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Why Open Collaboration Spaces like the *iHub_ Matter

iHub-logo-drkLast week I attended the much anticipated iHub Nairobi launch, as well as participated in a pre-launch gathering of African tech hub pioneers (more on the latter in a follow-up post). A number of bloggers in Kenya and elsewhere have already covered the iHub event much better than I could have. The event was aptly described as “Geek Heaven” with a broad cross section of techies, entrepreneurs, university students, journalists, hackers, financiers, researchers and digirati all converging on the top floor space overlooking the Nairobi skyline.

I later told Erik, half-jokingly, that you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting half a dozen TED Fellows as well.

Long before the March 3rd iHub launch, it became clear that something truly unique was taking shape here. Too often, young African software engineers, designers, researchers and innovative thinkers (often referred to as the “Cheetah generation”) labor in isolation and with limited resources, working on the same or similar problems that someone else, somewhere has likely already solved. Just as important, others may be venturing down a path filled with insurmountable obstacles and dead ends.

The idea behind the iHub—and other new technology labs cropping up across Sub-Saharan Africa—is to put a group of exceptionally smart “doers” under one roof, provide them with a top notch work environment, generate ideas at a rapid pace, filter out the dead ends, present the best candidates to investors and produce viable businesses (and success stories) along the way. The end goal isn’t to generate wild profits for the iHub itself under an exclusive brand, but rather to grow a stronger technology community that hackers, researchers, policymakers and VCs are naturally drawn to.

ihub

It’s not a far-fetched idea that world class products and services can grow out of a place like the iHub. Africa is a continent renowned for innovations conceived and built from limited resources. Countless examples exist of indigenous technologies borne from constraints that have led to hugely successful solutions. Among them is M-Pesa, Kenya’s popular mobile banking and payment system, whose model has only recently been prototyped in the West. Likewise, witness how Ushahidi, an open source software effort conceived in the wake of Kenya’s 2008 post-election violence has elevated Africa’s global tech status and attracted worldwide acclaim for its rapid deployments in conflict and crisis zones such as the DRC, Gaza, Haiti and Chile, as well as serving as an invaluable tool for election monitoring. Even Washington DC has Kenya to thank for the part it played in cleaning up after Snowmageddon.

When the “Why I blog about Africa” meme made the rounds of the blogosphere awhile back, I mentioned the spirit of innovation and entrepreneurship I observed in Cameroon and elsewhere on the continent. I made reference to bearing witness to “an African Renaissance” fueled by ICT and led by a young generation of idealists.

It’s an open secret now that the African Renaissance is already in its early stages. The continent is undergoing a period of rapid transformation due in part to increasingly faster and cheaper bandwidth which is being utilized by young Africans armed with laptops, smart phones and bright ideas.

This video, produced by the iHub’s neighbors the 1Percent Club in the iLab, captures some of the buzz and creativity on the ground in Nairobi:

We’ve observed the same enthusiasm and immense potential for open collaboration in our coworking and incubation space at Limbe Labs. Ideas get cross-pollinated, professional networking occurs spontaneously and businesses are accelerated at a faster pace.

In a follow-up post, I’ll discuss some ideas brainstormed in Nairobi for how this emergent tech hub network can better support African entrepreneurs.



Quick Hits for Oct 11



Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

From NASA’s Earth Observatory website:

Season after season, year after year, people set fire to African landscapes to create and maintain farmland and grazing areas. People use fire to keep less desirable plants from invading crop or rangeland, to drive grazing animals away from areas more desirable for farming, to remove crop stubble and return nutrients to the soil, and to convert natural ecosystems to agricultural land. The burning area shifts from north to south over the course of the year, in step with the coming and going of Africa’s rainy and dry seasons.

NASA has previously published some impressive seasonal fire patterns of the African continent, using Terra and Aqua satellite telemetry data. More recently, the University of Maryland, in partnership with NASA and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, has created the Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS). FIRMS combines remote sensing and GIS technologies to deliver near real-time global hotspot/active fire locations to natural resource managers and other stakeholders around the world. Here’s a dynamic map of Africa’s bush fires plotted over the last 48 hours:

Mapping Africa’s Bush Fires

As you can see, the most intense fire activity is located around Angola, southern DRC, Zambia, Mozambique and Madagascar. This is consistent with seasonal fire patterns for this time of year.

While fire is a part of the natural cycle of the seasonally dry grasslands and savannas of Africa, ecologists and climatologists have reason to be concerned about Africa’s intense burning. The frequency with which fires return to previously burned areas helps determine which species of plants (and therefore animals) can survive. When the fire-return interval is too quick, the land may become degraded and unusable for farming or grazing. In the semi-arid and fragile Sahel, land degradation through overuse of fire or overgrazing can create pockets of desert. The massive amount of burning that occurs in Africa each year creates carbon dioxide and aerosol particles, both of which play a role in global climate and may create a public health hazard as well (as one who has lived through many of Central West Africa’s fire seasons, I can attest to the latter).

Seasonal burning of dry grassland and savanna is one issue, but slash and burn agriculture of Africa’s forestland is a different matter. Near real-time mapping resources such as FIRMS are invaluable tools for advocacy, outreach and community education.

For more information about this topic, check out blogger Andriankoto Ratozamanana’s TED Global talk on the environmental crisis posed by the “crazy slash and burn” of Madagascar’s forests and the positive steps being taken to remedy the problem.



Navigating Africa With OpenStreetMap

OpenStreetMap, the free and open collaborative map of the world, just got a major boost with some very capable routing directions across Africa. This is demonstrated with driving directions from Cape Town to Ethiopia using CloudMade, a service that provides access to tools and APIs for building mobile- and web-based applications using OpenStreetMap data. You can view the map here or by clicking the image below.

OpenStreetMap

Bing Maps falls just short of this mark, but calculates a slightly shorter route from Cape Town to Nairobi, routed through Zimbabwe. Google Maps, despite getting a massive update for Africa recently, currently lacks route finding capabilities in Africa over any distance that I could find, including intra-city trips and short hauls between major cities in the same country.

CloudMade announced that partner Nutiteq has just released new mobile libraries for Blackberry and Android, two leading mobile platforms. These libraries enable mobile access to a full range of CloudMade services including custom image tiles, geosearch and routing like the demonstration above.

Why OpenStreetMap?
This is significant because OpenStreetMap data is free and open, and CloudMade’s founders Steve Coast, Nick Black and their development team all share a strong commitment to using open source software and open data. By contrast, Google and Bing maps rely on proprietary, copyrighted data licensed by big mapping companies such as NAVTEQ and Tele Atlas that is protected by restrictive terms of service (TOS) agreements.

This may not sound like a big deal, particularly if the Google Maps API can be incorporated into open source projects. But this only governs how you use the software, not the data—which is still under copyright. The latter comes into play if you attempt to cache image tiles (useful for offline mapping) or want to use bulk feeds of latitude and longitude coordinates.

OpenStreetMap1

Free, collaborative maps are indispensable in humanitarian work, especially in places where base map data is often scarce and out of date. OpenStreetMap recognizes this, and has formed the Humanitarian OpenStreetMap Team (HOT) to apply the principles of open source and open data sharing towards humanitarian response and economic development. By using rapid, internet based collaboration (or crowd-sourcing), OpenStreetMap is able to create highly detailed maps with routing information for conflict zones like the Palestine Gaza Strip where incomplete or inaccurate maps existed before. Maps of these kinds are useful for NGOs, journalists, aid agencies and citizens equipped with crisis mapping applications like Ushahidi, which fully supports OpenStreetMap data.

When deployed on a mobile platform running the Android OS and using OpenStreetMap data together with CloudMade’s API, a truly open, end-to-end solution is a reality.



Weekly Quick Hits

Throughout the week I make note of interesting news pieces, blog posts, online debates and trending topics with a focus on technology and Africa. This is an experiment in sharing some of these items, filtered by yours truly, in a blog post. Wherever possible I’ll try to include appropriate links to the people behind the stories so readers can follow them online. We’ll see if this turns into a weekly habit.

Weekly Quick HitsThe much-anticipated arrival of the SEACOM cable, linking east and southern Africa to Europe and India, topped African tech news and sparked a great deal of controversy online. Rebekah Heacock collects reactions from the blogosphere over at Global Voices Online. Whiteafrican does a comprehensive roundup of the debate surrounding the event on tweets and blogs.

A group of Nigerian twitterers and bloggers started a movement called Light Up Nigeria with the intent of mobilizing Nigerians to demand reliable electricity from their government. Solomon Sydelle gives an excellent backgrounder on the problem and provides a growing list of social media contacts related to the movement. Blacklooks collects critical reactions to the online campaign and suggests that what Nigeria really needs are flyers and a Banksy to address the problem at the street level.

TED Africa Director Emeka Okafor has a short post and YouTube video link about the Eden Campus, a school that teaches business skills and entrepreneurship to marginalized South Africans.

StartupAfrica offers some technical tips for building an African micro-blogging platform with a listing of existing services and an interesting discussion by a variety of Africa tech heads.

Africa Rural Connect teams up with the NPCA to ask the question, “What’s your best idea for Africa?” with a focus on improving the lives of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa. The ARC launch party was held on July 21st in Washington DC. Here’s Molly Mattessich describing the inspiration for ARC in a video presentation.

I’d be remiss without mentioning something about TEDGlobal 2009 in Oxford. Trying to follow the live stream of mind-blowing presentations online is like drinking from a fire hose. Brainpicker filters the stream with some selected highlights. Among all the talks, an unexpected favorite came from Brother Paulus Terwitte, a German friar who thinks we’ve become like primitive hunter-gatherers, preoccupied with collecting information, instead of taking in less and deepening our lives.

The irony of Brother Terwitte’s message in the context of this post is not lost on this blogger. With this, I am going outside for a Sunday stroll.




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