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

The energy challenge

I just went to the first of a new lecture series at Caltech, NRG 0.1, during which various experts are going to be discussing various aspects of the energy problem (for which read “challenge”) that the world is facing.

This week was Steve Koonin, former Caltech provost and physics professor, and currently chief scientist for BP. I thought it was an excellent talk, covering a lot of the different aspects to the energy question, and some important principles that need to be kept in mind when looking for solutions in the near and medium term. I particularly enjoyed (and, yes, this probably says something about me too) how the talk assembled a large collection of numbers into a few key “back-of-the-envelope” facts, and then analysed the various options in terms of these constraints. While I’m not going to summarise the whole talk (which will hopefully be available here soon), here are some of the things which stood out:

2050 / twice pre-industrial
By BP’s Business as Usual (BAU) analysis, sometime before 2050 CO2 will hit twice pre-industrial atmospheric levels. This is a tipping point in many models, and so serves as a useful “safe” upper limit. Anything we do has to have a big effect well before 2050.

Running out of oil vs. global warming
A few years ago I was more concerned about the former; now I think I’m more concerned about the latter. The global economy is handling the high oil prices very well, so non-conventional oil, like oil sands in Canada, really start to look accessible. Oil prices may stay high, and national concerns about oil supply security may discourage oil use, but I think it’s here for a few more decades. My take home message: global warming will be solved, or not, before oil runs out.

CO2 has to drop hugely
CO2 has a lifetime of many centuries once it’s in the atmosphere. Thus to reach CO2 stability at twice pre-industrial levels by 2050, we actually need to cut emissions by about half from today’s level. (A useful figure: due to CO2 longevity, a drop of 10% in CO2 emissions growth delays by about 7 years the crossing of any given atmospheric CO2 concentration). But by business as usual estimates, economic growth, even including historically extrapolated improvements in efficiency, will have raised emissions by a factor of 4. So we have to improve somehow by a factor of 8. As Koonin points out, efficiency gains are generally overwhelmed by increased consumption.

CO2 drops have to start now
As CO2 stays in the atmosphere, delaying change by a few years’ delay makes the required drops much larger in future. Furthermore, the main drivers of emissions (power plants, houses, cars, etc.) all have lifetimes of decades — so the power plants being built now will still be emitting by 2050. Basically, if nothing dramatic changes in the next 5 to 10 years, stability by 2050 becomes nearly impossible.

Many “solutions” just don’t scale
There’s huge enthusiasm for corn-based biofuels in the US at the moment. Koonin’s figures were that about 20% of the corn crop is now going to fuels, contributing about 2% of the US’s transport fuel needs. This doesn’t scale to solve the problem. Another example: solar. It’s a lot more expensive, and so will never be accepted commercially. But even if it was, we need to cover (if I recall the figure) a million rooftops with solar panels every year, starting right now, to reach stability by 2050. I’m not sure if that was globally or just the US.

$30/ton CO2
Currently, emitting CO2 is free in most places (Europe is a partial exception). That makes coal the cheapest power source. Most emissions reduction schemes assign a cost, one way or another, to CO2. Koonin had an interesting comparison graph: below about $20/ton CO2, coal remains cheapest. Above about $40/ton, there are no further major changes to the ordering of energy sources. So the magic number of balancing economic cost and yet still changing behaviour is around $30/ton. This would add only about 15% to the cost of petrol in the US or SA, and a little less in Europe, say. So the biggest changes will be in fixed electrical generation plants (which anyway are the biggest emitters).

The plan
Koonin’s take on matters, and I think I agree, is that given the size and cost of the changes needed, as well as their urgency, market forces have to be used to make changes. That is, we can’t pick an “ideal solution” and decree that that is what will be done — the political will isn’t there over the time scale required. Rather, the correct policy incentives need to be put in place right now — like a fixed, predictable cost for CO2 (which, interestingly, argues against a cap-and-trade approach), for the next 50 years. Without such definiteness, it becomes really hard for power companies to spend, say, an extra billion dollars now on a power plant that does CO2 sequestration.

Koonin’s roadmap would seem to be: policy incentives right now, leading to CO2 sequestering power plants still running predominantly off fossil fuels; a growing but still far from dominant contribution from sustainable power sources; and revolutionary improvements in next generation biofuels (using plant material that we do not, in fact, want to eat). He justifies hope in a biofuel revolution by pointing out that biotechnology is a very young and rapidly developing field — unlike, say, fusion. He also thinks there’s a chance for a solar revolution, but not with current technology.

As I overheard a participant say on the way out, though, “He could have given a much more pessimistic talk with the exact same slides”. We do have to make immediate, dramatic changes to an area of human endeavour that has vast pre-existing infrastructure, very long time-lines and huge costs. This for a problem that is hard to easily demonstrate now, and exists over a time scale far longer than political cycles. I think there’s a fair chance that, come 2050, we’ll have to be involved in some sort of huge active geoengineering (ie. a modification designed to “cancel out” our CO2 emissions), in order to stabilise the climate.

What are dimensions?

Since I’ve hardly been filling this blog with posts recently, I thought I might post an email I wrote recently, in reply to a question I received about the nature of dimensions. Mine is by no means a complete answer, but maybe it’s interesting. Follow-up questions welcome!

The question:

I have been reading a lot of books and web sites on string theory. It all seems very interesting, all these extra dimension and so fourth. I was just curious, it is supposed that these extra dimensions could be real, I have yet to read how the first three dimensions that we take for granted in this universe are real physical things. I know that the term dimension is used in plotting locations and trajectories of objects in space on paper, but are they real physical things that exist in the real universe?
I would really appreciate your help in this.

That’s a tricky question. To start with the three dimensions of space (and one of time) that we’re well aware of: they’re real in that they are what makes space, well, space. The idea of “space” is that it provides somewhere that things can be — without dimensions, there’d be no way to talk about where something is, how far apart things are, and so forth. Motion is merely the movement of things within the space.

Now that’s all there was to space, before relativity. Einstein’s General Relativity shows that space itself is a “dynamical” object, which means essentially that it is something that can change. Basically, matter and space interact — space is how you define where something is, but the presence of something (matter and/or energy) in turns affects the lengths of nearby pieces of space. So light travelling near a star is “bent” by the gravity of the star, as a result of the mass of the star affecting the definition of coordinates and motion nearby. So in this respect dimensions and space become a physical entity on which matter has an effect.

The additional dimensions predicted by string theory are no different to the three (plus time) that we’re used to, at least conceptually. When specifying the position of something, we just need to specify locations in each of nine directions, as well as a time. However, the fact that in our daily lives we only experience three of those spacial dimensions means that the other six are somehow irrelevant on large length scales. This might because they’re “rolled up” really small, by which I mean that the possible range of positions in that dimension is very small, and so everything is so close to everything else in that direction that we can’t even tell that there is another dimension. Alternatively, the particles from which we’re made might be in some sense “trapped” on the surface of a three-dimension object in the nine spacial dimensions.

However, in a very real sense we still don’t actually know what spacetime really is. Quantum gravity considerations strongly suggest that space is not continuous on the smallest scales — there should exist a smallest possible length, the Planck length. Any length smaller than this makes no sense. Furthermore, gravity and the effect of mass on spacetime arise in the string theory in an exactly analogous way to that in which particles arise — as specific vibrational modes of strings. So this seems to complete our growing re-interpretation of spacetime from being merely a fixed measurement apparatus on which physics happens, to being itself a part of physics. This makes physics very difficult, however, as most of our current techniques rely on the existence of concepts like detectors at spacial infinity, or being able to define a universal starting time for an interaction. So in my opinion certainly one of the interesting areas that string theory will be exploring in coming years is “emergent geometry”, where concepts that look at large scales like spacetime will turn out to arise from quite different interactions in some theory that resembles string theory in certain regimes.

Arctic ice shrinks 14% in a year

New studies from NASA (JPL) and elsewhere show a 14% reduction in perennial (ie. survives the summer) Arctic ice in just one year, from 2004 to 2005. Supercomputer models had suggested that the ice (and, incidentally, polar bears as a species) would all be gone by 2070, but this is far faster even than those predictions.

This might be a good time to turn off a light, or take your bike to work tomorrow. Just a thought.

Co2 levels in ice cores

In the news today: new studies of gas bubbles trapped in Antarctic show that current CO2 levels are higher than those for the last 800 000 years — and that the growth in CO2 levels over the last 17 years is so fast that it would normally require over 1000 years of natural variation to produce the same change.

The past 800 000 years includes many ice ages, and interglacial warming periods between the ice ages. The CO2 level fluctuates in step with global average temperature. So we’re looking at a change that in the last 17 years has been larger than that associated with a mere ice age (though luckily other changes are also associated with ice ages). But our CO2 emission rate is still increasing.

Controlling computers with the mind

You may have heard of research being done on sensors which allow computers to be controlled with thoughts alone, as opposed to physical movement of the body (via, say, a keyboard). This research has immediate implications for people who are paralysed, but also longer-term implications for human-machine interfaces in general. At the moment it’s a pretty new field, and not very many people have actually controlled computers with thought alone.

I am one of those people.
Continue reading “Controlling computers with the mind”