Juliana Rotich on a new tech ecosystem for Africa (trailer)

The co-founder of Ushahidi shares her journey on the frontlines of technology and digital connectivity in Africa.

“Africa’s next vanguard is dependent on advancement on many fronts,” says Juliana Rotich on the stage at Design Indaba Conference 2014. But the co-founder and executive director of Ushahidi, a not-for-profit technology firm, is most interested in the frontlines of technology and digital connectivity in Africa.

Ushahidi – the Swahili word for “witness” or “testimony” – began as a piece of free and open-source software that allows people to report and share information about what is going on where they are. Using any mobile device, they can contribute information from their area, which is then stored on a central ‘cloud’ and mapped using geo-location.

The software was created in response to the dearth of information after post-election fighting forced media houses to shut down in early 2008. The crowd-sourcing tool is now available in more than 30 languages, in more than 159 countries such as Haiti, Japan, Pakistan and Libya.

Sharing the tool was key to its growth. We made the code open-source, available on ushahidi.com, which allows citizens to participate, to be part of the process, to say ‘I am here and this is what is going on’, she says.

The collective voices of citizens revolutionise the world, Rotich believes. “It is really important to look local, to ask what is going on,” she notes.

Rotich advises designers to use function to drive the technology.

It can help us to push the boundary of what is possible with technology, she says.

Given the challenges to connectivity on the African continent, says Rotich, we need to “do what [we] can, with what [we] have, where [we] are”, she quotes Theodore Roosevelt. In this setting, even the hardware we use in Africa needs to be revised.

After moving back to Kenya towards the end of 2011 to focus on Ushahidi, she grappled with the electricity black-outs that still bedevil the country, making connecting to the Internet unreliable. On top of this is the high cost of making phone calls. So it’s a challenge connecting to other African countries.

The Ushahidi team began to ask itself if it couldn’t overcome this problem and reduce the cost of connection.

Could we leverage cloud-based technology to reduce the friction of going from one African country to another? she asks.

The answer lay in redesigning the modem.

Modems are designed for societies with ubiquitous electricity and decades of existing infrastructure. Why aren’t we using technology that responds to our local context and our local problems?

Ushahidi’s solution – called BRCK – is a rugged way to stay connected but it is also in essence a back-up generator for the Internet. When the electricity goes out, it can leverage 3G networks and it has 8-12 hours of battery life.

One of the things the Ushahidi team has learned is that out of adversity can come new ideas and ways of doing things.

Underlying their work is the question, “What if solutions to the world’s problems came from Africa?”

There is huge potential for connectivity in Africa, where Internet penetration stands at 15.6 percent versus 42.9 percent in South America and 27.5 percent in Asia. And the link between increased connectivity and GDP has been established: a 10 percent increase in broadband corresponds to a 1.163 percent rise in GDP.

“Investment in technology, people and creative networks can help us to make sure that Africa’s next vanguard is something that we are part of,” says Rotich. “We are fostering and creating a new ecosystem, a new way of connecting African countries one to each other and a new way of being.”

This year for the first time, the Design Indaba Conference talks make their premiere on our app, conveniently packaged in one place and available for free download. To watch Juliana Rotich's full conference talk download the app here or keep watching designindaba.com for updates.

Watch the Talk with Juliana Rotich

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