Connect with us

Opinion

How civic tech is fighting corruption and promoting accountability in East Afrika

Published

on

Firstly, let us define what civic technology, or civic tech as it is sometimes known, is.

On 4 July 2017, the United States of America which is is also known as the founding home of civic tech, was popping confetti and fireworks in commemoration of her 241st year of independence. On the same day in Kampala, Uganda, there was a showcase of civic tech tools.

A full day’s event was hosted by technology and incubation space, Outbox, in conjunction with the Collaboration on International ICT Policy in East and Southern Africa (CIPESA) to showcase civic tech as a tool of accountability in Uganda, and the Afrika at large.

A brief primer on civic tech

For many, civic tech is the bridge between a government’s mission and modern technology’s potential. However, we need to remember that civic tech has largely gained prominence only in the recent past, with the accelerated rise of the Internet and by extension social media, when savvy computer programmers, designers, civil servants and members of the private sector came together to create solutions to some of the most pressing problems stemming from ill governance of society.

A remarkable example of civic tech in East Africa is Ushahidi. Ushahidi was developed in Kenya during the tumultuous 2007 post election period. At the time, there were episodes of violence as innocent and unsuspecting people were killed and attacked following the uprising after Kenya’s 2007 elections. To address this, the Ushahidi team deployed a relatively inexpensive and widely accessible SMS, social media and web platform to map the hotspots of violence in real-time. The interactive heat maps were used to inform Kenya’s citizens and the security forces of the fault lines supercharged by a volatile and incendiary electorate.

Map of xenophobic attack hotspots in South Africa using Ushahidi.

Arguably, no other tool has gained such global acclaim like the aforementioned. However that is no measure or sign whatsoever that civic tech is not appreciated — and used, in Uganda, and East Afrika at large.

Where is the edge?

In the age of the Internet and social media there has remarkably been an increase in civic conscientiousness and awareness.

According to recent figures from the Uganda Communications Commission, Uganda has just over 13 million Internet users; an estimated 32% of the total population. It is further estimated that the majority of those plugged into the Internet live in urban and peri urban areas.

With increased economic interests in urban areas coupled with increasingly young and tech savvy population seeking economic opportunities, there is even more pressure from the government to deliver. While it is widely renowned that public officials in Uganda have practiced spates of corruption, embezzlement and tepid responses to the citizenry in wake of calls for accountability; civic tech offers a possible solution to issues at large.

Civic tech deals in the business of information which has nefarious ties to it. Information such as public expenditure, crime statistics, development plans et al have some of that attached to them. When civic tech is leveraged as an intermediary between government and the citizen then there is more openness and accountability.

This feedback loop has a ripple effect in a way that government and other service providers religiously speak the language of service delivery without mincing words or cutting corners.

Getting to the main point

The day’s opening remarks were made by CIPESA Programmes Associate, Ashnah Kalemera who introduced CIPESA and most profoundly ICT For Democracy (#ICT4Dem), the programme through which the day’s event was organised  —  with an aim to promote human rights and democracy in East Afrika through ICT.

She further made remarks about what was expected and highlighted briefly what had taken place on 16 June 2017 at a similar showcase at Buni Hub, in Dar es salaam, Tanzania.

Outbox founder and Code4Africa lead in Uganda, Richard Zulu, took it away from there. A parade of civic tech products, tools and initiatives were highlighted in this lengthy presentation. Most remarkably was PesaCheck, a Kenyan founded fact checking tool for news and media whose arena has recently been proliferated by the unnerving rise of “fake news”. Still, in the post-truth age, there has never been any more dire need for fact checking of public budgets, procurement process, polling data, census data et al. Among tools presented included:

  1. Budeshi: an open contracting platform meant to strip away the opaque details behind public procurement.
  2. Siyanza: a platform to unmask contracts and bids awarded through lobbying by charlatan politicians.
  3. Citizen Reporter: a citizen journalism platform.
  4. HURU Map: a visualised data repository of Uganda census data.
  5. Dodgy Doctor: a content first platform by the Star Media Group in Kenya to identify and shame quack doctors.
  6. SADC Medicine: a web tool for proving authenticity of medicine in drug stores.
Richard Zulu presenting at #ICT4Dem.

By the close of Richard’s presentation one couldn’t help but look on with wonder at how much a group of hackers and designers and lobbyists had collectively put across to promote civic engagement from different and several facets of governance.

Richard gave a great example of a case of citizen journalism where in 2016, an unknown citizen filmed a police patrol truck in what seemed like a deliberate knock of an enthused supporter during one of the unlawful but peaceful procession. What he didn’t mention was that the alleged driver who was arraigned in the courts of law was recently acquitted on the grounds of absence of “sufficient” evidence.

This example aptly summarises the hurdle behind the long walk to fully embracing civic tech in Uganda and East Afrika.

When does one gain the confidence that their query sent via the AskYourGov platform has been seen, or in some extreme cases, has bounced?

Furthermore, when does one gain the hope that their query will be replied to or, as in many cases, be flushed down a bottomless pit of silence?

As some researchers have found out, it is very paramount to get an acknowledgement of receipt for any sort communication made to government officials. Even with electronically signed emails and other diplomatic cables, the proof of receipt can easily be swept under the rug.

Isaac Latigo from Parliament Watch Uganda  —  a collective of social media savvy journalists and activists  —  presented a catchy slideshow of their works. They guid3 aging legislators to new and modern platforms of communication. While the youth are increasingly adopting social media and civic tech tools, across the divide, the August House mainly dominated by aging legislators and public officials is not and this despite the legal and regulatory frameworks that demand of MDAs to publish and provide information on demand.

The strategy behind Parliament Watch’s activities is in the duality of execution. In one way, they rally MPs to adopt social media and diligent use of e-mail and other digital forms of communication. In some cases they even open up these digital accounts for the aforesaid officials.

Now, on the other hand, they must create engaging content for their target consumers  —  the citizens.

Since they are in the business of reporting on the long and boring parliamentary proceedings, they must commodify these proceedings in short and terse and catchy segments. The biggest upside is in some isolated incidences, like the #MPsEngage segment on Twitter they have garnered more mileage than what could have been possible for the same, on mainstream media.

Not enough

When requests for data are made to MDAs and go unanswered, or if lucky enough, rejected (not discounting that a few requests are granted), then that undermines the laws and charters the country subscribes to; access to information, right to information, universal declaration on human rights, among others.

This is not reason enough to throw in the towel. Fair enough, there is still interest from the government’s side. If they are truly engaged, at least, ParliamentWatch showed us that it is possible albeit on a small scale.

A duo comprising of Daniel and Ivan from Omuliisa co-presented their flagship product; M-Omuliisa. It was initially developed to provide agricultural extension services to rural farmers in Uganda but has since been refashioned to serve the growing needs of service delivery.

M-Omuliisa is deployed in the Northern and Eastern parts of Uganda through available via SMS and web platforms. The team couldn’t emphasize enough how the product was made possible through intimate and prolonged engagements with stakeholders right from the parish and district levels. Feedback from the initial product development phases were incorporated and concerns affecting the product were addressed almost immediately.

However, the narrative about the proliferation of mobile devices in rural areas is probably oversold according to revelations from Daniel, one of the presenters. While potential for change was huge, and the trails by the disruption of mobile money were significant, the challenges surrounding literacy of the rural populace could possibly be the largest impediment to adoption of basic technology (as an intermediary to service delivery).

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic — Arthur C. Clarke

He said, they had to teach the rural farmers intuitive and basic tasks such as sending texts and interpreting feedback from USSD platforms. A prohibitively expensive and mundane process, quite often technology solutions did not cater for.

According to 2014 census data, about 75% of Ugandan live in rural areas. This is a significant number that must be included in the civic tech agenda at all costs. This is what inclusive is truly made of.

The panel of the day comprised of Gerald Businge of Ultimate Media Consults, Lillian Nalwoga of CIPESA, Ray Besiga; a designer and software developer at Sparkplug and Joshua Akandwanaho from NITA-UG. It was moderated by Brian Lamtoo, a software developer with Creative DNA, the makers of NTV Go; a citizen journalism mobile application in Uganda.

Ray introduced Urb, a mobile application he developed to crowdsource reports on shortcomings of services rendered by government and her parastatals such broken utilities, potholes, and the like affecting city dwellers. With great pleasure, he announced that one pothole had been refilled thanks to that one of the handful reports submitted on the app. In line with the power of crowdsourcing, Yogera.ug, was developed by a team at Hivecolab (the first tech hub in Uganda). It seeks to promote “whistle-blowing” of the bad, and celebration of the good, among civil servants through crowdsourced responses from the public.

KCCA, in the last couple of years, has taken significant interest in creating a city that works for the inhabitants. Similarly, it has proactively adopted civic tech platforms such as social media and other platforms such as its own mobile application and parallel web portals. For example, during the event, two platforms were showcased. User.ug is a web platform for monitoring clean construction projects in the city. The other was a solid management system, to monitor volume and distribution of waste management service providers.

Moving on, Joshua Akandwanaho on behalf NITA-UG highlighted the importance of government investments in enabling civic tech. He reemphasized what Mr Moses Ocero, the Assistant Commissioner at Ministry of ICT & National Guidance, had earlier talked about. In the current financial year, the government had dedicated about UGX 248.15 billion, an estimated 0.86% of the national budget to the Ministries of Science, Technology and Innovation and that of ICT & National Guidance and supporting agencies. This by any measure may look like a drop in the ocean, however it is a significant increase to the ICT sector that was barely allocated to about USD 2.5 million in FY 2014/2015 (back there Ministry of ICT represented almost the entire ICT sector) to the current USD 68 million.

Also, with the growing interest in Public Private Partnerships (PPP) and private sector involvement in ICT infrastructure projects such as the USD 12 million Facebook-Airtel Uganda-BCS partnership fibre optic project in West Nile Uganda, there is much potential.

Moreover, the government is deeply interested in developing and supporting ICT infrastructure such as her own national fibre optic backbone; in order to link all MDAs to a centralised and accessible network. In the evenings, and as already piloted in the metropolis of Kampala, free wi-fi from the freed bandwidth is availed to citizens at no charge.

Through implementation of existing laws such as the Access to Information Act, and the proposed Open Data Policy, more is expected from government in trading information between her MDAs and the general public in different and more engaging ways.

These synergies in government, Gerald Businge called should be even more nuanced in the media fraternity. He said that they as a fraternity ought to adopt development of tools and products in partnership with software developers and designers.

It was at this point that Lillian Nalwoga called for concerted efforts in different facets of the stakeholder engagement. She decried that for long many CSOs have been working in closed silos insulated from the software development community. What better way was to approach civic tech was people from diverse backgrounds and collectively prod and prod until there was more spread and adoption of tools to promote accountability and transparency.

At the end of the day, one money quote rang true, “Civic tech is not about the exploitation of technology but service to community.”

This service is paved neither by only bits and bytes, nor even just good intentions, nor ideological hairsplitting, but by deliberate action and concerted efforts from a range of responsible stakeholders. The civic tech showcase was just the beginning of many showcases to come.

This post was originally published by iAfrikan. Check out their excellent coverage and follow them down here:

Technology News out of Afrika on iAfrikan

Read next: The alt-right will protest the firing of James Damore with a ‘March on Google’

Readmore

Apps

Why Snapchat Spectacles failed

Published

on

How come only 0.08% of Snapchat’s users bought its camera sunglasses? Hundreds of thousands of pairs of Spectacles sit rotting in warehouses after the company bungled the launch. Initial hype and lines for its roving, limited time only Snapbot vending machines led Snap to overestimate demand but underdeliver on quality and content.

Massive piles of assembled and unassembled video-recording sunglasses sit unsold, contributing to Snap’s enormous costs and losses, says The Information. Internal Snap data shows less than 50 percent of buyers kept using Spectacles a month after purchase, Business Insider’s Alex Heath reports. A “sizeable” percentage stopped after just a week, with a source calling the retention rate “shockingly low”.

What was the problem? Snap generated huge hype for Spectacles, but then waited 5 months to openly sell them. Once people actually tried Spectacles, few kept wearing them, and word of mouth about their disuse spread. Snap never got visionary video markers onboard. And as Snapchat’s popularity waned in the face of competitors, the fact that Spectacles only interfaced with its app rather than a phone’s camera roll became a burden.

Snap did some things right with Spectacles. The fashion photo spread announcement felt classy and surprising despite clues and photos of CEO Evan Spiegel trickling out ahead. The initial launch was a marketing extravaganza, with multi-hour lines of cool kids waiting on the Venice Beach boardwalk to buy them. And the Snapbots being dropped in random locations was exciting and made people feel special if they got ahold of them. But once people put them on their face, the excitement died off.

Karl Lagerfeld’s photo of Snap CEO Evan Spiegel donning Spectacles for their September 2016 reveal

Here’s a breakdown of the major flaws that emerged with Spectacles in the year since their debut, with a focus on the stilted launch strategy:

Botched Roll Out

Snap first announced Spectacles with some Karl Lagerfeld photos of Spiegel wearing them on September 24th 2016. Hype was high despite the beachey color options that turned some people off. It took until November 10th for the first Snapbot vending machines to launch. While the hype had cooled slightly, demand was huge as people wanted to be the first on the block with Spectacles, and lines stretched down streets.

But Snap whether it was because Snap wanted to milk the Snapbot promotion, couldn’t tell if Spectacles should be exclusive or widely available, or it had supply chain problems, it took until February 20th for Snap to start openly selling Specs online.

Waiting five months after the initial announcement was an eternity in the fast-moving teenage fad cycle. They weren’t cool by the time they were buyable. Everyone had already seen the sunglasses and circular video all over the Internet, most owners had long since stopped using them, the holiday season had passed, and few people wanted to buy so late. It took until June, 8 months after their debut, for Spectacles to become available in Europe.

If Snap had instead made its announcement, quickly outfitted some lucky normal users and celebrities with Spectacles, then launched a giant Black Friday sale at the peak of its hype, all those people fascinated with the gadget might have bought immediately. Everyone would have paid before word got out that people weren’t going to wear camera glasses all that much.

Alternatively, Snap could have gone the path of exclusivity lit by its fashion-focused debut. Rather than ever selling Specs openly, it could have gotten them into runway shows and magazines while sticking with the limited-edition Snapbots. Then after a few months it could have ceased all sales, turned existing pairs into fought-over collector’s items, and saved the mainstream rollout for an eventual v2 launch. Unfortunately, Snap seems to have got stuck between these exclusive and mass-retail strategies.

Where Were The Spectacles Influencers? – To drive demand, Snap needed to demonstrate all the creative things you could do with Spectacles, and the cool people who wore them. Yet at the time, it still had a very hands-off approach to dealing with traditional celebrities and web influencers. Snap didn’t make outfitting creators with Specs and training them to use the camera glasses a priority. Instead of top Snappers constantly posting circular videos and encouraging fans to do the same, Snap effectively left the gadget out to dry. Snap let random Spectacles buyers, often over-enthusiastic social media amateurs, define the image of the product, similar to how Google’s core mistake was allowing geeky developers to become the face of Glass.

TechCrunch’s video host Tito Hamze became a de facto face of Spectacles as there were so few influencers using them

Few Examples Of Great Content – Stemming from Snap’s failure to foster a Spectacles creator scene, it did a terrible job of showing off how Spectacles could be used beyond the initial commercial. Neither Snap’s in-house team or independent social stars were recruited to make videos exposing the creative opportunities of the device. It did little through event marketing or in-app promotion to encourage Spectacle content creation. Karen X. Cheng was perhaps the only Spectacles influencer lighting the path, with her first-person mirror dancing video and Spectacles-on-babies ad she helped Brawny make. But Snap should have ensured the Internet was flooded with these videos proving what you can’t do with your phone’s camera, and why you should buy Spectacles.

People Are Still Freaked Out By Camera Glasses – Google Glass tainted the market with its “not sure if you’re recording me” design. Even though Snap put more obvious recording signal lights on Spectacles, people would still question you about whether they were on camera. That not only made people uncomfortable being around Spectacles, but made you feel like a bit of a creep just wearing them even if you never tapped the shutter button. Their appeal was further limited by their polarizing  “fashion-forward” design (some would call ugly), while the only non-black colors were aggressively bright teal and coral.

Continue Reading

Insider

Virtual reality – the only way same-sex marriage is legal in Australia

Published

on

As Australians agonizingly await the final results from the same-sex marriage survey (which doesn’t even guarantee a change in the law), gay couples continue having to tie the knot elsewhere, as it’s insanely the only way.

A dedicated group from Sydney have done their best to try and change this with an event they termed Virtual Equality. The project gives Australians the possibility to experience a same-sex wedding the only way legally possible in Australia – through virtual reality. Giles Clayton, one of the organizers, wanted to emphasize that same-sex marriage is nothing to be afraid of:

The goal was for Aussies to get the chance to experience something they can’t right now and hopefully change perspectives about the fear of legalizing same-sex marriage.

The project was funded by J. Walter Thompson and Luscious International, both major players in the Australian advertising and video production world. To bring the event to life, the first step was finding a same-sex couple looking to get hitched.

Through a few degrees of separation, they came across Dan Thurston and Thomas Crow, a soon-to-be-married Kiwi-American couple based in New Zealand. The loving pair volunteered for the project, allowing J. Walter Thompson and Luscious International to attend their Kiwi wedding on September 22 and film the ceremony in 360-video. You can watch the ceremony here.

Credit: Emily Raftery

After attending the NZ wedding, the Virtual Equality team began organizing a second wedding for Dan and Thomas in Australia – only this time, in virtual reality. They invited the public, politicians and some of the couple’s Australian friends to attend and appreciate how great a same-sex marriage in Australia can be. Dan was hopeful that seeing would be believing.

I hope that, in seeing us as a positive model for marriage, Australians can see that marriage equality is a no-brainer and any debate about such basic human rights is dumb.

The ‘virtual ceremony’ took place in First Fleet Park in Sydney on October 10, with each guest receiving a VR headset and headphones to experience the Kiwi ceremony. Hundreds of people of all ages lined up to be part of the event, with responses ranging from joy and laughter to tears. Directed by Lou Quill, watch how it went below:

Guests included Sally Rugg, director of GetUp’s campaign for marriage equality and Jenny Leong, member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly representing Newtown for the Greens. Leong was deeply affected that something so simple and natural can’t legally happen in Australia.

It’s bizarre that in Australia we can only experience a same-sex marriage through virtual reality. Especially in Sydney where we fly the rainbow flag so bright. Love is personal but should be inclusive of everyone and this is why we need to change the ban on same-sex marriage.

The legalization of same-sex marriage has been a controversial issue on Australia’s political agenda for several years. The current Marriage Act 1961 in Australia narrowly states that marriage is “the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.” 

Australia is currently in the midst of a non-binding, non-compulsory postal survey which asks the question “Do you support a change in the law to allow same-sex couples to marry?” Unlike a referendum which seeks to amend the Australian Constitution if a majority of Australians vote “Yes” in the majority of states, the postal vote merely seeks to gauge public opinion on the issue.

That means, even if the postal vote delivers a majority “Yes” result, there’s no guarantee the law will change. Instead, the government will introduce a private member’s bill to amend the current Marriage Act. Members of parliament will then be allowed to freely vote for or against the bill. On the other hand, if the postal vote delivers a majority “No” response, the decision is binding and no bill will be introduced…

The team behind Virtual Equality are hopeful it won’t get to that. They have distributed hundreds of rainbow-branded Google Cardboard headsets to influencers and politicians around the country, letting them experience the same-sex wedding in VR. Rachel Wintle, one of the organizers from J. Walter Thompson explained:

With many Australians still fearful about same-sex marriage both companies urge positive responses from anyone who wishes to share or comment on the campaign, to counteract the often hateful messages that have been shared by members of the NO campaign over the voting period.

While the absolute deadline to return your ballot is November 7, 2017, both companies encourage Australians to vote “Yes” for marriage equality by this Friday, October 27th.

With same-sex marriage now legal in 23 countries, let’s hope that Australia will be the next to recognize loving relationships like that of Dan and Thomas. And the message to take away from Virtual Equality’s campaign: it’s time to make marriage equality a reality.

Readmore

Continue Reading

Gadgets

PSA: Bigger smartphone apertures don’t count if the sensors get smaller

Published

on

In the past few years, smartphone manufacturers have started paying more attention to the optics they use on their smartphone, using wider apertures for better low light performance. That’s awesome, but as a photographer, I have an ongoing gripe about the marketing buzz around apertures: An aperture tells you little about performance if you don’t know the camera’s sensor size.

As a refresher, all else being equal, wider apertures (a lower number) mean better low light performance and shallower depth of field (more background blur or ‘bokeh’). The problem with smartphone photography is that rarely is everything else equal, sensor size in particular.

I’m going to oversimplify things a bit, but let’s assume two phones are technologically identical except for their aperture or sensor size. If two phones have the same sensor size, the one with the wider aperture will be better. But by the same token, if two phones have the same aperture, the one with the larger sensor will win.

If both of the variables are different, well, things can get pretty messy.

To use an exaggerated example, here’s a photo taken at F1.8 on the Pixel 2.

And here’s a photo taken at F3.5 on a high-end camera with a much larger micro-four thirds sensor.

Despite the ‘wider’ aperture on the Pixel, the micro four-thirds camera has much more blur (and would theoretically perform much better in low light too). That’s because the micro four thirds sensor is capturing more light overall thanks the much larger surface area on the CMOS chip.

To drive the point home, here’s the micro four-thirds camera at F1.8

This image compares common sensor sizes for different camera categories. The Pixel 2’s sensor is believed to be 1/2.55,” or a teensy bit smaller than the smallest sensor on that image. You can see the dramatic size difference.