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On Tuesday August 6th, 2013 we were honored to host a pre-screening of our documentary THE CHEETAH CODE at the social impact/civic hack space the OpenGov Hub!

THE CHEETAH CODE is a web series and forthcoming documentary featuring interviews with the creative entrepreneurs and technologists who are changing the face of business in Africa. ‘Inside DEMO Africa’ is an excerpt of the film that was shown at the screening, it chronicles entrepreneurs from across the African continent as they arrive at DEMO Africa 2012 to pitch investors and network. You can watch this excerpt in its entirety on Vimeo.

Jon Gosier and Kaushal Jhalla

Jon Gosier (Founder of Appfrica & Director of THE CHEETAH CODE) with Kaushal Jhalla (World Bank Innovation Team)

Christina Crawley (OpenGov Hub)

Christina Crawley welcomes guests to the OpenGov Hub.

Reggie Showers (Urban Youth)

Reggie Showers of Urban Youth having a conversation.

Thomas Genton (U.S. Department of State)

Thomas Genton of the United States Department of State watching himself on screen.

Wayan Vota (Kurante)

Many thanks to Wayan Vota of Kurante who helped us get set up for the event.

Guests chatting before the screening.

Guests chatting before the screening.

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.

Appfrica Labs has been incredibly fortunate over the past ten months. We’ve operated on a shoestring budget, performing what I liked to call ‘alchemy’. That is, creating the applications and services people have come to know us by, without much in the term of internal resources. We’re scrappy and agile and I couldn’t be prouder of our staff for truly making this company what it is today. In two months we’ll be one year old! Continue Reading…

Hyper-local journalism takes the age-old idea of local news and magnifies it. Think of sites like GlobalVoices, the -Ist community and Huffington Post, drilled down from regional and municipal news, to more specific areas like neighborhoods, city block or even streets! The medium has officially gone mainstream with MSNBC.com’s purchase of hyper local pioneer EveryBlock. Harry Dugmore writes about the need and practicalities of hyper-local news in South Africa…

Continue Reading…

GTV closure Hurts Africa

Jon Gosier —  February 20, 2009 — 5 Comments

Football fans in many parts of Africa woke up to sad news last Friday. They were to miss most of what has been dubbed as England’s leading drama series, the Barclay’s Premier League together with a host of other matches from other leading European football leagues. Satellite pay television broadcaster GTV, with up to 80% rights to broadcast the live matches, went into liquidation. Indeed, most people did not watch the weekend matches including the hugely anticipated Liverpool V Chelsea match.

In a shock move, Gateway Broadcast Services, the owners of the London based TV announced January 30th that the company was to be liquidated. In a statement on GTV website:

The current financial and global crisis has severely interrupted the company’s ability to secure further funding for the continued operation of the business.

The company has worked extensively with external advisors and all internal resources to investigate, evaluate and analyze strategic alternatives for the Company to further continue to operate. In determining to approve the Company’s plan of Liquidation, the board and management carefully reviewed the advice and findings.

The company also says it has invested over US$200 million in 2 years across the 22 markets and had over 100,000 subscribers in Africa. The statement continues:

We realise the negative impact this has had on our loyal customers, creditors and staff, all of who have believed in GTV and the revolution in pay TV it had created. We have tried every possible step to keep the company going but we are all the unfortunate victims of the current global economic crisis.

GTV had other programmes like drama series, soaps, news channels and others on its menu broadcast to countries like Botswana, Kenya, Cameroon, Gambia, Gabon, Ghana, Lesotho, Liberia, Malawi, Swaziland, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Right until the end, there was no indication that GTV was experiencing any problem and they were busy subscribing more customers.

The company had a huge task of competing with South African based Multichoice, which had monopolized the market for many years, a task that is believed to have failed. The fate of creditors is still not known as there is no official communication to address the issue. Customer service help lines also allegedly redirect callers to the press statement.

Appfricast 6

Jon Gosier —  January 29, 2009 — Leave a comment

Culture Wars. This episodes talks about Vodacom, A24 Media’s growing number of partners, Offline Gmail, Disruptive Journalism and more.

Download or Stream the Podcast – MP3 | Subscribe

LINKS FROM THE SHOW

Re-Hacking Your World
Thoughts on Disruptive Journalism
Singularities of Globalization and Convergeance
Blogging an African Novel
Vodacom’s Growth
A24 Media
Vote in the Bloggies

Photo by Zou

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There’s a full page ad in this month’s WIRED Magazine for a media group in North Africa called TwoFour54.com an integrated, state-of-the-art environment that supports and inspires content creators to flourish in the Middle East and North Africa. Intrigued, I did some research to find out more about the company. I didn’t find much, so I assume the ad is part of a media blitz around their launch. I did manage to find this blog post from Azmanar

Abu Dhabi has created an exciting Content Creation Zone called twofour54, lead by CEO Tony Orsten. Tony is a veteran of 30 years in the Media & Content Development Industry. I found twofour54 while watching a BBC News interview of lovely Ms Noura Al-Kaabi. She leads the One-Stop-Shop to facilitate a smooth relocation for individuals and creative content companies.

Arabnews.com also has an interview with Noura Al-Kaabi, one of the principal partners of Tawasol, one of twofour54’s founding media groups…

Last month, the media zone’s decision to appoint an Emirati woman as the head of Tawasol drew international attention.

The establishment of a media campus has put Abu Dhabi one step closer to its goal of becoming the cultural and media center of the Middle East. The Abu Dhabi media zone offers training to the region’s journalists and filmmakers as well as providing a base for Western companies to conduct business.

“We will bring together local, regional and international companies who share our vision and are related to film, broadcast, digital publishing and music industries,” says Al-Kaabi, who holds a bachelor’s degree in management information system from the UAE University.

“Although I used to watch English news channels and read a lot during my school days, I never thought of doing any media-related assignment then, but when I got into it, it became my passion.”

From TwoFour54’s website…

Welcome to twofour54, an integrated, state-of-the-art environment that supports and inspires media content creators to flourish in the Middle East and North Africa. Based in Abu Dhabi, we provide a cohesive infrastructure for content creation companies and individuals in the film, broadcast, digital, gaming, publishing and music industries. At twofour54 we offer world-class production and post-production facilities, a vocational learning centre, creative labs and a new business incubator. twofour54 is here to provide a collaborative and supportive campus environment, stimulating creative and professional partnerships. With some of the world’s major media content creation companies already onboard, we’re now open for business!

Afro-Pop Stocking Stuffer

Jon Gosier —  December 17, 2008 — 3 Comments

Africa and music go back like…well….as far back as Africa and Lucy (Australopithecus afarensis). If you’re still shopping for christmas gifts there’s some real gems waiting to be served this year. In fact, if you’re looking for some new music, just forward this post to your friends with the subject “hint, hint”. Here’s a list of influential African artists, both old and new who showcase the incredibly diverse musical styles and trends of the continent…

Blk Jks is one of South Africa’s most popular upcoming bands and was recently signed by North American label Secretly Canadian. The New York Times described their sound as “quick-fingered” and “multilayered”. [Style: Psychedelic Dub Rock | Listen on Hype Machine]

Mayra Andrade, although Cuban by birth, grew up in Cape Verde, Senegal and and Angola before moving to France where she currently lives and records. [Style: West African Portuguese, Batuque | Listen on Hype Machine]

Miriam “Mama Afrika” Makeba died this year but her unprecedented legacy lives on through her music. She was a singer and an activist, so her death consequently summed up much of her life. She died of a heart attack that she suffered on stage while singing in protest of a mafia-like group called the Camorra. [Style: African Folk, Political | Listen on Hype Machine]

Angelique Kidjo possibly the heir to Miriam Makeba’s throne as “Mama Africa”? Angelique has been critically acclaimed ever since her debut 20 years ago with “Pretty”. [Style: Afro-funk, reggae, samba, salsa, gospel, jazz, Zairean rumba, zouk, and makossa | Listen on Hype Machine]

Youssou N’Dour, the Senegalese singer, songwriter and composer has been acclaimed for decades, in that time releasing more than twenty albums. [Style: Mbalax, Worldbeat, Percussion, West African | Listen on Hype Machine]

Just-A-Band are a Kenyan outfit who’s career launched in early 2008. What truly helped set them apart however is the way they’ve embraced new media with an active blog, animation, illustration and photography in their marketing. [Style: jazz, hip-hop, house, electronica | Listen on Hype Machine]

Zap Mama Marie Daulne (the founder) was literally born into Sixties conflicts in the DRC and was rescued by pygmies who saved her and her mother’s life. She then grew up in Belgium but then returned to Africa to study pygmy onomatopoeic vocal techniques. [Style: Accapella, Fusion | Listen on Hype Machine]

Fela Kuti / Fema Kuti are father and son singers from Nigeria. Although Fema grew up as member of his father’s band, since the late 90’s he’s become prolific in his own right. Fela has been called “the inventor of Afro-beat” and his son proudly carries the torch handed down to him… [Style: Jazz, Funk, Afro-Beat | Listen on Hype Machine]

Yvonne Chaka Chaka Although horribly dated and cheesy, you’ll still hear much of Chaka Chaka’s 80’s music all throughout Africa, especially the so-bad-they’re-good “I’m In Love With a DJ” and “I’m Burning Up”. [Style: Pop, Disco, Fusion | Listen on You Tube]

Karen Zoid is a female singer-songwriter from Johannesburg by-way of Belgium who sings in both English and Afrikaans. Her 2002 debut record won her two Geraas and one SAMA award, cementing her place as one of South Africa’s fastest rising stars. [Style: Pop, Rock, Folk | Listen on You Tube]

Simphiwe Dana is frequently compared to American soul and R&B artist Lauryn Hill. Her music is described as having wisdom and maturity beyond her years. [Style: Soul, Jazz, Folk | Listen on You Tube]

Compilations

Nigeria 70: Lagos Jump anyone who describes them-self as a ‘crate digger’ will love this album. Pulled together from a number of relatively obscure 1970’s Nigerian vinyl releases, it’s a relaxing jaunt down memory lane. [Style: Funk, Groove | Listen on Hype Machine]

Africa: the Essential Album casts a wide beam, bringing together sounds and styles from across the continent: juju and Afrobeat (from Nigeria); highlife, from Ghana – popular across West Africa before the Congolese bands got into their stride; rai from North Africa and – from the south – modern pop based on traditional Zimbabwean forms along with South African jazz and township pop. [Style: Various | Listen on Hype Machine]

Zoopy, the South African social media website has undergone a massive make-over. According to the companies blog:

Almost a year ago to the day, we launched the second version of Zoopy; the Zoopy that many of you have come to know and use over the last 12 busy months. The site was a massive overhaul of the first Zoopy, with loads of learnings built in. We redesigned everything and took the Zoopy platform to a whole new level.

Today, we’re launching the Zoopy that our team has dreamt about for a very long time. It’s completely redefined in almost every way and takes into account the feedback we’ve received from users over the last 12 months, and lays a strong foundation for the exciting things we have planned for the next 12.

What’s changed? Here’s a rundown:

  • New Logo
  • Completely redesigned website
  • Faster Uploading
  • Multiple Uploads (up to 20 at a time)
  • Embedable Search Results
  • Content Sections
  • Custom Pages for Brands
  • ‘Following’ other users
  • ZoopyTV for premium media partners
  • ZoopyMobile for Mobile users

With all the changes, it’s almost like a whole new website!


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Following the FricaFacts

Jon Gosier —  November 30, 2008 — Leave a comment
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So this week Appfrica is rolling out a new mash-up project called FricaFact. This one is all about educating the masses about Africa using social media tools…specifically Twitter. The app is pretty simple. Right now it displays a different fact each day about the continent, it’s countries, it’s people, it’s culture. Want to participate? Just follow @fricafact on Twitter and you’re all set.

How does it work? Visit FricaFact.com, if you aren’t already logged in to Twitter, then log-in with your Twitter account to re-tweet individual facts right from the page. From here you can read different facts, share them, email them or bookmark them. Users can also submit facts by twitter direct message or email.

What’s the purpose? Outside of what I mentioned above, I’m just a geek and I had a few hours to kill. =) Ultimately @fricafact exists to foster discussions about Africa while informing those interested in learning more.

There’s a lot in the works, so stay tuned!

Visit FricaFact.com