Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Kenya: Local Takes On Silicon Valley

Nairobi — I am a tree hugger at heart, is the response one gets on asking Ory Okolloh about Ushahidi.com's commercial prospects. She does see commercial potential for the new media sensation that has probably given her more coverage in the mainstream global media in recent months than the combined space given to President Kibaki, Prime Minister Raila Odinga, Nobel Laureate Wangari Maathai, Safaricom boss Michael Joseph and Inter Milan footballer McDonald Mariga.
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Yet, if the global buzz Ushahidi is generating is any guide, we could be looking at a Kenyan Google, Microsoft or Facebook in terms of business potential. Ushahidi is a non-profit venture kept afloat by grants from various foundations, but Ms Okolloh is confident that in a few years, it will be able to sustain itself.

It was built without venture capital, and even the technology developed to run it was deliberately kept open source, ruling out patents and proprietorship. And though she does have two young mouths to feed, she is reluctant to even talk about the prospect of super profits.

Big business is starting to express interest in Ushahidi, but she remains cautious of commercial tie-ups that may cramp her style. That's the tree hugger in her. Her business card bears no title. It identifies her workplace as Ushahidi -- crowdsourcing and crisis information. Against her name is just an e-mail address.

Across the world, however, she is earning recognition as co-founder and principal force behind Ushahidi, an online blogger-generated mapping tool that came into its own with the Haiti and Chile earthquakes and US blizzards. "Africa's Gift to Silicon Valley: How to Track a Crisis" was the title of a major feature on Ms Okolloh and Ushahidi in a New York Times article published less than a week before the Pan African Media Conference opened in Nairobi. "Ushahidi technology saves lives in Haiti and Chile", trumpeted the Newsweek interactive site on March 3.

The publicity Ushahidi has generated has also served to put Kenya on the global digital map. And, ironically, if the site is Kenya's gift to Silicon Valley and the world, it is also a gift from Kenya's murderous round of post-election violence. Ms Okolloh, who is based in South Africa, had come home to vote and report on the polls when the violence broke out.

Desperate for information and seeking ways to help, she sent out a plaintive cry on her blog: "Any techies out there willing to do a mash up of where the violence and destruction is using Google Maps?" The response was instantaneous. Within days, volunteer programmers had written a software code that allowed anyone to send in information via SMS, blog posts, video, phone calls and photographs.

The information and its exact source was uploaded onto a map, providing a picture of serious hotspots based on the density of data coming from each location. The Kenyan poll violence was a test-run, and come the Haiti quake, Ushahidi became a global sensation. It was the first time such simple technology had been used on this scale and Ushahidi became the default data base for the Red Cross, US army and international relief effort.

Then came Chile, the blizzards that paralysed much of the US, violence in Palestine and India, trouble in Afghanistan ... the list keeps growing. "Think about that", asked The New York Times on the blizzards. "The capital of the sole superpower is deluged with snow, and to whom does its local newspaper turn to help dig it out? Kenya."

When I first met Ms Okolloh at the annual Highway Africa conference in South Africa a few years ago, she was part of the crowd of young bloggers with a social conscience trying to get a foot in the door. How does it feel now that she sits at the high table? "It feels good," she says with a laugh, "It's been a long journey."

The lesson she learned is that if you stick around long enough and never tire, people will start to pay attention. Ushahidi's success is great vindication of her faith that technology would explode in Africa as, in the early days, many sneered at bloggers who imagined creating something worthwhile and sustainable.

Internet penetration in Africa was nothing to write home about. Now, thanks partly to the mobile phone revolution, old wisdom has been turned upside down. Market researchers are noting the demographic shift, and it is obvious that anyone wanting to reach the under-25s, half the population, must look to new media.

Moderating a roundtable discussion on new media at the Pan African Media Conference, Ms Okolloh wondered why talk of the concept in Africa too often focuses on the social and economic benefits -- paying bills or sending money through M-Pesa; farmers accessing information on weather and fertilisers through SMS.

She thinks the so-called "development" benefit of new media is a by-product; the primary function being fun and ease of communication. But hasn't Ushahidi itself been a major catalyst for good? Yes, she concurs, but that was dependant on the "fun" technology being available in the first place.

She points to the mobile phone revolution on the continent. If mobile phones were sold as "development" rather than affordable and convenient means of communication, she ventures, they might not have taken off so fast. She also refers to the push towards digital villages in Africa.

Quite often, policy makers and implementers report failure because the customers they expected -- farmers seeking information on credit or farm inputs or mothers seeking help for a sick child -- were not forthcoming. Instead users might be youth "wasting time" on Facebook or downloading music. That, to her should be the measure of success. A nice and simple lesson, that, for Information and Communications Permanent Secretary Bitange Ndemo.

Ms Ory Okolloh graduated from Harvard Law School in 2005 and is now a co-founder and executive director of Ushahidi.com. Her self-penned online profile in Global Voices describes a social activist blogger, aka Kenyan Pundit, with a wide range of interests.
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