admire her efforts. “My husband will never say it, but I know he’s very proud of me,” says Kausalya. “Now he asks me to maintain his accounts for him!”

September 23, 2009 at 10:43 am 4 comments

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

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

Field research for SMS queries in Uganda

The Grameen Foundation, Google, and telecom provider MTN Uganda have launched a suite of mobile phone applications. These are the first products of nonprofit Grameen’s Application Laboratory (AppLab) effort. The SMS query-and-answer services are designed to work with basic mobile phones, and provide real-time health and agricultural information as well as a virtual marketplace.

Users can access the services at the time of their choosing and search relevant content on-demand, operating almost like the Internet.  The services include: Farmer’s Friend, a searchable database with both agricultural advice and targeted weather forecasts; Health Tips, which provides sexual and reproductive health information, paired with Clinic Finder, which helps locate nearby health clinics and their services; and Google Trader matches buyers and sellers of agricultural produce and commodities as well as other products.

Local organizations provide the knowledge base for each information service. Users enter a freeform text query, and Google’s algorithms identify keywords, search the appropriate knowledge base, and return the most relevant answer.

Agriculture query results

It’s worth noting what a huge opportunity there is for such services. Overall, 80% of new mobile users are coming from developing countries (CGAP). Google further points out that Africa has the world’s highest mobile growth rate, and mobile phone penetration is six times Internet penetration. One-third of the African population owns a mobile phone and many more have access to one. In Uganda agriculture employs over 80% of the workforce and only 13% of Ugandans live in urban areas, so using mobile phones to get information to rural populations meets a great need.

And that’s why it’s worth spending money and time to get the service right. How do you anticipate what questions people will ask, and what answers will be most useful? Enter the user experience team, taking a classic Wizard of Oz technique to Ugandan villages.

First, we trained a multilingual team to act as user researchers in 17 carefully selected locations across the country. In each place, they introduced themselves to a cross section of people they met and invited them to participate in a free study that would help create useful services for Ugandans. If the person agreed, the researcher handed them a mobile phone and encouraged them to write a text message containing a question they wanted to know the answer to. (If people had their own phone, we reimbursed them with phone credit.) The text message was then routed to a control room we’d set up in Kampala where a human expert read the text message, typed a response, and sent it back via SMS to the person who asked the question. In the meantime, the interviewer observed and recorded the participant’s user experience. This allowed us to record rich qualitative data from hundreds of interviews in just a few days, and to collect quantitative data from hundreds of search queries.

The team captured 280 queries in 4 days. Watch this great video; it really gives you a feel for the process. The sessions at the markets start at around 2:20. At 6:22 are visits to phone operators in rural villages, where phones are shared. (Get the feeling that the answer to the malaria query didn’t quite hit the mark?)

I’ll be interested in the longer term reports of social impact, to be conducted with Innovations for Poverty Action, plus Google.org support.

August 4, 2009 at 11:40 pm Leave a comment


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