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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.

In this image, the country code top level domains of Africa are organized by geoposition. The top countries are scaled to reflect the number of millions of internet users in those countries. Top Countries (by millions of users): (1) Egypt (2) Nigeria (3) Morocco (4) South Africa (5) Sudan (6) Algeria (7) Kenya (8) Tunisia (9) Uganda (10) Zimbabwe.

On January 25th, 2011 “The Day of Anger” a string of protests took place across Egypt. The protests were
organized for many reasons, but largely due to frustration with the country’s government. In retaliation, the Egyptian government shut down internet traffic to and from the country and Africa’s first registered ccTLD (.EG), representing a population of 80 million (17 million regular internet users) effectively disappeared from the web.

This graphic originally visualized the ccTLDs of the African continent. It’s been adapted to represent this temporary loss of Egyptian voices online. If we could see Africa’s top level domains this would be a snapshot of the continent on the morning of Feb 1 after the last of Egypt’s ISPs was taken offline.

High-Res Version | Original Image

The original image with Egypt included.

This graphic purposefully references this similar graphic by the guys at ByteLevel Research.

Innovation in a black tie

Jon Gosier —  September 30, 2010 — Leave a comment

..As one of the most exciting and significant bi-monthly networking sessions for people in IT and Telecoms, The Innovation Dinner Series brings together decision makers and top-flight speakers to discuss burning issues in the ICT Industry.- ITNews Africa

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G|Uganda Recap

Jon Gosier —  September 16, 2010 — Leave a comment
G Uganda Conference Sept 1-2

Google's G|Uganda Conference held at Kampala's Speke Resort Munyonyo.

On September 1st Kampala saw the kick off of Google’s gUganda, which was held at the Munyonyo Speke Resort Commonwealth Conference Centre. 650 Engineers, Designers, Web Developers, Entrepreneurs and Students learned how Google hope to spur Tech Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa and even closer to home Uganda.

“Africa’s the final frontier.”- Google. Hearing this I felt as If I were sitting inside the USS Voyager and we were about to go into Google deep space. And, who do you ask is the captain of this Tech journey?  Nelson Mattos Engineering Vice President for Google Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA), mentioned that for every 10,000 people in Africa there is 1 domain. In comparison to most Western Countries which have up to 94 domains for every 10,000 people.  The Google VP a keynotes speaker at the event commented “We are very pleased to be hosting our first big developer event which will engage the local Tech and Business communities, and highlight the opportunities of the web. Our aim is to make the internet more locally relevant and useful to Ugandans, and help build a viable and sustainable internet ecosystem in Africa.”

Now I know to a lot of people that might think that is just a really good pitch, but what’s the catch? I mean most of the time when something sounds too good to be true, it usually is. That doesn’t have to be the case according to Google who across the two day conference demonstrated to Tech Professionals and Entrepreneurs alike how Google’s straight forward and cost friendly (Free) tools and applications can be used to keep African content in Africa through internet exchange points (IXPs) also known as Google cache, create a greater online presence e.g. through applications like Google Maps and more locally relevant information, tools and applications. Through a sort of “Democratization” of locally relevant content if you will, along with trying to inspire people across the continent to innovate and optimize the opportunities available to create a more significant online presence for Ugandans and Africans alike. “Less than 10% of Africa’s users contribute to more than 1% of Africa’s Content.”- Google.

I wasn’t really sure what to expect the second day of the Google event since the day was heavily centred on Tech Entrepreneurship and how we can all use Google and their products such as Google’s Web Optimizer, Adsense (www.google.com/adsense) , Adwords (www.adwords.google.com) , Analytics (www.google.com/analytics/ )and Google Apps (www.google.com/a/ ) to create and maintain a successful online business, Cha ching! Now I am no Donald Trump but by the end of it all I felt that even I should be able to come up with an online income generating idea too. The Google team did a great Job of breaking down each of the online products on offer along with a demonstration and very interactive Q&A.  The second day along with the two day conference was concluded with a panel discussion with a few successful home-grown Tech Entrepreneurs such as, Eric Kamau (www.trueafrican.com),

Nelson Mattos Keynotes session

Nelson Mattos, Engineering Vice President for Europe, Middle East and Africa discussing that the tech future of Uganda and Africa is only on the up.

Benge Solomon King (www.nodesix.com) and Simon Kaheru Director of SMS Media along with a few others and the giving way of a Google Nexus one Android handset.

I will say by the end of the two days I had fried a few mental circuits but feel I have walked away with some sort of divine digital knowledge, having momentary access to what felt like an infinite source of opportunity. Now I wait with bated breath for next event. Have a look at the blog to find out about any up and coming events in your region www.google-africa.blogspot.com.

Where Has Appfrica Been?

Jon Gosier —  January 20, 2010 — 1 Comment

If you follow this blog relatively closely you’ve probably realized that that it’s been fairly quiet for just over a month. This was partly because of the holiday season and my being in the air or in airports, continent hoping (from Kampala to Amsterdam to Texas to Tucson to Atlanta to Denver to Washington D.C to South Africa back to Kampala in two weeks). Travel always throws a wrench into my connectivity because with all the chaos caused by airport security, I’m never in the mood to do any work by the time I actually can. Also I forced myself to take a much needed break, one can only put in 14 hour workdays for so long before needing to completely shut out the world of work…no matter how much you love it.

That said, my new job at Ushahidi saw me go from zero to sixty as soon as I was back on the ground here in Kampala. The nation of Haiti suffered a catastrophic earthquake, killing over 72,000 and displacing hundreds of thousands. If you aren’t aware of Ushahidi, the company makes it’s mission to curate and crowd source reports of incident during crisis events. My job at Ushahidi as the Director of Swift River, is to help to deal with the overwhelming flood of information, commentary and rumor that often follows a tragedy such as this one. Needless to say for the past week it’s all I’ve been willing to make time for. The result was Haiti Tracker, a tool that helps Ushahidi manage the flood of invaluable information coming from Twitter users.

For more on what we’ve been up to at Ushahidi, please visit – http://blog.ushahidi.com/

Reporter Ron Nixon of the New York Times recently sat down with me to discuss the future of journalism and his own project, Ujima.

Download or Stream the Podcast – MP3 | Subscribe

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The recent riots in Kampala have revealed a couple of things about the flow of news and how people behave in crisis situations. We still don’t quite know what we’re dealing with in Kampala. It’s either the beginning or the end of a wider scale confrontation. For those of us on the ground, we’re starved for information. The mobile phone and it’s users ere essentially the only reports we can rely on for timely info. Citizen journalists like Solomon risked arrest and their personal safety by literally reporting from the ‘red zone’.

Despite the fact that people are more connected than ever through mobile devices and web services like Twitter, there are still some gaping holes in how information is aggregated and disseminated in times of crisis. Over the past three days I contemplated how it might be possible to improve the flow of data during crisis.

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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…

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The Future of Giving

Jon Gosier —  August 12, 2009 — 4 Comments

Does the future of field research lie in augmented reality?

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Happy Birthday, us! Just over a year ago I started Appfrica.net as a little research blog that was going to help me get accustomed to moving to Uganda. In only a few months the blog had a life of it’s own, growing an audience and sparking some lively (sometimes controversial) discussions like this one on Reddit. My focus from the beginning was to run the blog for myself, I never thought it’d get to the point where it was sustainable or as widely read as it’s become. While I was trying to start my software/incubation company Appfrica Labs, Appfrica.net developed a niche all on it’s own. I recognized this a few months back when I redesigned the blog the first time, from ‘blog’ to ‘news portal’. By then I did see where it could go, but I still wasn’t convinced I’d actually get there and was too busy with the incubator to try.

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