Archives For ICT

We’re honored to be the recipients of the Knight Foundation’s generous support for our new Abayima initiative! The press this morning has been fantastic as well [Link 1, Link 2, Link 3, Link 4].

But what is Abayima? In a post this morning on the Abayima Blog, I recounted the history of the project:

The Abayima project began back in 2011 with frustration. The Ugandan presidential elections were coming up and people were both excited to make their voices heard, but fearful that what was becoming a heated debate between candidates would turn to something worse. Regardless of where they placed the blame, or which candidate they targeted their ire at, citizens were talking.

In Africa, the most widely accessible form of long distance communication is SMS. In fact, this year the World Bank predicts that mobile penetration will reach 80% across the continent by the end of March. The specific numbers vary up and down per country, but the trend remains the same, Africa is a mobile-first (and some would argue ‘mobile only‘) continent.

Uganda is no different, its citizens utilize mobile networks for paying for goods, researching sports scores, ordering food, checking medical records etc. But the number one use-case for mobile SMS is to simply communicate.

During the days leading up to the election if one were to send a message expressing dislike for the President, the messages strangely never reached their targets. Activist and NGO friends of mine took to Facebook to complain about the mobile networks being slow, only to see that their friends and colleagues were complaining about the same. Only it seemed that most messages were in fact just fine, it was only the ones with a political tone that were ‘lost’. We soon realized what we thought was a typical network problem might be something more deliberate.

As the anxiety of the public grew, journalists both local to the country and abroad began to investigate. Was this a systematic attempt to silence citizen protest? Even worse, it seemed that not only were political messages being blocked, but political messages from the sitting party were being broadcast! “Vote for the guy in the hat” the messages read. Out of context that may not make sense, but if you walked the streets of Kampala on February 2011, they were littered with pamphlets branding the visage of Yoweri Museveni wearing what looked like a cowboy hat.

Kampala (Uganda) - Museveni Propaganda

Meanwhile, a friend of mine who shall remain nameless wanted to send this message, “Chase the guy out of power!” but the message kept failing. He’d call his friend shortly after sending it to them and they hadn’t received it. So instead, as a test, he sent this message instead: “chs gy ut ov pwr!” He called his friend back. This time it had gone through. There seemed to be some sort of monitoring system in place that targeted keywords related to the elections or violence. If an SMS contained words like ‘power’, ‘dictator’, or ‘bullet’, the message was intercepted by the mobile network who would normally just forward them on to their intended recipients.

It wasn’t long before the international and local press discovered what was going on. From a local news outlet, February 18, 2011:

A quick test sending sms messages with the banned words revealed that indeed some of the messages were blocked. Or they just did not go through as is sometimes the case in Uganda.

According to an an internal email , SMS messages with words like “dictator”, “egypt”, “mubarak”, “police”, “bullet”, “Ben Ali” and “people power” will be blocked.

We sent an SMS from an Orange line to an Airtel number and an MTN number with this text: “Favourite movies: The Great Dictator, Police Academy and Bullet with Steve McQueen”. The message did not go through.

As a software developer, when faced with a challenge, my first impulse is to figure out if there is, in fact, a software solution to the problem. If there is, and it’s the best solution, I start thinking of ways to do something about it.

The problem was that something shady was going on with the mobile network millions rely upon as their only means of communication. It’s understandable that the Uganda government would want to suppress messages that might be perceived as calls for violence or that otherwise incited the public, but the exercise illustrated to me just how vulnerable mobile networks were to attack in other scenarios where perhaps the intent is more malicious.

In countries like Egypt, Libya, and Syria the world has witnessed the mass disruption of communication channels. ‘Internet black-outs’ have become a weapon in the war between citizen and state. In our increasingly connected world, this represents a disturbing trend.

Internet Blackouts

There are few solutions that truly ‘circumvent’ mobile networks in such scenarios. A few have attempted mesh-bluetooth networks, hyper-local wifi networks, and even ad-hoc GSM towers. We’re rooting for all those technologies, but we also recognized that more might be possible. After all, feature phones (also known as ‘dumb phones’) don’t have wifi or bluetooth capabilities. And though the cost of smart phones has plummeted in the past few years, the cost of data has not. At least not proportionate to the income of the majority of working individuals in developing countries.

So I asked myself how might it be possible to leverage feature phones as a platform for resilient communication during times of crisis, natural disaster, or power outages. SMS wasn’t the solution, it was part of the problem. When the networks went down, the ability to send messages also went with it. Or did it?

knight.003

It occurred to me that SIM cards are as ubiquitous as mobile phones themselves. SIM stands for Subscriber Identity Module. Ss the name implies, the technology is used to decouple the phone from the networks that want to serve it. If I place an AT&T SIM in my phone, my phone identifies itself as being ready to use the MTN network; if I change the SIM, I change the network my phone is communicating with. In fact, it’s quite common in developing countries that users swap SIMs frequently to take advantage of the cheapest rates individual networks offer at different times.

So what if the SIM itself became the carrier of content? Sure, you’d lose the ability to instantly communicate with almost the entire planet at the touch of the button, but assuming the networks are down, you’ve lost that anyways. What you gain is the ability to discreetly store and share information on these SIM Cards and use it to distribute information on a very local level. So we began developing Open SIM Kit, an open source solution for writing content to SIM cards.

There are indeed quite a few constraints, the carrying capacity of a SIM is something like 164kbs where we usually talk about modern digital content in Mbs. They are also incredibly difficult to program with most of the SDKs being propretary and kept out of the hands of the general public.

So, for the past two years, I’ve gone back and forth on the idea, working on the project off and on with collaborators who more or less are still involved. This SIM hacking project evolved to become known as Open SIM Kit.

Open SIM Kit

But this is just where Abayima starts. SIM Kit has many other commercial purposes than the scenario described above, as does the open source version. Activists and journalists have many other needs than simply being able to store content to SIM cards and malicious actors have many other ways of suppressing citizen voices. Abayima was established as a constant provider of solutions for problems where communication networks become a barrier.

We’re excited to have received early support of the Knight Foundation and IndigoTrust as with out them this would have been far more difficult endeavor to pursue.

Apps4Africa Partner, Marieme Jamme

Sitting at the first Africa CEO Forum this week, in the heart of Geneva, I asked myself if this was the right time to open the debate on Africa’s private sector future. Was Geneva the right place? Critics will rightly argue that this sort of event should have been held in Africa.

Over two intensive days, top African chief executive officers shared with attendees from all over the Africa, Europe and Asia, some latest trends and best practices, discussed the future of the continent’s private sector, and received awards and accolades.

Speakers such as the outspoken Sudanese-born billionaire Mo Ibrahim tried to boost the narratives of Africa’s position compared to China and India but with little solutions to offer. When I asked him why the event was not held in Accra or Johannesburg, Ibrahim replied by stating that the reasons were more infrastructural and logistical than anything else.

Read the Full Article

A local Nigerian Internet company has launched an exciting new website that will intend to cover the short falls in other online mapping services. MapNTL.com was started in New York city about four years ago after Ireti Ajala and a friend wanted to visit a certain Brazilian restaurant in Queens. Not knowing how to get there, the two friends used MapQuest to search for the street and to generate driving directions to the restaurant

Ajala thought it would be a good idea to start a similar portal in Nigeria and thus the birth of MapNTL.com. It can be said that the concept is nothing near MapQuest or not new, in Nigeria it’s a step ahead as they strive to catch up on the internet space.

A while back I asked if The Rift Valley region was becoming the Sillicon Valley of Africa. It seems that there’s definitely a concerted effort to make it so. The Ugandan ICT Cluster was formed to make such a thing the reality in Uganda…

Paul Tentena of New Vision writes:

ICT Cluster, an association of software stakeholders, is to help members regulate and develop the [ICT] industry.

Walter Wafula of The Monitor continues in detail:

Work on the ICT Software Cluster Initiative commenced on Tuesday, in Kampala, with a workshop that gathered representatives from government, the business community and academia, to discuss the future of the Uganda’s first and notable ICT Cluster.

A cluster refers to a group of companies and institutions located in a single geographical location, interlinked by interdependence in providing particular product or services among them, to increase their competitiveness.

The Kampala ICT Cluster will be virtually connected based on the idea of the Silicon Valley, a leading high-tech business area in the United States of America because of its large number of I.T companies including, Microsoft, Oracle, Google, Yahoo, Hewlett- Packard and Intel among others.

Speaking to the participants, Ms Goretti Amuriat, Project Officer Gender and ICT at Women of Uganda Network said, the concept was adopted from the innovation system and Cluster programme for Eastern and Central Africa. The programme is a collection of collaboration of research of three East African Engineering institutions including Makerere University Faculty of Technology.

The objective of the Cluster is to stimulate innovativeness, to increase competitiveness among firms for economic growth and change mind sets of ICT firms and institutions. If you have been working alone, this concept wants to bring you in group to achieve a common goal, according to ICT Cluster the company behind the initiative.

“By competitiveness, we mean the ability to provide quality products and services more effectively and efficiently that are relevant to competitors,” Ms Gorreti said.

“It’s also the ability of a nations firm to achieve sustained success versus foreign competitors without protection or subsidies.”

Discussing the benefits of a cluster Mr. Peter Leting a lecturer at the Faculty of Technology Makerere University said Clusters make firms more competitive in an environment where there’s piracy of software like in Ugandan.

“Working with a cluster, will give you the opportunity to seek assistance from government collectively which is harder done alone,” Mr Leting added. He called upon software firms in Kampala to make use of this opportunity to join the new ICT platform to be part of the benefits of the Cluster in the near future.

The new ICT initiative will be funded by government, Non Governmental Organisations like The Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (Sida) and the Rockefeller Foundation as well as institutions like Makerere University, will support the initiative in its first 18 months of inception. where in the country.

The ICT Cluster is expected to be moved forward by a team of leaders who were elected by the committee members of the ICT Cluster. The project is expected to be launched as soon as all interested ICT firms in Kampala are registered with the Cluster next year.

sxsw

South By South West is one of the United States premier music festivals in Austin, Texas. It’s also quickly becoming widely recognized for its film festival and it’s interactive festival. I’m pleased to announce that my Panel suggestion for SXSW2009 has been accepted to the the South by Southwest 2009 ‘Panel Picker’. If you’d like to help African ICT take center stage at next years SXSWi please vote by visiting http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/961 or by following the instructions below.

How to Vote
1) Sign-Up at SXSW Panel Picker
2) Respond to the email verification
3) Search for Appfrica or visit this url – http://panelpicker.sxsw.com/ideas/view/961
4) Vote!

If we get enough votes, the panel will be added to the list of events at next years SouthBySouthWest conference! Help us out and vote today!

Since I began my research and subsequent move to Uganda, I’ve found a vast disparity in the amount of higher education available in the area of information technology as it relates to developing countries, NGOs, non-profits or developmental institutions. It think the implicit need for focus in this area is high as the discipline is essentially the same but the practice of IT changes significantly when ‘in the field’ or in low power areas.

It’s unfortunate because my colleagues in the tech industry see an obvious correlation and though some have a desire to ‘help’ there isn’t a lot of opportunity to acquire ‘field work’ working as something like a system admin in a developing country. It seems, the only way to get that kind of experience is to have a prior background in computers while also pursuing study in some field related to developing countries or public health. Or perhaps if an individual is hired by a company looking for an ‘IT’ person but they end up becoming the company’s sole tech Renaissance man: managing the website, sending out newsletters, setting up servers and troubleshooting Outlook…. In other words, instead of being trained for the field, people are being trained to adapt, which is inherently good but it doesn’t necessarily breed IT people ‘passionate’ about what they might be doing.

To some, it seems as if the reason most non-profits and NGOs don’t embrace technology as whole-heatedly as they might is because donors don’t support such programs. Until that community embraces this idea, I fear it will be left out of the College and University systems. That said, I think the passion from the people working in these organizations exists but there’s a substantial disconnect between these workers and the governing boards that control operations.

I’d love to hear from undergrads, MPH, PHD or other students who can tell me otherwise. Are there existing programs related to things like Information & Communications Technology, Software Development and Data Collection/Visualization in Developing Countries? Do you feel your school is taking a lead in this area? Any ideas for programs?

If so let me know so I can link to them….

Paul Luff recently released this diatribe about the state of Mobile and the future of the industry:

Mobile & wireless technology has the strength to break whatever barriers to entry that may still exist within the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) sector at large. But there is never growth without some pain, never progress without sacrifice and one has to consider the bare facts before jumping on the popular technology bandwagon.

Wireless or non-wired technology has emerged as a popular conduit through which individuals and companies now network and communicate. The market has really grown beyond the expectations of even technology vendors themselves.

It makes sense if one considers the lack of wired infrastructure and its associated limitations. It seems like skeptics are quickly reminded by the market of the lower cost of going wireless as well as the convenience of mobility and increase in productivity.

Few would argue with the explosive nature of digital lifestyle technology, bolstered by the need for immediate connectivity, accessibility and functionality. The consumer demands these qualities within infrastructure and they do not want to pay too much for it. That is a global trend that has also taken root in South Africa.

Read the rest of Paul Luff’s statement…