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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collaborative maps are indispensable in humanitarian work, especially in places where base map data is often scarce and out of date.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.



Twitter-MTN Partnership & Innovation in Cameroon

Twitter and MTN Cameroon have announced a partnership that enables MTN subscribers in Cameroon to send and receive tweets from their mobile phones using SMS. Users access the service by texting “START” to 8711 on MTN’s network. Standard messaging rates apply for sending SMS updates, but tweets may be received at no cost. The announcement was made by Jessica Verrilli, Director of Strategic Initiatives & Corporate Development at Twitter during the Africa Media Leaders Forum in Yaoundé.

Innovation in Cameroon

Jessica blogged about the partnership recently and includes a video interview on the launch and Twitter’s involvement with #AMLF.

By striking this deal with MTN, Cameroon joins a select few African countries with short code access to Twitter’s service. For the moment, this includes neighboring internet giant Nigeria and Madagascar. This is big news for Cameroon where smart phone adoption and internet penetration remains relatively low.

Why it matters
The Twitter-MTN Cameroon deal is significant on several levels. While perhaps not the paradigm shift of Facebook Zero, Twitter mobile is already showing signs of being a strong driver of ICT usage and innovation in its own right. How? While everyone is eager to get their hands on low-cost smart phones like the Android-powered IDEOS that debuted in Kenya, at USD $100 it still isn’t that cheap, nor are the data plans. Twitter’s service is made for the low-end handsets that dominate the mobile market in Cameroon and elsewhere in Africa. By setting the cost of receiving updates to zero, you create an instant medium for a new form of communication. This leads to increased efficiencies, better access to market data, propagation of memes, new ideas and most importantly—opens the door for innovation. It has the potential to democratize information flow between the internet-haves and have-nots.

Rural farmers in Cameroon using Twitter?
Twitter’s deal with MTN Cameroon is already being seen a boon for cost-conscious startups. Among the biggest barriers for those building mobile information services is the prohibitive cost of SMS, currently priced at 50 francs (10 cents) for sending an out of network SMS. Even at bulk SMS gateway rates, these costs can quickly add up to the majority of a lean startup’s burn rate. Many enterprising techies have already begun exploring ways to use Twitter as a no-cost group SMS platform. Paul Graham would love this, since one of his three tenets of creating a startup is to spend as little money as possible. One early entrant in this space is Agro-Hub, an ActivSpaces social business that aims to quickly build a user base by delivering market data, news and sustainable farming tips at no cost. Until recently, the bulk of their costs have gone into paying for SMS:

Innovation in Cameroon

Agro-Hub realizes that their target audience—smallholder farmers in Cameroon—aren’t willing to pay for an unproven SMS service, so their model is based on providing free updates. After farmers follow Agro-Hub:Informer on Twitter with their mobiles, Agro-Hub:Trader aims to earn revenue from nominal fees collected when goods are sold directly to the end consumer. Farmers benefit from economies of scale by organizing into cooperatives and bypassing exploitative middlemen, while consumers get local produce at reduced costs.

invoation

This model stands in contrast to Google’s innovative SMS offering that launched with fanfare to serve Uganda’s poor only to see usage plummet when mobile operators started charging a premium for the SMSs.

Final thoughts
A Twitter-MTN Cameroon partnership raises the bar for everyone. Twitter gains an early foothold in a growing market, innovators get a no-cost group SMS platform and MTN subscribers connect with one another and consume mobile content like never before. Meanwhile, the operator continues to make its ridiculously high profits as usual. In the long run, Twitter’s entry into Cameroon increases the base on which innovation can occur. While Google has missed the boat on the cost of access issue, Twitter and Facebook are poised to make their mark with messaging platforms that transcend borders and connect Africans globally.

 



Bamboo Magic’ Mobile Phone & Laptop Case

I had an opportunity to stop by the 2009 South West Regional Agro-Pastoral Show, an annual exhibition for local farmers and craftsmen, here in Limbe this afternoon. The event was held on a community field ringed by exhibition booths overflowing with every imaginable vegetable, fruit and live animal cultivated and raised in the southwest region of Cameroon. In addition, there were a number of innovators with homemade products and gadgets crafted from local materials.

Amid all the displays, one guy stood apart with some creations that can only be described as a near perfect marriage of form, function, green design and a borderline obsession with bamboo. Lekuama Ketuafor is the proprietor of Bamboo Magic, a one-man cottage industry he’s started to supplement his work as a teacher.

Using a set of simple hand tools, glue, varnish, skill and loads of patience, Lekuama finds ways of using bamboo—a ubiquitous, low-cost, renewable material—in ways many people have never imagined. Judging from the size of the crowd gathered around his booth, I suspect few Cameroonians had seen anything quite like Lekuama’s creations before.

beaten

Among the intricately decorated bamboo shoes [2], vest, palm wine calabash, cowboy hat, clocks and so on, I was immediately attracted to two incredibly cool electronics-related pieces: a bamboo covered Nokia phone and an attractive and functional laptop case. Here’s a video of Lekuama, dressed appropriately in head-to-toe bamboo wear, demonstrating these items:

The attention to detail on the laptop case is impressive, right down to the external USB port access, shoulder strap attachments, carry handle, magnetic clasps, internal elastic keeper strap and red felt lining. And how about that chic mobile phone?

Due to the time intensive nature of his craft, Lekuama makes these items for sale in very small quantities. However, his dream is to establish a training center where he can transfer his skills to young Cameroonians and build a community of artisan microentrepreneurs. Heck, I think these items would make a splash in any eco-trendy shop in the West. Any takers?




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