Africa Gathering

Spent most of yesterday in Bloomsbury at Africa Gathering, an event that brought together a bunch of technologists and people interested in development issues for a talk about useful tools for supporting grassroots development in Africa. It’s not a field I know anything about, and it was refreshing to encounter the “ICT4D community” and their agenda. There were a lot of political and cultural undercurrents, as you might expect, giving rise to excessive efforts on the part of some to distance themselves from any taint of colonialist thinking, and being missed completely by others who seemed less alive to the complexities that were constantly on the edge of the discussion than they might have been. Colour, age, gender, class: none of these were present in the ways I might have expected them to be, though all of them seemed to shape everything I heard.

But maybe I’ve been spending too much time with social scientists. Most people on stage were technologists to varying degrees, making a nice change from the events I’ve been to recently. I can’t possibly hope to capture everything I heard, but here comes a short rundown of who I heard speak

Tim Unwin opened the day as a well-recognised figure within the ICT4D community there, and certainly gave the day an appropriately gravitas-filled thumbs-up. “Africa can’t afford for us to make any more mistakes” and “Exciting things happen at the edges” were two ideas that permeated the rest of the day. Tim was followed by David Hollow, giving an overview of his time spent introducing XO laptops to schools in Ethiopa for the Ethiopian Engineering Capacity Building Programme as part of the OLPC project. It was fascinating and a great contribution to the day, though I was most struck by the fact that the problems he described were the same you might find with a similar project and attitude in the UK. That’s not a criticism. It’s encouraging that there are lessons we’ve learned within the UK around ICT and education that we could share with him and similar projects.

Nkeiru Joe from the International Law Department at the Virije Universiteiit in Brussels underlined the place of the sea in cross-border relations and the crucial role played by international agreements in regulating its use (not least in ensuring the security of telecommunications infrastructure): the relationship between the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea and the use of ICTs in suppporting develoment was a wonderfully lateral step for most people there I think: certainly for me. Ken Banks gave an inspiring overview of Frontline SMS, free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a communications hub: his talk was pretty much just a list of fantastic stories of the huge, life-saving difference access to simple comunications technology can make through gathering and sharing data and information in remote communities. When you’ve got something like that to share there’s no need for anything fancy (though being as engaging and funny as Ken can’t hurt) and I found the whole thing quite moving, to be honest.

Nigel Waller from Movirtu talked us through the challenges involved trying to give mobile access to the 3.5 billion who earn less than $2 a day.That’s not enough to be able to afford a SIM or handset, or to access all of the mobile services that might help raise their standard of living. In an inspired move, he and his partners have managed to find a way to give people a phone number – an identity – without their needing their own handset or SIM: people buy an M-KADI card with a number and a PIN, which they can use on other phones. Put like that it sounds quite straightforward, but of course there’s a lot of technical heavy lifting going on behind the scenes.

Sian Townsend from Google gave us an overview of user-experience research and described their general work in East Africa (specifics were blocked by their PR department, which went down badly but really I think is just another example of how hard it is for large organisations to move as quickly as smaller networks). Searching by voice and SMS seemed to find a ready stream of people trusting Google (or the mobile operator Google partnered with) with their questions on health and relationships. She mentioned, which seemed to be news for a lot of people there, surprisingly.

Nick Short, of VetAid, rejected the “new colonialism” of Western-focussed helpful ideas in favour of understanding realities on the ground: his team hoped to understand these better through GPS-enabled phones provding contextualised data on diseases, climate conditions and other crucial aspects of life in Tanzania. I was grateful to him for making the connection between the health of people there and their cattle: considering people within an ecological perspective seems obvious now, but I have to admit to an “of course!” moment when he started talking about the principle of “one health”. He took us from Blomsbury to Tanzania on Google Earth at the start of his talk, which I’d have loved to have seen everyone do. For people like me who haven’t been further south than Morocco it’s easy to slip into thinking of “Africa” as nowhere near the UK: this really helped to counter that. The video of a cat castration on an iPhone was less helpful, to be honest, though I can see how it would be useful in some circumstances.

Lunch was a welcome chance to take a break from absorbing information. I went to the brand-new Planet Organic, where I paid a fortune for a seaweed wrap that was too big to eat without most of it going to the pigeons. After a nice sit-down in a square in the sun, I joined everyone else for the next session, which began with Niall Winters and Kevin Walker from LKL presenting their work with the Village e-Science for Life project, improving agriculture practice and literacy through participatory design.

Alex Petroff left me open-jawed. I must have missed the part where he said who he worked for, or perhaps he was too self-deprecating to put himself forward any more than he had to, but I think he founded Working Villages International. If I’d read that page without seeing him speak I would have written it off as naive and idealistic: having seen him talk and seen the photographs I think the site is probably selling the project a little short. It’s a straightforward story of everyday farming folk in a part of the world devastated by war with no social or economic capital to speak of, who turn things around with the help of a clear-eyed economist with a plan and a calendar, and who now produce biogas from their oxen, mitigate deforestation with solar-powered ovens and grow cabbages the size of small moons. He is an exceptional man, and without his humour and modesty, his clarity of purpose and ability to motivate entire villages to change their way of life would be absolutely terrifying.

Alex was followed by Simon Berry, who shared with us the story behind his Colalife campaign. Realising that Coca-cola could get their drink to places where medicines often didn’t make it that far, he had the astoundingly brilliant idea of using their crates to carry oral rehydration salts and information on preventing deaths from diarrhoea. I just noticed that Coca-Cola confirmed they’ll support trials, which has been a 20-year battle. Go to the site and read his story: it’s a wonderful story.

Martin Konzett from showed us this video. It’s fantastic:

Have a look at their work at Martin was followed by Dave Mason, from IntraHealth, who gave us a powerful set of arguments for keeping development work open and for NGOs using open source tools (apparently not common, which surprised me). He’s illustrating the principles behind open source with a remix competition: more details at Go and download something, remix, post it to them and make a donation while you’re there.

And that was all I had time for before my train back to Bristol. It was a fantastic day, thanks to Edward Scotcher, Mark Simpkins and the rest of the (shamefully anonymous) Africa Gathering team. And the contributors, of course, and the audience: the whole day seemed to be a genuine exchange of ideas, passion and practical experience, and I came home inspired with a huge amount to think about. Thank you!