African Tech Joins Up

By developing its developers, Africa’s tech sector hopes to go from ping to kerching.

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Photo Credit: Sundhult

Time was when African software developers didn’t register on Silicon Valley’s radar. No undersea fibre optic cables meant that there wasn’t much of a digital infrastructure in most of sub-Saharan Africa and so accessing and developing its software market was tough work.

These days, with access getting easier, the African blip on the Silicon Valley screen is starting to ping somewhat louder: the world’s biggest technology companies can’t get enough of the right kind of African ideas.

Seeking solutions to African needs, the kind not generally grokked by Silicon Valley VCs, companies like Google and Nokia are working hard to encourage African developers.

They go into schools and universities. They set up apps markets. They help with marketing. They sponsor conferences. But the most obvious way, the one which gets the most attention, is via the kerching and bling of the apps challenge.

Going app?

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Photo Credit: AMagill

Typically, the challenge is to design a new app in exchange for a small cash prize. With the announcement of the competition, marketing departments go into overdrive. Blogs posts and tech events show off the competing apps. Finally, there’s an impressive award-giving evening with pitches and backslapping and toasts to Africa’s tech potential.

When it works, it’s great. Developers are forced to consider what the outside tech world wants. The companies get a sense of what the developers can deliver.

However, there’s a feeling among developers, voiced across blogs and net forums, that this apps ride stops somewhere short of Silicon Valley. You meet the app challenge, you take part in the competitions, get judged by tech experts and then what? Isn’t it the case that big tech companies are likely to spin off the best apps and develop them in-house?

It’s true that young developers can end up giving away their work for not much, says Ken Banks, developer of FrontlineSMS, the free text-messaging software for Africa-based NGOs, and a veteran observer of the African tech scene. “The suspicion is that competitions like these, coming at the developers left, right and centre, are just a cheap way of scooping up the most potentially lucrative new ideas.”

Broadly speaking

Cash register
Photo Credit: liewcf

The current excitement about Africa’s tech prospects is triggered by the ring of the cash register. The business analysts say that where there’s broadband in Africa, there’s new business. With the new undersea cables rapidly increasing broadband capacity, the economic growth that Africa has seen over the past five or so years is likely to continue.

As in Silicon Valley’s dotcom era, first mover-advantage mania rules among the big tech companies: the company which gets its platform, its killer apps, its tech ecosystem into place first, wins Africa – or so the theory goes.

In order to do this, an entrepreneurial culture needs to be created among Africa’s tech whiz kids.

Among Silicon Valley techies, there’s the perception that a potentially good cultural fit exists between Africa and global tech. Although it’s easy to over romanticise this, Africa’s culture is one of innovation, of make do and mend. Out of necessity. And this fits nicely into the tech world’s hacker ethos, the idea that you take what’s around you and hack it into something better.

And, of course, there’s the wider issue of African knowledge. African developers understand African needs in a way outsiders just can’t.

For example, with computers priced out of the reach of many Africans, the mobile phone became the key tech device. Unlike their counterparts in the West, African developers are mobile net natives, wise to its opportunities and limitations.

The key question, then? How best can business harness this African potential? The answer? Build an entrepreneurial tech community.

“Someone working at Google in San Francisco is going to struggle to understand how a service needs to run in rural Kenya,” says Banks. “By providing help and resources to a rural Kenyan developer, however, Google can tap local knowledge and build exactly what’s needed.”

Community spirit

iHub, Nairobi, Kenya
Photo Credit: WhiteAfrican

Taking place on 14 to 15 June in Nairobi, Kenya, Pivot 25 is a step towards the kind of ideas chain Banks describes. Open to east Africa’s mobile startups, it’s an apps challenge with a difference – it’s as much about creating community as kerching. Yes, there are the judges and the pitches and the cash prizes and the networking opportunities, the chances to click with potential investors.

What makes Pivot 25 interesting, however, is that it’s based within an innovation hub, a physical space for developers, which in turn is part of a wider African tech community.

Created by the team behind the award-winning Ushahidi software, the iHub acts as a space for events held by and for the local software developer community. It “incubates” young coders: it gives them somewhere to hang out and swap ideas and learn how to collaborate on projects.

The iHub is part of the new Afrilabs Association, a network of innovation hubs across sub-Saharan Africa. Run by expats and children of the African Diaspora, techies all, they aim to inject a Silicon Valley entrepreneurial vibe into local tech cultures.

What innovation hubs like Afrilabs will do is encourage the survival of the fittest apps while ensuring that developers get to develop too, says Banks.

“The best ideas will naturally rise to the surface, but people will have the chance to keep hold of their ideas and not sell out cheaply. Any success will be because of the merit of the idea rather than because a panel of experts hyped it.”

Jon Gosier, co-founder of Hive Colab, an Afrilabs hub in Kampala, Uganda, says that what he and the other Afrilab hubs are building on is “local creative surplus”, the knowledge peculiar to Africa which Africans have and which could be used to drive innovation.

The business models and focus of the hubs vary: incubating talent, coworking or even just creating a community space for local hackers.

What the hubs have in common is access to funds and “pools of talent on the ground”, says Gosier. Operating across boarders, they bring the two together.

“So instead of an investor worrying about the nuances of doing business in so many different countries, we can take on some of that responsibility and let the investor and entrepreneur focus on building their businesses.”

Find out more:

Afrilabs Association

The iHub, Kenya

ActivSpaces, Cameroon

Hive Colab, Uganda

Nailab, Kenya

Banta Labs, Senegal

A version of this appears in the May issue of Bspirit, the Brussels Airlines magazine.

Future Perfect

Zap those economic blues. Seven shiny tech tips from CeBIT 09

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The global economic crash getting you down? Take the talking cure.

The population of Hanover in northern Germany pretty much doubles once a year when around 500,000 computer and IT industry movers and shakers from all over the world click over to CeBIT, the world’s biggest technology expo.

With thousands of exhibitors and hundreds of product launches and demonstrations, CeBit 09 (3-8 March) is about trying out new technologies and thinking around new trends.

It’s also about gossiping and partying and getting the face-to-face contact that the stutter of the video conference just can’t match.

And, naturally, these days, it’s about analysing the global economy and what its collapse means for tech business.

Tip 1: “No Problemo”

Adding some Hollywood glitz to CeBIT 09’s launch today, bodybuilder, actor and Governor of California Arnold Schwarzeneger said that the best businesses would view the global economic crisis as a challenge.

You can use a crisis as an opportunity to shine, an opportunity to leap past your competitors who are taking it maybe easy and taking the easy way out.

That’s what winners do. Losers whine, but winners move forward in a strong and powerful way.

Why Arnie? He’s representing California at CeBIT. With the eighth largest economy in the world, California is considered big enough to be CeBIT 09’s partner “country”. Plenty of tech muscle there, then.

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The Governor of California shares a tweet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel

Tip 2: Silicon Dragon

While their near economic future may seem grim, help may be at hand for new tech start-ups.

True, bank credit is crunched. But venture capitalists are plush with funds gathered from institutional and major private investors. They remember the tech innovations which followed the end of the dotcom boom.

Emerging from his CeBIT den, Frank Böhnke, General Partner at Wellington Partners, which specialises in investing in young European tech, internet and digital media companies, says that he’s on the lookout for good ideas.

The current climate couldn’t be better for start-ups: "A new company can develop in peace and quiet during an economic downturn."

Tip 3: Theft Bytes

Take care of your tech security and save what money you’ve got left.

You’ve probably been robbed at clickpoint and you didn’t even know it.

There’s "phishing": the number of people who unwittingly gave passwords details to online con artists went up by 25 per cent in 2007, according to CeBIT research.

And "pharming": a recent black-hat hacker technique is to guide the unwary user to a counterfeit website.

And "zombies": marshalled into "botnets" to carry out computer attacks, millions of home and office computers work for criminal gangs without their owners’ knowledge.

Confused? Worried? Visit CeBIT 09’s Security World hall to see the latest anti-hacker technology as well as alarm, video surveillance and biometric systems.

Tip 4: Hotting Up

Save energy. CeBIT 08’s "Green Village" blossoms into a "Green IT World" this year, spreading its shoots into a new hall full of environmentally friendly tech products.

According to CeBIT research, half of German shoppers would happily pay extra for energy-efficient high-tech devices. Some ten per cent wouldn’t mind paying up to 20 per cent more.

At CeBIT 08, Microsoft Chief Exec Steve Ballmer launched an energy management system designed for domestic users.

This CeBIT, the German Minister of the Environment Sigmar Gabriel explains how the interest in energy efficiency is likely to develop into one of the IT industry’s most important new markets.

Tip 5: Ghost Rider

Save even more energy. Get behind the wheel of one of CeBIT’s energy-saving electric cars, press down the accelerator and take a snooze.

Scanning the road with stereo cameras, radar sensors and a GPS sat-nav, the car’s computer analyses data so that the chauffeur bots doing the driving can avoid any black ice, traffic snarl-ups or Jeremy Clarksons ahead.

For more extreme va-va-vroom still, visit the track outside the CeBIT conference centre where high-speed heavy trucks slalom past obstacles and roar around bends – again, minus human drivers.

To get the robo car specs, quiz the boffins in the CeBIT cars, transport and navigation hall.

Tip 6: Web + Society = ?

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CeBIT 09: Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer, Amazon

Take a good look at yourself.

Come to CeBIT to see the future; they give you a mirror.

Tagging your digital data? Posting it online to friends, family, business colleagues, to the entire Internet? You’re living in Society 2.0: the "Webciety".

As well as an area devoted to cracking the jargon – Enterprise 2.0, Open Source, blogs, wikis, web TV, social networks, user generated content and so geekily on, CeBIT 09 brings together top industry speakers to explore what’s going to happen when everyone is potentially connected to everyone else. New markets, new opportunities, everyone hopes.

Elite geeks taking part include: Werner Vogels, Chief Technology Officer, Amazon.com; Marco Boerries, Executive VP Connected Life Division, Yahoo!; Reid Hoffman, Founder, LinkedIn; Stewart Butterfield, Co-Founder, Flickr.

Tip 7: Wall To Wall

Finally, look beyond the economic doom and gloom. Get things into perspective.

Stacked high with glittering gizmos, CeBIT has whole halls dedicated to personal mobile players and interactive entertainment.

One shiny bargain likely to make a big splash is a smart phone which doubles as a pocket-sized big screen TV.

Launching at CeBIT 09, Logic’s Logic Bolt looks like a chunky mobile phone. But tap the 2.4 inch touch screen and a built-in projector turns any wall into a giant screen. Displays range in size from 36 to 64 inches.

As well as movies, the Logic Bolt can project video from your Xbox or Nintendo Wii. With Bluetooth, a three-megapixel camera and the ability to read MS Office documents, the Windows Mobile GSM phone is expected to retail for around $100.

As cool, shiny, amazing tech gets cheaper, the consumer market is likely to grow. Fingers crossed.

Vital Stats

CeBIT 09 takes place between 3 and 8 March 2009 at the Hannover Messe Exhibition Grounds, Hanover, Germany.

A full ticket booked in advance is 71 Euros (£64); a day ticket, 33 Euros (£30).

See CeBIT for further details.

A version of this appears in the March 2009 issue of BMI Voyager.

Spectacle: Ars Electronica 2008

Linz, a sleepy provincial Austrian town? Cuckoo clocks and the sound of music? Where Hitler went to school with Wittgenstein ? Never mind the cobblestones. As the venue for Ars Electronica , one of the biggest digital arts festivals in the world, Linz is heaven for geeks right now, is overclocking with tech-driven spectacle.

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Back in the 20th Century, when Vienna marked the cutting edge of things, Austrian sophisticates cracked that Linz rhymed with province. Say “province” in an Austrian accent and it ends in “z”. Just like Linz. Geddit? Dear pretty, provincial Linz. No bright lights, no big city: what Linz offered was small-town zzzz.

Wander over to Linz’s main square, the Hauptplatz, a virtual chocolate-box cover, one of the largest squares in central Europe, elegantly lined with pastel coloured Renaissance buildings.

Fast forward past the plaques commemorating visits by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, past the imposing column, past the friendly, back-slapping locals lapping up beer and torte, the trams trundling by, the cobblestoned backstreets winding off towards pubs and cafés in sleepy squares, towards the nearby Danube. The same as it ever was: Linz, a typically Austrian town with a big heart?

Keep that fast-forward button pressed right down. Not only is it about to become the EU’s European Capital of Culture 2009, but every September, beamed up to the holodeck, fragged into a billion pixels, Linz takes a turn for a tech vision of the future.

Knocking away the town’s provincial facade to reveal the wiring underneath, firing enough white light to leave the snootiest Viennese in a whirl, Ars Electronica spills out of Linz’s art mile, the stretch of award-winning galleries and museums down by the river, and deposits culture hackers, media theorists, digital nomads from all over the world, all over the place.

Linz, provincial? Actually, until next Monday at least, Ars Electronica turns Linz into an out-of-this-world tech party – perfect for lab rats, gadget freaks and policy wonks needing to know what’s next.

Jolted into life by academics and avant-garde musicians, Ars Electronica’s goal since 1979 and the first festival has been the “development of tomorrow”.

Above computer generated anime and flashing, twirling, bleeding-edge, bleeding eye art installations, the thump of industrial techno, Ars Electronica’s geek elites delight in tech chatter – convergence, sousveillance, locative, Web 2.0: the latest buzzwords bounce around its programme of debates.

Each year, the festival tackles a different theme. In 2007, it was privacy. This year’s theme is intellectual property: what happens to a culture in which culture can be reduced to ones and zeroes and so copied and shared in just a couple of clicks to the power of – how many friends do you have in your Facebook profile?

According to Joi Ito, venture capitalist, CEO of Creative Commons and the curator of Ars Electronica 2008’s symposium, A New Cultural Economy, the Internet has lowered the cost of communication to such an extent that the legal system governing the business of creativity is being "pushed to its limits". It can’t keep up with a new gift economy based on sharing. Change on an unprecedented scale follows from this. Economics, business, organisations, politics: all require a major upgrade.

Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler kicks off the symposium on Friday with Beyond the Firm, a panel discussion examining what he describes as a new mode of production, "commons-based peer production". Leaving aside the corporations, the "people formerly known as the audience ", as Jay Rosen puts it, are increasingly coming together in non-profit groups to organise their immaterial labour: that’s you, me and Auntie Edna scratching our heads and setting up collaborative blogs, editing Wikipedia, adding public domain texts to Project Gutenberg.

Humboldt University of Berlin professor Thomas Macho leads a discussion later on Friday, Beyond Mass Media, on the tensions between this new participatory media and traditional business. At what point does a "fan" become a "pirate"?

Duke University professor and chair of Creative Commons James Boyle leads a discussion on Saturday, Beyond Professionals, on the demise of the expert and the rise of the amateur.

Joi Ito leads a discussion later on Saturday, Beyond Government, on the evolution of "subjects" into a semi-conscious public sphere capable of challenging the establishment.

Beyond highfalutin? Top-down? Elitist? Ars Electronica’s art practice makes perfect sense, sort of, out of the panellists’ talk. Escaping out of its computer screens, its art installations and events punch pretty abstract ideas into Linz’s pretty reality.

By seeing the effect their work has on ordinary visitors, tech artists and academics can get a better appreciation of how culture and technology fit together, says Ars Electronica’s Christopher Ruckerbauer. It’s applied research.

"We get the technologists out of their ivory towers into a new space. We turn the whole town into a giant stage. And we let them run riot there.”

launchy-view-1220625757597 crLast year, a Linz square was filled with sand and turned into a copy of Sydney’s Bondi Beach. A copy of this square from within the online virtual world Second Life was projected onto giant screens. Lazing in virtual deckchairs, Second Life’s 3d figures, operated by users hunched over keyboards, perhaps thousands of miles away, in Sydney even, chatted with their "meatspace" neighbours.

A plane over the town snapped high-resolution photos of art designed by locals to be seen from the air, 4,424 of them – a portrait of a man by the side of a Linz house, hello mums mown across backyard lawns, roof-top smilies.

The Graffiti Research Lab projected huge luminous messages onto buildings. It threw magnetised LEDs at passing Hauptplatz trams and their startled passengers. Its neon declaration: "reclaim public space".

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What’s created here is a third space, says Ruckerbauer: “The idea is to get to the point where art meets technology meets society.”

This year’s highlights include spectral shapes shot onto clouds by the Paris-based art and design partnership HeHe. Trained at the UK’s Royal College of Art, Helen Evans and Heiko Hansen use advanced laser technology to turn the town into a giant art factory.

The Reactable team from the Universitat Pompeu Fabrade in Barcelona, Spain, rock out on a "tangible" music table. It continually monitors the movement of objects on its surface and turns these into complex sound loops. Icelandic diva Björk played one on her last world tour.

German artist Julius von Bismarck’s Image Fulgurator is a camera in reverse. It projects images onto buildings just as unsuspecting tourists snap their photos. Later, checking their holiday pics, they see a subversive image or message and perhaps realise that photographic “reality” isn’t reliable; your camera can lie.

It’s culture, Jim, not always as we know it, but worth pursuing for what it says about technology and its relationship to society and business. Certainly, it punctures Vienna’s wordplay. Linz, provincial? Far from it.

– Listen to the symposium discussions as well as other festival debates via these Ars Electronica 2008 MP3 downloads .

Photo Credits: rubra, Ars Electronica Futurelab, Graffiti Research Lab.

A version of this appeared in the August 2008 Ryanair Magazine.

Meta Blog

A room where bloggers blog about blogging, the Bloggercon conference, San Francisco:

The weird thing about live-blogging a conference is that you are multi-tasking on many levels. You are in a room with a laptop on your lap, typing away about what you hear and see. You might snap a digital photo of your fellow participants. But when do you stop blogging and join the discussion going on? And how do you read all the other blogs that people are writing who are sitting right next to you?

Michael Glaser, Mediashift