As the second DFID sponsored trade data hack day (in Nigeria, at CCHub) draws to a close, and the third (in London, in partnership with Rewired State) kicks off, I thought I’d better haul myself up to date and write up my notes from the actual hacks done in Cape Town.
Two days of hacking, at the end of which 12 or so projects were presented to all the other participants and panels of judges. Prizes were awarded in several categories, including best web/mobile app, best Mxit app, most creative idea, and a bonus category – for the best idea – even if it hadn’t been worked up into an actual app.

Two main themes emerged as the teams worked through the data – first, that it was simply too complex for most people, and they came up with a range of ideas aimed at simplifying it, whether for students – to help them understand the whole process, or for anyone who was in the very early stages of wanting to understand trade and economics. The second broad group of ideas  was around price comparison, including crowd-sourcing retail price data.

The Web and Mobile Application winner was an application that presented the very large WDI dataset in a colourful way, sorted by region and theme. The user can select indicators to learn more about e.g. unemployment, trade volumes, etc.  The application provides statistics but also gives an explanation of what the indicator means and has a “discussion forum” feature to enable people to comment on what it means for them.  In future, the developers hope to have some experts available to comment in the discussion forum to be able to guide the conversation. They also made a MXit version of this application, which we saw tested on a range of phones, from modern smart phones to very simple text based screens – and it worked fine on all of them.

The MXit winner was a price comparison application that makes use of crowd sourced data on pricing to help people find sales and bargains and put pressure on retailers to be more competitive.  The application will also feature a section on “product information” such as origin, main producer countries etc. “Whats your price?” is available on Mxit now. The team’s presentation suggested a whole range of other ideas which would take advantage of the functionality offered on the Mxit platform, and the idea of generating community interest in their ideas, including something I think was called “Chick Pix” – which mixed together the fact that one of the commodities selected in the sample trade data set was chicken, with the idea of crowd sourcing prices, and a popular Mxit application – where people send in photos of themselves and the community rates them. Their idea is that you would take a picture of the chicken you bought in your local store, add price data, but also comment on its packing, presentation and condition! Could be fun – and also encourage stores to improve their ways.

I was very impressed with the team who won the creative prize. They were concerned at low levels of literacy, and wanted to help people use routes that they liked to find out information and learn things they wouldn’t otherwise think about. They suggested a mobile comic strip application, designed to explain trade processes and economics terms to people in simple language.  It would also have functions such as links to wikipedia entries, and an element that reads the terms out to you so you know how they are pronounced.

The final category winner was a team who outlined their idea for an educational application aimed at secondary school students. It would explain economics terms in simple language, and include a game to be hosted on a social networking platform such as Facebook that would connect students from different countries who could then “trade” with each other.

Other teams presented some fascinating ideas, including one aimed at helping micro businesses to sell their products to a wider community – taking advantage of some of the Mxit apps which enable mobile payments. This was a very engaging presentation, as a team member had gone out into the community and interviewed a furniture maker she knew and included photos and comments from him as to how such an app would be useful. Several others were about crowdsourcing prices to enable people to find the best local bargains – confirming for this community at least, trade is an issue very close to home, and the whole question of international trade tariffs and barriers could wait for another time.

For many of the teams it was the first time they had ever presented in front of an audience, and they all deserve prizes for the energy and effort they put into their 3 minutes. I’m left with an absolute certainty that this sort of local event is vital in asking people what will really be of use to them, and hope we can run others to look at other data sets, and what can be done with them. I look forward to seeing what the teams in the Co-Creation Hub in Lagos come up with (I hope a completely different set of apps and ideas) and the Rewired State developers in London tomorrow.

UPDATE: Some of the hacks now published on Rewired State: