MobileActive08: m-democracy

m-democracy: mobile technology in citizen participation
José Carlos Vaz

We’re only starting is this sphere, so we have only questions. Questions are: how can we use this technology in budgeting and accountability (these two are different areas of focus: deliberative vs. accountability applications), and what are the barriers and opportunities. Focus on Southern countries.

Currently, effective local government processes seldom use much ICT. Some success in parts of Brazil, where budget debate included cellphones. Mexico some financial accountability stuff.

Why so little? Cultural — people like face to face meetings. Economic — expensive.

Can m-democracy make e-democracy more effective? Speaker claims mobile apps easier to use (though it depends, I suppose, on what you’re used to). Definitely, and especially in the global South, people are more familiar with phones, and are much more likely, obviously, to actually have them.

Speaker argues that local government does not get enough focus from grant-makers and policy makers, obviously especially in the mobile space. If local government improves, the rest of our actions will be far more effective.

Actions: another exhortation to make networks and connections, to push information and case studies to a broader audience; as well as donors.

Discussion: I raised the point that often successful models of accountability have been peer-to-peer messaging, without government, rather than up-and-down between government and citizens. Some examples from Philippines raised, again mostly mobilisation of people rather than up-and-down. Important issue in adoption: need to use technology to amplify existing social groups, rather than targeted at individuals.

MobileActive08: CommCare / OpenROSA

CommCare / OpenROSA
Helping community healthcare workers in Tanzania
Gayo Mhila

Community healthcare workers: visit houses, focus on collecting health data, talking about preventative health, etc. Suffer from lack of effective tools: CommCare is a mobile support tool. OpenROSA: Consortium for mobile data collection and decision support. JavaROSA is a part thereof, a phone-based Java app (uses XForms, open standards in background). Other OpenROSA apps: EpiSurveyor, … (As a side note, there are crowds of OpenROSA people here, and everyone seems to be in on the game. Looks very effective as a collaboration).

– checklists
– simple medical protocols
– day planning
– communication

Speaker stressed, and I think this is indeed absolutely vital: it’s not creating new systems, it’s replacing existing paper-based solutions with mobile technology — thus you can actually get buy-in. Development process: Focus group -> observe workers in action -> paper prototype -> build CommCare and test.

Future plans: system with scheduling and other additional components.

Challenges: infrastructure, both network and for servicing and charging the phones; also managing airtime and workers making personal calls.

Question asked: confidentiality of HIV/AIDS, etc. sufferers. Speaker passed on what community healthcare workers said: the clinics have developed relationships with NGOs, and patients are offered the opportunity to introduce themselves to the NGOs — so it’s an opt-in service in this case.

Other discussion: education is needed for the workers, but can be done. Authoring tools for NGOs to create their own forms not yet available. Government of Tanzania interested, but it is early days yet.

MobileActive08: Using mobile tech within existing communities

Trying to extract some ideas from interesting discussions during first session, and over lunch. The idea is that technology on its own often fails, but in existing social networks it is more successful — particularly in Africa, where existing networks are often very social.

Amazing system being run in Uganda, by BROSDI (the Busoga Rural Open Source & Development Initiative). The model has groups of small scale farmers form local collectives. One person in that collective receives SMSs with agricultural information from government. They write it down in a book, and discuss them at the next collective meeting. Reply as a group by SMS if needed. Interesting of course that mobile technology can affect people even without cellphones, via the group leader. But the key point is it is adding on top of a social network, and so works well! They sound very organised — they distribute laminated instructions sheets on how to use SMSs on various handsets.

At lunch, a representative from the South African government information service was talking about how they really can’t send out broadcast SMSs: they aren’t relevant, they aren’t trusted. People are interested in things that can directly affect their lives. One successful model is the Imbizo that uses the “meeting of the elders” model to raise issues in communities. Submitting issues raised there to government using mobile technology could work well, if of course the issues are acted on.

MobileActive08: Mobile café – opening plenary session

Mobile Café
Allison Hewlitt

380 participants, 45 countries! 30 people in Canada two years ago, 100 in Brazil last year — huge growth!

Live citizen media at the conference: flixwagon – live streaming video; mobileresearcher – live polling; Rhodes University – photos and documenting event

It’s interesting the social differences that appear in multi-national conferences like this. The opening of the talk was very American — a number of analogies of the speaker’s role at the conference (she’s the conference facilitator, which is obviously hard at a conference of this size)! This is light-hearted, making-everyone-feel-at-ease diversions through safaris, symphonies, etc., meta-talk discussing what she needs to talk about. But in South Africa, I think, many would think it’s unnecessary padding, and be keen to get to the point. One country’s good practise (and it is well done) is another’s poor form — and at a conference like this, what can one do?

My problem is what to go to! There are many, many tracks.

Now it’s time for some ice breakers! Lots of chaos expected as we have to move between tables. And we’re being invited to draw on the tables, which have paper tablecloths.

Interesting conversations, good meeting people. Everyone agrees that we need to work together, make open and common platforms, and reduce the cost of services. Also some very interesting projects I’ll touch on in my next post.

BarCampJozi 08 day 2

An even more interesting day at BarCampJozi. It’s been really great meeting everyone! My twitter account is much fuller now.

As before, these are just a few notes and impressions of mine, mostly things that interested me.

Human quantum interaction

Talked about some experiments into ESP and psychokinetics. Mentioned first the human expectation effect (eg. placebo effect).

Some comments from the audience on mirror neurons and very subtle body language cues, and some scepticism on systematic errors and the other usual objections. Tough crowd.

Some discussion on amplification of quantum events through neural networks. Basically, if we are willing to throw away causality, then anything can happen. No surprise there!

Systems thinking
Carl Spies

Speaker interested in how people learn and make decisions, work out what things are right, etc.

Captology (Computers as Persuasive Technologies): how to use computers to make people make better choices, how websites can be made to sound sincere. Graphed the data-information-knowledge-wisdom progression as a positive slope on a graph with axes “understanding” and “connectedness”. Systems thinking is a meta-discipline for describing understanding, pushing us along the path to wisdom.

Ages of humanity: the most important things have moved from “matter” (agrarian) to “energy” (industrial age) to “information”.

Biomatrix: a cross-weaved net. Strands are “actions” or “processes”, and intersections are “identities”. Changing identity needs to look at all the actions involved.

Bluetooth security

Problems with bluetooth security: computational complexity of cracking has greatly decreased, and some devices have hard-coded default security pin codes.

Some discussion of handover from tower to tower, and how it maintains IP address — except when you handover to a different cellphone network. Also picocells, which one can buy and associate with a cellphone network to extend a network. Also can be used to fool cellphones into associating with picocell, and thereby leaking all sorts of data.

Much discussion on mesh networking and community networks. Legal challenge if they undermine cellphone network revenues or interconnect multiple entities. Interesting project in Orange Farm:; blogged about more fully here:, and a FAQ:

The legal framework for phone tapping in South Africa: govt and service provider each have a piece of hardware. Both need to be enabled, with court order (related to national security) to get service provider to do so. Tapped signal only available on govt side. Sounds good!

Social media

Stressed that people need to use their online social networks in the same way that real-world social interaction happens. Applies to corporates using social networks too — eg. in marketing, if the main purpose of the interaction is to sell, you lose. You need to focus on the interaction itself, and giving value to the person too.

Some partial rebuttals: people use networks in different ways, and in particular have different contexts in mind — this affects whether they will view favourable requests from people they don’t know, or corporates. Another point: the communication medium matters too: an SMS with just the word “Thanks” doesn’t have content, and is an interrupt.

Another good point: values and norms differ around the world, but almost all online technology is built around the values of Silicon Valley — not always right!

XMPP and social network architecture
Blaine Cook (formerly chief architect of Twitter)

Starts with a brief history of physics, leading to the start of the web at CERN, as a way of organising data, and work at UC Irvine designing the basis of the internet and web paradigm. BUT problems, eg., Twitter fail whale. Problem: polling the server is inefficient, as most responses are just, “no”. Root problem is that http is a pull protocol, not good for social networks.

XMPP (formerly Jabber) interesting system:
– persistent (ie. saves on initiation)
– lightweight
– bi-directional
– asynchronous
– guaranteed server identity
Now what?

Extending REST for decentralised systems — do subscription / publish system: Jabber PubSub. Nice examples using some politically-loaded comments about current US election candidates. Now outlining a pseudo-Twitter system, where posting messages gets sent as XMPP requests to everyone who’s interested.

Talking about work on FireEagle, a location-aware system. Vital aspect: latency. If it’s low, can send messages like, “you’re walking past your friend right now.” But high latency, ie., http, is too slow for this. Messaging is good, also, for tying together systems, eg., Facebook and Flickr for new notifications. Also, Jabber identity now starts to serve as a single ID.

100% reliability and ordering are LESS important for social networking applications, so not a key constraint here. Some discussion on caching and trunking — the idea at this stage is to use the feeds between servers and services, rather than last mile.

Very interesting discussion about different sorts of applications, and perhaps embedding XMPP in the browser, etc. I’m not writing it all up though.

Engineyard — making cloud management systems. Now rewriting in ActiveMQ or rather RapidMQ (protocol AMQP). Probably a better system to tying together servers (ie. middleware), rather than human-centric notification type events.

Project Diaspora

Talked firstly about his personal experience, as a diaspora member, of helping his siblings through school. The breakthrough idea was that remittances can just vanish into a hole, or can build lasting change. Aim of project is to harness the diaspora for powerful, focused projects. Money needs to benefit communities rather than just individuals. It’s currently hard to find lasting projects that have come from aid — mostly aid builds dependency. Diaspora more likely build self-sustaining, well-thought-out, efficient projects.

Diaspora remittances are now around half of aid sums going into Africa, and growing. Rough figure 2007: $39 billion.

Aim: mashup of social network site, remittance processing, Ushahidi for mapping projects, etc.

Some physics
Paul (yep, that’s me)

Discussion about the Large Hadron Collider, the Higgs boson, eternal inflation and the possibility we’re a small part of a larger universe at higher vacuum energy. The most interesting idea for some people is that there’s no reason to prefer the universe either having or not having a beginning.

Behaviour Driven Development

Awesome talk (great pictures) on the progression of QA testing to regression testing, unit testing, test driven development, and finally behaviour driven development. In practice, similar to unit testing, but written in a way more descriptive of behaviours. Thus tests describe the system’s functionality, and so can be even given to end client to show what the system does and does not do. This topic requires a much longer description than it will get from me here!

Last night was also great, more details in the most post. Tomorrow I start MobileActive 08, so three more days of conference! Hopefully I’ll be able to get some live-ish blogging going — I expect there will be many very interesting, and not as geek-focused, talks.

BarCampJozi 08 day 1

I’m attending BarCampJozi 08 at the moment. About 25 people here, interesting people.

This is not quite live-blogging, but a few excerpts from each talk. I didn’t get everyone’s name (sorry), and it’s certainly not a complete transcript.

Social Entrepreneurship and Systems Thinking
Carl Spies – Cerebra

Relationships between people and things are a tool to approach solving problems for which we have not been trained, and useful for working out howto change societies and organisations.

Introduced Biomatrix — book on systems thinking and solving problems, from some University of Stellenbosch people. — play it forward game. Get cards that have real-world social-awareness type missions (eg. buy someone coffee, etc.). Give some feedback using geolocation after completing your mission. You can create new cards, and pass them on — Acoha tracks the “paying it forward” tree, using systems theory / network theory ideas. (NB: Collect cards from Cerebra on Monday).

Quantum computing — is it a threat to information security?

Speaker part of a quantum computing group at UNISA. Described now quantum computing can solve the factoring problem, thus breaking much of public key cryptography. But that’s not the only threat — factorisation is not known to be NP complete, so many be solvable even without quantum computing.

Then described quantum key exchange as a way of seeding cryptography systems — not a one time pad, but still very good. Use the quantum pairs just to exchange the key, rather than directly encrypting the data itself.

Johannesburg Area Wireless User Groups – JAWUG

Wide-area user-built wireless network covering Johannesburg and Pretoria. Discussed also some regulatory aspects — fine to do this as long as you aren’t deriving profit from it.

URL-shortening services

List of over 90 services now available, with more all the time. Quesion: What’s the point of all the different services?

Mentioned — includes tracking on how often URLs are used. Good for viral marketing, eg., auto-populating Twitter posts for website users, to ease viral word-of-mouth. – Geek dinner

It’s happening, next event around 20 Nov.

Yahoo Fireeagle — geolocation hashing

Takes a variety of location sources (GPS, cell towers, wifi, etc.), and turns a location into a standard key, that can be exchanged with other services — this solves the problem of location services being vertical silos.

Where On Earth – Yahoo database of geographic features and names (suburb, towns, etc.), of all sorts, location and bounding box. Opened up as a webservice now. Open Planet – submissions from outside, mostly Flickr (people tagging photos with locations and places names) — though these are what people think places are rather than what it actually is, eg. San Francisco viewed as larger, includes Golden Gate bridge, etc. (but apologies for the query format) — can query with latitude and longitude, at given hierarchy, and find neighbours, etc.

openlayers / mapstraction – mapping abstraction layers, can use various other mapping systems.

openstreetmaps – lots of mapping data (incl. developing world cities), raw data available.

Rich internet applications — Which framework will win?

Flash+XML=Flex, Silverlight, JavaFX, XUL, Javascript Web 2.0 — problem: keeping it open? Also OpenLaszlo, can deploy as Flash or HTML.

Other code generation toolkits, eg. Google Web Toolkit, OpenLaszlo (can deploy as Flash or HTML).

Argued that browser is not a good starting point for applications, as one is attempted to patch a broken model, so these other technologies are a good idea — but need to keep it open to avoid returning to pre-web standards days.


Using Webkit as the foundation of client applications — HTML, Javascript, plus bindings for local hardware access.

Showed example of a cross-platform application, running with an iPhone-like interface on all platforms, using iUI library to get the iPhone look. Can add bindings for other services, eg. geolocation.

Still need to build the native application which embeds webkit. Light on resources. (Side note: Adobe Air is hard to get working, and upgrades break. Someone commented that the deployment and upgrade process is the challenge of client side systems, and now we’re turning deployment-free technologies like HTML into apps that need, but don’t have, deployment and upgrade tools.)

Web apps for Africans
Eric (White African)

Described how as African developers we often develop for the West, or for the few really tech-enabled people in Africa — small market. Some exceptions, eg., MXit which works across nearly all phones; ijol. Lots of opportunities that exist in the bulk of the population — but we develop for the fringe.

Question: why do we do this? Why don’t we develop for the bulk? Some answers from crowd: we’ve always lived from a computer screen, not a cellphone screen — and this means we think differently, and can’t see the opportunities.

Mobile currency: major hole, but some people trying to fill it: Pocketbook (?), SWAP mobile. Zimbabwe: can buy petrol using a service in UK, get SMS that converts to petrol in Harare.

seaside – a web application framework in SmallTalk
Danie Roux

SmallTalk — no longer an old language, it’s now just mature. Improving thanks to the development environment, rather than perhaps the syntax itself!

The application image contains the code, a webserver, versioning, the whole lot. Awesome “halo” effect, where you can inspect the code behind any page component. Also, no de-marshalling and marshalling of incoming and outgoing requests — that’s all handled by the framework. For production, Gemstone is a very powerful application server, with built-in object persistence.

Other useful features: code completion, vi key bindings, unit testing

ellg (by Curverider) — open source social networking platform
Noto Modungwa

(Other product from this company:) ODD (Open Data Definition) — allow export and import of one’s social data

Speaker works for MWEB, which apparently runs about 70% of e-commerce transactions in South Africa. However, the community and support is not great! So the idea is to use a social networking platform to improve this, and become hopefully a starting point and hub for e-commerce developers in South Africa. (Edit: thanks for comment below — this site is not tied to MWEB, but is really aimed at a general meeting and info-sharing site for the SA ecommerce community. Exciting!)

Hacking your tastebuds

Speaker brought some Miraculum (sp?) tablets, made from a West African plant. It modifies one’s bitter and sour tastebuds, so that food tastes naturally sweeter. Idea is to use it not as a replacement for sugar and artificial sweeteners, but to replace the need for them. The effect lasts about an hour after dissolving the tablet on one’s tongue.

We had lemons, grapefruit, tequila, cottage cheese. All tasted awesome, and very different. Good way to finish a day.


Next week is going to be full of talking about doing, rather than doing, because I’ll be attending two conferences.

The first, on the weekend of 11-12 October, is a Johannesburg BarCamp. BarCamps are one of these new class of “unconferences”, where the idea is to get a group of people together, and have them give talks to each other about anything interesting. This one, I suspect, will be like most others and have a strong leaning towards the internet startup space. But I’m excited about the chance to meet some other local people working in this environment, and make some connections.

Then on 13-15 October is MobileActive08. This is a big, proper conference, where “proper” means that it has a topic: “Unlocking the Potential of Mobile Technology for Social Impact”. The agenda is full of really interesting presentations from people around the world using mobile (cellphone) technology to revolutionise business and social development. It’s especially relevant in South Africa, which is such a huge mobile technology market — I keep seeing new and fascinating applications being developed (like the incredibly successful MXit, now with somewhere on the order of 10 million users).

Talking of which, I’m going to these conferences with some mobile ideas of our own in mind — one relating (surprise, surprise) to the health sector. So this week will see a lot of work on getting out marketing paperwork sorted out.

Lastly: it looks like I can get some guests in for social functions for MobileActive. Any friends in Joburg interested? Drop me an email.

Tags: #barcampjozi #mobileactive08

Film festival on the xenophobia riots

Almost by chance, Rhiannon and I landed up watching one of the events that is part of the Tri Continental Film Festival, at the Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank. It was a screening of a number of short movies, as well as some public service shorts shown on TV, all based around the xenophobia riots that broke out in May around Johannesburg.

The films were really good, and obviously very moving. The first covered the events before and during the riots, from the ground, and I think managed very well to avoid imposing interpretation on the motivations and actions of the people concerned. The other movies focused on the displaced people (foreigners as well as South Africans from smaller language groups) and some of their stories in the refugee camps.

The riots were and remain a huge national shame, I think — that a country like South Africa, with our historical focus on human rights, and huge resources, should need to be pitching UN High Commission of Refugees camps within Johannesburg, reflects a huge failing at all levels of society. This includes the poeple involved in the violence, but also government and society at all levels, for the poor response to the crisis.

But today’s event certainly helped me understand what happened a lot better. The films were followed by a panel discussion, with all the directors, as well as a number of speakers and many of the people shown in the films. It’s quite clear that in the township of Alexandria, for instance, there were and remain major grievances around housing. The government has been building RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, which are supposed to be made available free to otherwise-homeless inhabitants of the township. But it seems that many have been given or sold instead to people not from Alexandria, allegedly as a result of bribes. Some of the people who have landed up in the houses are foreigners, which led to some anti-foreigner sentiment in marches that happened before the full riots started. As so often is the case, the defenceless landed up suffering for the failings of others.

Taking a step back, however, it was fascinating how almost every person at the screening had a different interpretation of the underlying problem and solutions for dealing with xenophobia. We had (some very animated) diatribes about how:

  • The government’s capitalistic “neoliberal” economic policies don’t help the poor, and cause widening inequality
  • The real problem is that government leaders didn’t provide leadership at the time
  • Continuing black-white inequality is the real problem
  • It’s important to think about white guilt, and some people perhaps being pleased that black people can also do bad things
  • People have legitimate grievances
  • Grievances are not legitimate if they lead to violence
  • The marches against xenophobia that followed the riots show that lots of people recognise our shared humanity
  • (And back to the start) Marches against xenophobia are only any good if they aren’t led by Trevor Manuel, servant of The Capitalists (Trevor Manuel being the minister of finance

I may be exaggerating a little by the end, but if you take everything that people were saying seriously, then the way to prevent xenophobia is to create a utopia. To summarise: (1) everyone arrived at a different key insight as a result of the riots, and (2) no-one likes Mbeki (the president).

It was certainly very entertaining, with lots of underhand comments and funny asides. But now I am quite exhausted, and also have had a major kick in the social conscience. Maybe I’ll go start a school or something.

Update: for non-Caltech friends

As you may have noticed, the blog has been very quiet for the last few months. This is largely due to my thesis, and the crunch of finishing it sooner than I had been expecting, say, a year ago. But I have indeed finished my thesis, and am now a Doctor of Philosophy in the field of Theoretical Physics (String Theory). It is fun saying this. I intend to continue doing so.

The last few months, or even years, of the thesis have been tough going — in retrospect, the topic was not really an ideal fit to me. My work was ultimately very mathematical, and light on physical visualisation, which is probably the opposite of what would have suited me. Anyway, it’s done now!

As a result, however, I’ve decided to take at least a break from physics, and not immediately start a new postdoc. I’m going to be working full time on an internet startup that does online administration of highly customised leadership development instruments (questionnaires, PDF reports, etc.), called Thornhill Associates. We’ll see whether I enjoy it, and where it goes. But it will be nice to still have the flexibility of working hours that I’m used to!

I’ve just moved back to Johannesburg. It’s been tough to leave the friends and places of the last five years, but also great to catch up with friends here.

And now I’m degenerating rapidly into generic platitudes, so that’s enough for now. You want to know more, you’ll have to contact me!

It’s done!

This Wednesday I successfully defended my PhD thesis, so I’m now Dr. Cook!

It’s been a great day or two since then — big party Wednesday night, with lots of tasty things, then sleeping reaaallly late Thursday, then some excellent sushi that evening at a great place on Hollywood Boulevard (on the walk of stars).

Now it’s back to the office to catch up on some marking (grading) of homeworks, and my thousands of unread emails. But I’m looking forward to coming out of the isolation the last few months have required!