Archives For Education

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Appfrica Founder Jon Gosier will be giving a guest lecture at Yale University on June 25th, 2014. The talk, entitled “Investments in African Entrepreneurship: Managing Risk and Failure” will introduce attendees to opportunities for investing in Africa’s growing ecosystem and how to actively mentor or advise companies through various ups and downs…what investor Fred Wilson calls ‘the trough of sorrow’.

The talk is for students, Yale World Fellows, Yale Washington Fellows, and 25 delegates of President Obama’s Young African Leaders Initiative (YALI) who are at Yale for a 6 week program.

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Date – June 25th, 2014

Time – 10:00am to 12:00pm EST

Location – Yale School of Management, Nooyi Classroom 2230, Edward P. Evans Hall, Yale School of Management (165 Whitney Avenue)

Website - http://worldfellows.yale.edu/YALI/week2#25

 

Last week at Tech4Africa in Johannesburg I gave a short talk. It was meant to be much longer but I got confused on how much time I had, so apologies to the T4A people. Anyways, the topic of the presentation was “The 5 Most Disruptive Innovations I’ve Seen” and it discusses industries and concepts which are rapidly changing in the wake of new technology.

// The Future

The first of these themes is ‘the future’ itself. To be exact, predictive technologies that are being used to improve decision making.

“The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed” – William Gibson

This is a favorite quote of mine.  It sums up so much about the post-60’s world we live in. Why the 60’s? Because that was the last time, as far as I can tell (because I wasn’t alive then), that man’s wildest dreams were more sci-fi than reality.  In 1960, even astronauts still dreamed of one day walking on the moon like it was a fantasy. By 1970 it was history. But I digress…

I want to update this quote to read…

“The future is here…and you can buy it!” - me.

What we’re talking about is predictive technologies.  Algorithms that take massive amounts of historic data and analyze it for trends that can be projected outwards.  This is not new science, it’s statistics, but it’s statistics when applied to prediction that is the exploding business.

How effective are predictive technologies?  Well, if you want to see this type of technology in action, go to Google.com right now.  Activate Google Instant and type one or two letters, Google will offer suggestions based upon previous searches by all the people using their search engine and what they type after those two letters. This increases Google’s ability to make an educated guess about what you will type next.

There’s real science behind all of this. It’s not magic. It only works so well, but it does work.

So the future is available for sale from a few companies. To mention a few…Recorded Futures, Palantir, PAX.

Recorded Futures is a good example. They offer their ‘future’ as a service. That’s right, The Future is for sale as a restful API! You can use this API to get your future hand delivered as JSON or XML for the low price of $150 a month! Power your app with the future!

All kidding aside, how is this relevant to Africa?

Well, I can tell you as someone who’s company does work for Governments, Defense contractors, NGOs large and small, these technologies are in use to try to enhance decision making. These predictive technologies are being used all over the continent. To predict conflict & uprisings, crime, the affects of climate change…it goes on and on.  To decide where to spend budgets, enact military action, where to distribute medical resources.

The CDC has been in the business of predicting the future for decades. For them, spotting an outbreak before it spreads is essential.  More and more businesses from marketers, to law enforcement, to medical facilities have grown to appreciate these methodologies.

Heritage Provider Network is offering a $3 million dollar prize to any team who can develop an algorithm that can accurately detect within a year, using only patient and public data, when a patient will need to return to a medical facility.  It’s like the Netflix Prize for medicine.

This is all fascinating, but what happens when prediction goes wrong?

Right now, in Italy, six scientists (seismologists) and one elected official are on trial for not being able to sufficiently predict the future. You read that correctly.

Given their resources, their expertise, and sufficient historic data, the expectation is that something more could, or should, have been done to protect the public from a wrong.  That’s the precedent being set here. It’s not good enough to be an expert, you also now have to be a genie.

If this sounds strangely like the premise of the Minority Report, then you would be correct.  Again, this is William Gibson’s future that we’re living in.

// Data 

The future of data is in everyday things. Networked Objects. Internet of Things. Nanotechnology. These are all names for this type of innovation.

It is important to note: information exists, and has always existed everywhere. Atoms, molecules, DNA…these are all types of information.  What’s changing is our ability to imprint human generated data into the everyday objects around us, and to extract that information using technology.

Medic Mobile from Frontline:SMS aims to be able to allow patients to be photographed using mobile phones, using those photos for the basis of remote diagnosis.  Right now this is a manual process, with actual doctors trying to make diagnoses, but one day this might be done by matching incoming photos with a database of  pre-existing photos. When this becomes a mostly algorithmic process for diagnosing ailments, we’ve arrived at an incredible future.

So being able to extract meaning from every day objects using devices, that’s the future of data.

There’s groups here who are working on it. CSIR (Council of Scientific and Industrial Research) has researchers in South Africa exploring the Internet of Things.

But this, too, comes at with huge price.  The easier it is to do things for good with these technologies, the easier, and more tempting it becomes to do harm.

There will come a day at some point in the future (and it’s arguably already here) that genocide could come at the click of a button.  A group of people who aren’t liked could be annihilated with the ease of tapping backspace. Parents will soon be able to go to a medical facility and request more or less of certain types of gene in their children. These are great advancements in technology that can equally become disturbing examples of innovating our way to atrocity.

// Diplomacy

Diplomacy is being disrupted as well.

Even the crudest of technologies is being used to reshape the way government works, both positively and negatively.

Ushahidi is an example of a positive disruption.  In essence, it’s a way to collect information from the public, and put it on a map.  But, as I’ve frequently said, the innovation isn’t the technology. The innovation of Ushahidi lies in the fact that anyone, no matter how amateurish or well-trained, has access to the same tools as professionals.  More importantly, those tools can then be used to deliver services more effectively than the people who are traditionally expected to.

That’s the disruption, service delivery that bypasses Government organizations and Non-Government Organizations, and to be frank, makes them look silly by being faster, more efficient, and scalable.

This type of disruption puts pressure on governments to engage the public, less they appear to be ineffective.  This represents a good exchange.  Positive disruption.

Besides, when governments have too much authority, they tend to ignore public demands.  When the public have too much authority, it leads to anarchy, or they self-organize into communities which later require governing.

The current trend is in what I call equalizing disruption, tech or methods that undermine the power of government authority. The Ushahidis of the world, the WikiLeaks, the Anonymous groups.  In different ways, each of these has out-maneuvered the power or ability of government to exert power.

This doesn’t always play out reluctantly.

Last year the U.S. Department of State began sponsoring an innovation contest where they rewarded African innovators for solving local problems. They have no interest in owning IP, recruiting these individuals, or engaging them in any other way.  They simply wanted to experiment with new ways of reaching out to countries and people.

This competition, Apps4Africa, is one example of a new type of diplomacy.

// Education

In Uganda, Benge Solomon King is teaching basic and advanced robotics to youth across the country – in urban centers and in remote villages. What’s fascinating about Solomon is that he’s entirely self-taught, learning from tutorials and instruction from the internet.

This isn’t rural California where there are a number of places even the poorest will have available to learn (libraries, public schools, experienced adults). This is someone who learned basic electronics, programing, circuitry, and engineering in what is essentially a vacuum.

In Malawi, William Kamkwamba built an electricity producing windmill by reverse engineering its construction from a photograph.

In Nigeria, Muhammed Abdullahi builds working helicopters from scrap metal, with no prior knowledge of aviation or access to resources.

What do all these three stories have in common?  They may well be example of genius on display, randomly spread across the world.  But, I actually think what’s occurring is evidence of how education is broken, and three individuals who circumvented this broken system. Some of the aforementioned individuals have gone on to study engineering formally, but lacking formal education didn’t prevent them from learning in the first place.

It’s clear that the organizations we’ve put in place to deliver a service (education) are ineffective, perhaps even failed.  Replicating this Western model of education in Africa hasn’t scaled beyond urban capitals and is highly ineffective where it has. These individuals may represent what the alternative looks like.

Khan Academy, Kiip, Teach for America…all of these programs have arisen to patch holes in a broken system in the United States, some completely flipping the old education model on its head. Thus, self-instruction, open courseware, and remote video instruction are the technologies that seem to be winning the future of education.

// Disparity

Finally, we can look at the present, and we can look at the past, and with no special prediction technology, conclude that the future will be grossly unequal.

We have to be cautious that we aren’t building a future where the aforementioned technologies and others aren’t only available only to the highest classes of society.

In “A Cultural Thought Experiment”, a post from blogger Charlie Stross, he argues that if and when interplanetary space travel and colonization become a possibility, it will only be a possibility for the wealthiest among us.  In other words, the future will be awesome if you’re in the right class.  Much like the 14th Century being fantastic if you were royalty in Europe.

The people who discovered new lands hundreds of years ago, the explorers that shaped the modern world, were also either rich or had rich financiers.  The future will be as defined by disparity as the present is, and the past was.

Charlie Stross is not being paranoid in the least. If you have a spare $350,000 to $1 million lying around you can go to space tomorrow.

It goes without saying that if there is a race to get tourists to space, it will likely echo the rate at which countries were able to get to space in the first place. If that’s true, then African countries would be among the last to go – they ever went at all.

So as I conclude, I want us all to think about the future.  Let’s make our own predictions so that we can correct for mistakes yet to be made.  Let’s strive to make it trend towards the positive. For all of these innovations and disruptions have great implications…as well as implications for great evil.  This is our future in the making and it’s we who will decide how, and if, it’s evenly distributed.


The environment is rich in phenomena that has been observed, analyzed, commoditized and, in many cases, exploited. But much like the precious mineral and natural gas resources of the continent, for local societies, the tools for extraction are sparse or absent. In this context we aren’t talking about refineries, we’re talking about the capacity to collect, understand, and manipulate statistics and quantitative research to build narratives that change behavior or encourage action.

Shanta Devarajan recently pointed out this ‘statistical tragedy’ of Africa:

To show that this is not an arcane point, consider the case of Ghana, which decided to update its GDP last year to the 1993 system. When they did so, they found that their GDP was 62 percent higher than previously thought. Ghana’s per capita GDP is now over $1,000, making it a middle-income country. The “tragedy” is that we were happily publishing GDP statistics and growth figures for Ghana over the last decades, when in fact the national accounts were understating GDP by 62 percent…. The tragedy is that donors, including the World Bank, undertake statistical activities without ensuring that they are consistent with the NSDS. Why? Because they need data for their own purpose—to publish reports—and this means getting it faster, with little time to strengthen the countries’ statistical capacity. But just as Africans turned around their growth tragedy, they can turn around their statistical tragedy.

It’s no secret that high-level skills in the areas of science, technology, and the maths are rare. This is inevitable in an environment with sparse resources for good education or in countries that have been too politically volatile for education to be possible. For instance, Liberia, where two generations essentially had no access to any sort of modern education due to civil war and ongoing conflict.

But if data is truly the new oil, then mining it, understanding it and building on it is essential to the continent’s future. How do we solve this problem? Education, for teaching basic and advanced maths are one necessity. Building more technical skills like programing is another. Open data initiatives, like the one launched in Kenya earlier this year, are also important. But the more critical need is to build capacity for the conceptual, abstract, and analytic disciplines made up all of these skills combined. This problem is being addressed by a growing number of institutions like the African Leadership Academy.

Where these skills already exist, it’s also necessary to help to surface and distribute the results to the international community. From the Database of African Theses and Dissertations (DATAD):

For many reasons, African research results are rarely indexed in major international databases, a problem that is further exacerbated by the inaccessibility of theses and dissertations completed in the region, many of which contain local empirical data that is not available in international literature. This inability to learn about and access African material is frustrating to students and scholars–both on the continent and overseas.

That said, there are a lot of great resources for quantitative research and analysis related to African countries. Most of them from international NGOs, local governments, or passionate foreigners (like myself), as well as resources like Afrographique, OAfrica, The World Bank, and too many open data initiatives to list here. Hopefully, these resources and others are serving to help build capacity for Africa to craft its own data narratives…refineries for new oil.

Photo Credit: Jon

Last week representatives from the U.S. State Department Elana Berkowitz and Bruce Wharton reached out directly to innovators in East Africa to discuss the Apps 4 Africa contest, and the role software developers play in solving civil society issues in their countries. They are funding this contest which is being organized and facilitated by Appfrica Labs (my company in Uganda), iHub (Kenya), and Sodnet (Kenya’s Social Development Network). The Apps4Africa website itself was developed by Ugandan web design company, NodeSix.

I found this interesting because it’s not everyday you have someone as high ranking as a Deputy Coordinator fielding ad-hoc questions from youth and entrepreneurs in East Africa. The hour long conversation took place at here and you can view the full transcript and video by clicking the link or the image below…

Screen shot 2010-07-23 at 4.52.04 PM

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Skyler Vander Molen compiles a number of facts about Africa to produce this fantastic image.

Via World Famous Design Junkies

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Wondering which Google Geo tool to use? Google Earth or Google Maps? What about Google Map Maker and Google SketchUp? Well, this is your opportunity to learn everything from the experts. The Google Earth Outreach team has organized workshops that are scheduled for October 30th at Speke Resort Munyonyo in Kampala Uganda and another on November 5th in Nairobi Kenya.

A series of these workshops will be held during the AfricaGIS conference. Even those not attending the AfricaGIS conference can attend the Google Earth event. You can register for the Google Earth workshop without having registered for AfricaGIS. Registration is free but required.

Google Earth Outreach gives non-profits and public benefit organizations the knowledge and resources they need to visualize their cause and tell their story in Google Earth and Maps to the hundreds of millions of people who use them. According to Google Earth:

Google Earth lets you fly anywhere on Earth to view satellite imagery, maps, terrain,3D buildings, from galaxies in outer space to the canyons of the ocean. You can explore rich geographical content, save your toured places, and share with others.

During the events, participants will get first hand information from partners who have used the tools, explore Google Earth layers created by other public benefit organizations, and learn how to create their own maps. No prior mapping experience is required.

Registration information is here: Kampala registration and Nairobi registration

Google Earth Outreach photo

The 10,000 Hour Initiative

Jon Gosier —  October 20, 2009 — 5 Comments

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Online Colleges has put together 100 free online courses and lectures about Africa. From TED talks to open courses at MIT, the lectures cover health, business, technology, and aid.

As the world becomes an increasingly interconnected and truly global marketplace, it becomes ever more important to learn and understand the history, culture and economic roles of nations around the world. Africa is no exception, and this collection of lectures, many from renowned scholars, researchers and innovators, will help you better understand the many varied regions of Africa and the continents changing role in the world marketplace.

(via the excellent Foreign Policy Blogs Network)

I’m no expert in Education but I do think about it a great deal. For instance: Why do some schools turn out successful students while others seem to languish? What’s the ‘key’ tactic to engaging young people? Why are is there such a disparity between facilities in different parts of the world and this country?

Last week on Huffington Post, Tom Vander Ark wrote and article that struck a chord with me because of the work I’m doing at Appfrica Labs. I had no desire to run a school, but I value education a great deal as posts like “10,000 African Hours” should indicate. Tom suggest that there are four main traits he can identify in successful innovators:

Skilled: Innovators almost universally have strong analytical reasoning and communication skills. They can dissect a problem and help others see it more clearly. They understand the value of quality work products–that means a number of people have told them, “No, that’s not good enough.

Curious: more difficult to capture is the sense of curiosity–the kind that causes a deep dive on a subject that others might consider obscure. There’s a forward leaning aspect to this attribute; a wondering about what’s around the corner. There’s joy derived from what Expeditionary Learning would call “the having of wonderful ideas.”

Self directed: innovators have learned to take responsibility for their own learning. Intrinsic rewards are more important than extrinsic (or at least short-term extrinsic rewards).

Persistent: related to the last three, innovators simply work harder than other people. They learn from failure. When bounded by limited time or resources, they find a way to achieve a goal.

I feel like any good educational institution will value and support all of these traits. Last week in Oxford, UK I had the chance to have a few conversations with Fred Swaniker, co-founder of the African Leadership Academy. I really think some of the work they’re doing there is quite brilliant. For instance, to teach their kids about economics, they created a campus currency, bank and ATM system. The students vote in the directors of the bank and can monitor things like inflation and the value of their campus currency in comparison to the Rand and other currencies around the world.

It not only encourages curiosity about economics but it allows for teaching in the best way, through applied knowledge. I believe this type of facility is critical to reforming the education systems of African countries which are often underfunded, over populated, and have trouble breaking out of a traditional ‘Read. Write. Recite.’ method of instruction.

http://www.youtube.com/v/nboiOyR-r64&color1=0xb1b1b1&color2=0xcfcfcf&hl=en&feature=player_embedded&fs=1