The trade data hack grew out of an idea to provide consumers with information on trade-related costs and how trade barriers affect them. There is a lot of data already available, although maybe not that well known, and certainly not presented in ways that general consumers understand. There are also gaps in the data, things that are not hidden, but not available generally or aggregated beyond local knowledge. DFID therefore envisaged making the most of the opportunities offered by various digital channels to inform and educate consumers – through interesting and eye-catching graphics, visualisations, apps, websites etc which would illustrate trade patterns and barriers, and examine the relationship between trade costs and the prices consumers pay.

But, before we could commission anything, we needed to do some practical research involving people in different countries. We looked for partners who could bring together a mix of developers, creative thinkers, designers, and local community activists. RLabs in Cape Town was a perfect fit. [nb 2 further trade data hack events are planned: in Lagos, Nigeria, in partnership with CCHub, and in London, in partnership with Rewired State]

RLabs logo

RLabs welcome sign

The strapline for Rlabs is “a social revolution” – and from the stories I’ve heard from a whole range of the people who work here or are somehow involved, it is certainly a revolution in this area of Cape Town, and is part of a network of RLabs hubs all around the world – not just neighbouring countries like Tanzania and Namibia, but also Somaliland, Brazil, Finland, Portugal and more. Away from the tourist areas of the waterfront and business district, although with spectacular views of the back of Table Mountain, it is based in the Cape Flats area: Bridgetown, Silvertown, Athlone and Kewtown – an area with 70% unemployment and more than a few problems with drugs and gangs.

Its location chosen deliberately to be part of the community which supplies most of the students and participants, it grew from a one room operation where tech developers had to share space and swap when the counsellors and advisers had their sessions, into a multi room centre which is expanding all the time. The kitchen was extended literally days before we arrived, and they are well set up to offer everything from full day events with 40-50 people (such as our hack day) to smaller training sessions for very small groups. Fully stable wifi (excellent compared to UK venues where similar events have taken place!) and 4 smaller rooms radiating from a central space – each carefully set up with a different thing in mind – whether resembling a formal board room where people might go to make a pitch to big business, or a creative space with brightly coloured desks and wall art. Oh yes, and there are bean bags, a play station, and plentiful supplies of crisps, muffins and super-sweet South African sweets.

Creative space at RLabs

Creative space at RLabs

RLabs was founded by the energetic and enthusiastic Marlon Parker, who was also our host (for which many, many thanks – also for giving up his time to ensure we saw the many sides of Cape Town, from the problems to the highlights (literally – on Signal Hill, looking at Table Mountain at night, with the tablecloth cloud descending and the lights of the city spread around the bay was spectacular)).

Here’s how they publicised what they called “Africa’s largest hack bootcamp

During the three days I heard some inspirational stories from some of the graduates of the programmes run at RLabs – including the Grow academy, and their legacy programme.

Marlon also heads Mxit reach, and one of the few structured sessions of the 3 days was when Andy Volk who is head of developer relations at Mxit gave a presentation on the evolution of this platform – Africa’s largest social network with over 50 million registered users and 750 million messages every day. They partnered with RLabs in supporting the hack, and will promote the winning entry on their  platform and support it to be developed further.

I’ll write up the actual hacks in my next post, but to end with more flavours of the event – and two highlights which make it completely different to any hack I’ve ever attended: one of the participants was the artist who created much of the artwork which decorates the centre. He created a giant canvas which was definitely African, but with logos illustrating global trade scattered across it.

Hack day artist at work

Hack day artist at work

And the most noisy component of the day, a live radio station: The Taxi,  broadcasting from reception. I was in awe of the multitasking skills of the @theTaxiWP team – using iPads, mobiles and blackberries to involve their audience, monitor what was being said and still create entertaining and information packed interviews.

Taxi radio team

Taxi radio team

Advertisements