Tag Archives: Meraka Institute

Web4Dev: Innovation Track Day 1

I lived in New York for about four years so it’s good to be back for a few days to  participate in UNICEF’s Web4Dev conference with colleagues from Ushahidi, Development Seed, InSTEDD, Open Street Map and Digital Democracy.

Clay Shirky moderated the Innovation Track, which focused addressed the issue of access to innovation and participation. The panel included presentations by himself, Steve Vosloo and Grant Cambridge. We then self-organized into half-a-dozen working groups to address specific issues and identify potential solutions within 2-3 year horizon.


Steve Vosloo from South Africa gave the first presentation. Steve is a Shuttleworth Foundation Communications and Analytical Skills Fellow. The main thrust of his presentation was that access to participation is more important than simply having access to information.”Participation fosters Peer-to-Peer (P2P) learning across both time and space.”

This statement resonates particularly well with me as I recently presented the concept of P2P capacity building to a donor interested in fostering a conflict early warning/response ecosystem in Liberia (which I will blog about in the near future). Steve’s remark about there being a wealth of information at the Bottom of the Pyramid (BoP) also resonated. When we talk about access to information, we have to ask ourselves access for who? For the BoP or for us? We are too often egocentric in answering this question.

Ushahidi’s Erik Hersman asked the first question following Steve’s talk. Should we be introducing new tools or going with consumer tools? I agree with Steve’s answer: both. If what we are offering is addressing the need of the BoP, then that’s what matters.

A representative from the French Development Agency asked whether moving to the mobile web meant scrapping the work they had done with regards to Internet access via the PC? Steve replied there is only one Web. The PC web and mobile web are one and the same. The Web is the glue that holds everything together.

Clay Shirky gave the second presentation and focused on different topologies of communication. He suggests that communication between people builds social capital. This means that using pre-existing consumer-based communication tools is important. Groups that use such tools for social communication (situated and informal) are going to communicate more effectively during crises.

In terms of sharing information that is communicated, Clay suggests there is a bias towards sharing. If sharing is made the default option on an information communication platform, then well over 90% of participants will share. This is a particularly important point for humanitarian information systems.

Clay shared the difference between the Center for Disease Control (CDC) and Google’s Flu surveillance project with respect to information communication. What the CDC does is not bio surveillance but rather bio accounting.  This is an excellent analogy to use for conflict early warning systems. The majority of conventional early warning systems are more accounting tools than surveillance tools given the time lag between documentation and dissemination.

Lastly, Clay made a point about moving towards a communication typology in which the different nodes are mobile phones, web servers, radios, etc. This is exactly the project design I recently presented to a donor: cloud computing for humanitarian early warning and response.

Grant Cambridge from The Meraka Institute gave the third presentation. Grant gave us a reality check vis-a-vis access in rural villages in South Africa. There are huge challenges such as maintenance; theft of copper and optical fibres is a frequent issue, for example.

Grant’s group thus developed “The Digital Doorway” a robust single, multi-terminal systems. The platform includes open content, focusing on education, maths, science and games. There are 200 Doorways across South Africa. The platforms are operational 24/7 and some sites are used around the clock.The Meraka Institute deployed the Doorway in many communities where computers had never been heard of.

But after 7 days, children developed the language and vocabulary to describe what they were doing. For example, they had no word for icon, so they made one. The kids ended up teaching themselves about how to use the Doorway. This promotes group learning. Teachers have had to switch off the Doorways because kids would skip school.The Doorways also include a feedback feature where users can provide feedback to the developers.

In conclusion, Grant reiterated the fact that access to info does not apply inclusion and Internet access doesn’t imply learning.

Patrick Philippe Meier