Event


Great to have the opportunity to hear this lunchtime from Chris Vein. He is the new Chief Innovation Officer for Global Information and Communications Technology Development at the World Bank.

He leads the implementation of the World Bank’s Technology strategy, particularly helping developing countries build their communications and open government infrastructures, and is in the perfect position to come and talk innovation, in particular his plans around rolling out the World Bank’s technology strategy and their work on open government and open data.

If I’d had the tech in my hands, I’d probably have live tweeted lots of what he said – it was a real reminder of the inspiring examples that were shared at the Open Up! conference last year and the sort of stories I wish many more of my DFID colleagues could have heard.

His three main points were:

1. Technology is an amazing asset when made directly available to people.

2. The digital divide as an issue is growing. Its changing the relationships between government and citizens. There are many different ways that  an increase in the use of technology can have an impact – both positive and negative. One challenge that must be faced is the expectations that can be raised by activities on social media – people expect that real changes can happen and their voice matters, then can feel even more frustrated and let down when change isn’t immediate.

3. In general, we are too timid in our willingness to try new things.

This last point was the one that struck home most firmly. He shared loads of examples – talked about the internet of things, approaching 50 billion connections, mobile is everywhere, social is everything, and the role of big data.

He talked the language that needs to become commonplace – of minimum viable products, of pilots and iteration. He emphasised the absolute need to focus on the effects of interventions on the individual.

Questions from colleagues followed – and answers included new approaches to solving problems, the Presidential Innovation Fellows, how it was important for leaders to protect the overall vision and let innovators do their work, and how important it is to assemble and involve people who are not locked into the ways things have always been done.

One answer that really struck a chord with me was the importance of sharing stories of what works – and using prototypes to show what is possible.

I’m also intrigued to follow up his comments about the extension of Code for America and the idea of civic commons.

An inspiring lunchbreak.

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To continue my notes from the recent Open Up! conference, the next session was led by DFID Secretary of State Justine Greening MP. As an aside, she mentioned she had chosen today to launch her twitter account – so follow @justinegreening if you are interested in hearing her priorities.

Justine Greening MP speaking at the Open Up! conference

Justine Greening MP speaking at the Open Up! conference

Her speech made it clear that she recognised technology and innovation would be a constant theme of her work at DFID, and she emphasised the importance of investment in research. She talked about deepening the commitment to transparency, and challenged all funders to present their data in the same formats so aid can be traced. She previewed the Making All Voices Count initiative (which launched on 5 December) and also mentioned the DFID digital strategy which I referred to in my previous post.

She took lots of questions, and answers included the importance of unlocking the culture of innovation and risk taking, plus the need for a closer co-operation between tech hubs around the world.

Next speaker was Tim O’Reilly. His main theme was that government should focus on “doing the hard stuff”. He cited an example of the unexpected consequences when GPS was opened up – from car navigation systems to four#square. He praised the Code for America accelerator programme which had led to loads of startups, such as Captricity, AuntBertha.com, measured voice and mindmixer. He commented that not all innovation is purely digital though –   referencing Maker Faire as a celebration of innovation that now has global reach, and also mentioned the Afrigadget blog, something I discovered back in 2009 and am delighted to be reminded of.

Change should happen by example – someone sees something is possible and wants to follow that lead. Often people want to do the right thing, they just dont necessarily know what IT is. His advice to organisations looking to open up data echoed comments made in the morning sessions: reach out beyond the usual suspects and invite those who complain about you to come in and hack your data. His final quote paraphrased Larry King: “Government should make easy things easy, and hard things possible”.

During the lunch break there were a whole series of show and tell booths set up in the basement, enabling delegates to see working examples of things they may have heard mentioned during the talks. My colleagues were there showcasing the alpha version of the new aid information platform (DM @johnthegeo if you are interested in seeing it and commenting).

After lunch a whole series of lightning talks took place – with Chairman of the event Wired’s David Rowan doing an excellent job keeping speakers to time. We heard from Felipe Heusson of the Smart Citizen Foundation – as previous speakers, he talked about the need to focus on the hands which hold the tech, not the tech itself.

Gustav Praekelt addressed the concern that many pilots struggle to get beyond the pilot phase – talking about cost, complexity and scale.

Kepha Ngito talked enthusiastically about Map Kibera and their focus not on doing things as quickly as possible, but of working with the community to keep people informed and get valuable feedback.

Gautam John talked about his experiences in primary education and how open data can be used to create choice.

Yemi Adamolekun represented Enough is Enough – how social media is used to support protest in Nigeria. She talked about one particular project around the elections, which was non-partisan, but encouraged people to participate, and mentioned the mnemonic RSVP – register, select, vote, protect. She also mentioned Revoda – an app which supports reporting on elections.

Jay Bhalla from Kenya talked about different initiatives around open data, including building a community of activists, and one particular training scheme which aims to help journalists how to understand and use data in their reports. I can imagine such a subject could usefully be taught all around the world.

Chris Taggart talked about open corporates – the largest open database of  company information in the world. Each entry has a URI – something that I can imagine becoming useful as organisations release project data, in helping to support consistent traceability of aid.

Gavin Starks is CEO of the Open Data Institute – which formally opened on 6 December. He talked about a range of projects including legislation.gov and green cloud computing. He outlined the role of ODI as unlocking supply, enabling re-use of data (training, courses etc), unlocking demand (offering innovation space, funding and access), plus communicating examples and sharing standards.

The final session was a double header when DFID’s Michael Anderson shared the stage with Ethan Zuckerman – with Wired editor David Rowan as chair.

Michael Anderson and Ethan Zuckerman at Open Up!

Michael Anderson and Ethan Zuckerman at Open Up!

Their talks were fascinating and wideranging – it would take a whole blog post to do them justice, so if you have time, I recommend watching their conference videos. Michael’s points included finding ways of delivering services to the poorest people which are responsive to need, plus better accountability and tracking. He talked about how we are all fascinated by “the state” and discussed how the state as it currently exists may be less relevant in the future, as we rely on different models. The state may occupy a smaller, but perhaps more effective space. Just as the Secretary of State had earlier, he talked about the need to experiment and iterate – and the importance of being comfortable discussing failure and gathering evidence.  He mentioned a phrase which could be my motto for life : we need to have “restless curiosity”.

Ethan talked about how participation in social media is shifting politics, and asked how we can make it possible for people to be more engaged citizens. He articulated  his definition of “civics” – how we can speak for and organise ourselves. He talked about the new skills needed in this space – learning how to represent ourselves, how to amplify messages, and what can happen when lots of similar voices come together. He gave Kickstarter as an example of the new model and said we need to figure out how to do distributed deliberations.

There have been many other reports of the conference (I recommend a quick read of one by my colleague Mark Robinson on the Open Government Partnership site) – and the conference website is still live – containing lots of material, including videos of speakers.

Thus ends a double helping of blog posts reporting on a single day – but I hope I’ve managed to give a flavour of just how inspiring and fascinating a day it was – to say nothing of giving myself a whole lot of web links to follow up and refer to as we continue to attempt to address the challenges of using digital to support development.

Later than usual, I’ve revisited the notes I made when I attended the Open Up! conference and captured them in a blog post.

The reason I was late pulling my thoughts together and deciphering my notes, was that I’ve been working with colleagues to draft DFID’s first digital strategy.
This was mandated in the overarching Government digital strategy, published by the Cabinet Office last month, and our own strategy was mentioned in the speech given by Secretary of State Justine Greening at the Open Up! event.

So, all the digital stars seem to be aligning for DFID at the moment, and the challenge now is to build on the momentum and enthusiasm I sense among many colleagues across the department. I look forward to working through plans to help people to make the most of opportunities the whole range of digital and internet/mobile technologies offer for us to communicate better about our work, engage with existing and new audiences, explore new ways of getting feedback, and also, most excitingly, to investigate ways in which digital solutions can support delivery of actual programmes in developing countries.

While preparing the strategy, we looked for case studies to illustrate the ideas and points we were making, and it was fascinating to find out about what is already going on. Lots of pockets of expertise and experience – the challenge now is to make this more systematic and more the norm across the whole organisation. For us, digital success will be achieved when digital solutions
mean we can help even more people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Which brings me back to the Open Up! conference. As part of the introductions, we saw a short film from the Prime Minister, in which he talked about how technology and digital solutions can support what he calls the golden thread of development: supporting property rights, the rule of law and strong democracies, while giving people a voice so they can take control of their own future.

The first speaker was Jennifer Pahlka, the founder of Code for America, and while her examples were all about North America, the concepts behind what her organisation does are extremely relevant: transparency, efficiency and participation. CfA takes volunteers who take a year off their (often extremely well paid) work and are assigned to work with government on projects.

The main ideas behind projects are that the outcomes should be “simple, beautiful and easy to use” – which sounds very familiar to anyone aware of the work of the Government Digital Service. She cited two end results of the process – both perhaps surprising. You might expect that when you put government data out there, people will complain and be angry, but often the opposite happens, and two sides can be brought together. Also, what made an even bigger impact, was the people inside government, who found working with the CfA fellows ended up energised and enthused.

Next speaker was Rakesh Rajani, head of Twaweza (which means “we can make it happen” in swahili).  He talked about what can happen when you sprinkle the “magic dust of mobile phones” on a project – not only the good that happens when it works, but also some of the examples when it doesn’t. He described the value people place on connections – they may give up food to be able to make a call and the desire for connectivity drives all sorts of ingenuity. He has seen old tube lights being used to make antennae. He was honest enough to say that if you are looking for examples of projects which have delivered on a grand scale, there are not too many out there yet, but there are some noteworthy successes.

He also talked about failure – in particular the Daraja project Maji Matone (which was also showcased in the lunchtime show and tell sessions.)  This was an idea which centred around citizens holding their government to account using their mobile phones. The idea was that at any one time, almost half the waterpoints in rural Tanzania are not working, so people were encouraged to report broken pumps via SMS. Simple idea, but at the end of the first phase, only 53 SMS had been received (their target was 3,000). They stopped the project immediately, and did thorough evaluation, which brought up a number of reasons, including the cultural one that people didn’t really expect that reporting the problem would have any effect, and the issue that the majority of mobiles are owned by men, and water collection is a women’s issue.

A panel discussion followed, where Juliana Rotich (ushahidi) and Anne Jellema (World Wide Web foundation)  were joined by Dr Nii Quaynor from Ghana.

Juliana talked about how technology is changing the way information flows. In particular the example of ushahidi which has evolved from something that took 3 days to set up, and now takes 3 hours, meaning it can be extremely effective in supporting an immediate response to disasters. She warned of the dangers of technophilia – it is not a magic bullet, but it is a vital part of the solution. Finally she referenced the power of crowds – using technology not just in crisis situations, but to respond to all sorts of issues they care about.

Anne is the CEO of the World Wide Web foundation. She too talked about how people have to be part of the solution in order for things to change. She highlighted situations for example where people are scared they will be punished if they complain about faults of problems with services, and referenced some Africa polling results which stated 85-90% of people had never contacted a member of parliament or official to report something (although they had dealt with local community or faith leaders.)

Nii gave us a fascinating overview of progress in Ghana, in particular around transparency. He too talked about the importance of building communities – in this case around particular datasets – and this would help keep up the pressure for more to be released.

Many questions followed, including some which came via twitter. Panelists were asked about role models (My Society and ushahidi mentioned, plus a range of country specific examples were shared). What about projects involving young people? Besides Shujaaz, people mentioned Makutano Junction and the Map Kibera project (about which more later). When asked about incentives for openness, the answer was clear – this is not one for donors, but people and organisations, in particular civil society, who need to put on the pressure, publicise evidence and celebrate success. Questions about ethical issues got the response that solutions have to be flexible – protect those who report problems but also protect those who might be wrongly accused. The importance of mixed solutions was also clear – think through which technology is appropriate for the people you are trying to reach – voice may be better than SMS in areas of low literacy and traditional forms of knowledge shouldn’t be forgotten in favour of formal (eg given was of land registration – where one country allows for oral history records to be included). Open source and open standards were applauded, and the question of balancing experimentation with the need for immediate results stimulated broad discussion.

An extremely stimulating session, which has turned this post into a bit of an epic – so I’ll close part one and continue in part two.

Looking forward to Tuesday this week, when DFID will partner with the Omidyar network and Wired magazine to hold the Open Up! conference in London.

As the strapline says, the conference aims to bring technology, innovation and open government together – and the goal is to showcase the best examples of how technology can support people’s access to democracy, open societies,  and encourage participation.

This event was first mentioned back in the spring, and it has been exciting to watch as momentum built, some big names were mentioned as possible speakers, and colleagues around the organisation who initially said “hmm, not sure we have much to say on this” are now full of ideas and talking about how we fit everything in.

Speakers, listed on a page on the DFID site, include our new Secretary of State: Justine Greening, Tim O’Reilly, and Jennifer Pahlka – founder of Code for America,  and I know there are many other inspiring people planning to attend.

Its an invitation only event – unsurprisingly given the fact the venue only has a certain amount of space, but sessions will be livestreamed via the conference website, and I’m sure there will be many blogs and comments across social media.

Highlight for my team was when Sir Tim Berners Lee agreed to guest blog for the DFID bloggers platform – (although I probably shouldn’t say it, much more exciting for me than the XFactor celebrities who I have to google to find out who they are!).

The day after the conference, we plan to use the momentum generated to share many more examples of how technology can support development with our colleagues – its going to be a busy week.

DevCom = Development Communicators: people who work in communications for organisations involved in international development. Last week this network held a workshop, which saw representatives from a range of government departments (donors like DFID, from Switzerland, Canada, Ireland, France, Norway, Belgium and other, plus colleagues from the World Bank, UNDP, African and Asian development banks) meet to discuss their experience using social media.

First off Joanna, network co-ordinator, shared the results of a survey of people’s experiences. These showed that while there is a good range of use, it is still not universal – and some channels in particular showed 50/50 experience.

Next we heard a couple of talks from colleagues – the first on evaluation – where we had a comprehensive walk through creating an evaluation framework for a communication activity. The main conclusion my colleague has formed when working on these, is that having clear and measurable outcomes to evaluate really helps you sharpen your thinking as to the type of communication you actually do. I’ll work through his notes and example with him and perhaps write a separate post.

Next up was Nick Jones, head of digital at Number 10 and the Cabinet office. He gave an entertaining talk on the range of channels they are using to get different stories out. His original mnemonic  was Stefffyl: covering slideshare, twitter, foursquare, facebook,  flickr, youtube, LinkedIn [and I can’t remember the ‘e’], but he has already had to add a new line to include pinterest, storify and tripline. He also talked about the approach of COPE – Create Once, Publish Everywhere- in particular in relation to infographics, which, used  thoughtfully, can add huge value to a piece of news.

The general talks were followed by a series of “show and tell” sessions, first from 3 donors: DFID, the Belgian aid agency, and Norad – our colleagues from Norway. These were followed by 3 international agencies : IFAD, UNDP and the World Bank.

I gained snippets of useful information from all of these – like the interesting tool they are using in Belgium to create a daily tailored news service: Scoop it – definitely one to investigate. Also the fascinating programmes being run in Norway to raise awareness of development issues. They talked us through their “Reborn” programme, which they developed by working with Facebook (so they had permission!) to create what looks like a timeline – but not for your own life as it is now, but how it might have been if you had been born in one of the developing countries that Norad works in. You learn whether you would have received an education, and what work you might have ended up doing, how young you might have married and in general what your life might have been like. They also shared a competition they are running for schools – where the prize is a class visit to a programme in Tanzania – but it is no simple task to win. 1,000 classes have registered, but the final winner will have completed a long series of questions, done a lot of research, and probably enlisted friends and family to also complete the course and “donate” their points.

The next set of presentations included the importance of getting buy-in and support from the absolute top of the organisation, plus some fascinating insights from UNDP on running social media in several languages. They have both facebook and twitter accounts in french, spanish and english. Finally the World Bank, who introduced the concept of crowdsourcing blogs. By this they mean that they tweet a broad idea for a post, and ask what people think –  then they frame the blog post based on the questions people asked and the comments they made.

Our final sessions were a series of small groups for in depth discussion of specific topics. People talked about the ethics of photography when used in development – starting with some very helpful guidelines that Save the Children have produced – contrasted with some actual photographs that one of their field officers had published recently (which appeared to break all the rules.) Another group talked about how to embed social media activity and skills across an organisation, another covered blogging – which also included talk about how to support people new to the act and how to encourage and enthuse those who already have a busy life. The final group talked about metrics and measurement – which neatly rounded off the discussion started in the morning about evaluation – but covered the challenges in deciding what to measure to demonstrate the success or value of communications and interaction carried out via social media.

A busy day- lots of conversation, new contacts made and old friends re-connected with. I look forward to experimenting with some new ideas – and with the speed this environment is changing,  wonder what would be on the agenda this time next year?

Hot on the heels of my last blog post, I attended the show and tell at the end of the trade data hack event that took place in London this weekend. In partnership with Rewired State, so a couple of familiar faces there, and held in the Centre for Creative Collaboration. It was much easier for me to reach than RLabs (30 minutes on a high speed train rather than an 11 hour flight….), but the energy and creative space was similar. Superficial instant comparison – the ratio of Apple products was completely opposite – only 3 I think in the whole of RLabs, and possibly only one or two non-Apple in London!

However, the approach and solutions to the data challenge set were actually similar in many ways. The teams in London focused on making it simpler for people to understand the data, and tried to find ways to make it fun, so people would actually want to participate. Many added clever visualisations and made working through the data into a game – all had excellent ideas as to how they would expand their idea and prototype into a working thing.

I hope the prototypes will all be available online  (will add links if and when I find out) – as some are very hard to describe, but here goes:

First up, Canada Calculator, a simple one to start with, it lets a consumer see how changing different economic indicators affect the price of commodities in their shopping basket.

The same team evolved their visualisation to produce Global trade challenge: a game which lets people see how changing different economic variables affect the prices of good in different countries. A players initial goal is simply to make the highest profit – but ideas for development included other goals, which might be developing production in your country.

CPIA geochart used a set of World Bank ratings as a basic data set, and mapped them on to a world map. Just seeing the data in this way raised a whole host of questions, not least the scales used – is it good or bad to score highly against an indicator like “transparency, accountability and corruption in the public sector”? Very corrupt but also very transparent about it?! Next steps for this visualisation could be to map trends, and see how countries develop over time – this would be more meaningful than the absolute numbers.

Next up was Surplus/deficit – a 3D visualisation of World Bank data that really has to be seen to be understood!

Surplus/deficit - 3D data visualisation

Surplus/deficit – 3D data visualisation

I absolutely loved this product, and can imagine all sorts of ways it could be extended to include more data. All data is taken from a spreadsheet, and a basic function is that it would help to spot anomalies in the data. Future enhancements could include dials and sliders, so you could see how the visualisation would change over time, or as different filters were applied. One irony, the hack as it stands is a virtual map – by which I mean that all the data points are mapped to capital cities, so if you know the world well, you can guess/work out where the hot spots are. To make it truly functional, a real map outline should be added, but this will take away some of its abstract beauty!

Where the money goes is another simple visualisation that used the basic commodity data provided for the five sample countries.

Where the money goes - data visualisation

Where the money goes – data visualisation

More data could illustrate more elements, at the moment there is just one ‘stripe’ showing tariffs, and the rest of the currency symbol shows ‘the rest’ of the price.

Trademize is a fascinating hack – a solution with 3 aims:  to inform and educate, to engage and to connect. The presenter talked through the information home page, which contains lots of clear explanations and illustrations of trade data, then the engagement element, the part of which I most liked was the idea of a quiz. In this, visitors would select a commodity and then how much of it you consumed (eg Tea, and how many cups a day you drink), then it would calculate how much this cost you a year, then let you know how much you would save if there was a change in one of the tariffs. The ‘connect’ element was that you would then be invited to share the final information in the form of a tweet. Deeper connection was in the form of a contact form where visitors could ask questions of experts. The behind-the-scenes management of this community was interesting, and something to investigate further. The developer used the PODIO task management system and Zapier.  The latter looked for tweets which used a particular hashtag and then created a task which could be assigned to someone to investigate. At least I think thats how it worked…. as I said, one that looked intriguing, to be investigated!

Next up was another tool which visualised World Bank data: Exporty relativiserator. This was highly graphical (true geeks in the room were impressed as apparently this was done on some HD laptop?) but unfortunately it didn’t initially display as the developers had intended. Changing the settings made the countries on the map white, but I think I got the gist – when you select a country, the tool showed  the top 4 regions it exported to, linked by lines, and the thickness of the line indicated the volume of exports. Plans for this included more data, which would show imports and exports, and show the split between goods and services.

Reach for the Pie was the first app designed to work on a mobile – and it was demo’d on an iPhone.

Reach for the Pie - data visualisation

Reach for the Pie – data visualisation

Users choose a country, then sector, then product, then the tool gives you a pie chart which illustrates how the price of that commodity (in the example above – apples from Chile (we think)) is made up – tariffs, transport costs etc.

The same team had also found time to create a ‘physical’ hack – they invented a board game: Trade Aid game.

Trade Aid board game

Trade Aid board game

Working along the lines of snakes and ladders, it took the player on the route from producer to market. The ‘snake’ hazards are things like: delays at border, miss 2 goes, while a ladder might be: receive training to meet EU standards, advance 2 squares.

The next hack was presented by an extremely energetic and enthusiastic presenter, who described the approach they had taken in developing a way of presenting trade data in a way that anyone could understand. Pictotrade used pictographs to represent complex concepts, using consistent colours to represent trade topics (export, import, services etc)

Pictotrade - pictorial trade data explorer

Pictotrade – pictorial trade data explorer

The team aimed not to overwhelm – their app starts with a blank canvas that the user gradually fills by selecting countries, and commodities, and the focus is not on absolute numbers, but on relative relationships – eg a small image shows not much activity, while a big one shows large scale success.

One idea was that schools could make use of this, working through particular examples to create an illustration that could be printed off as a poster – to raise awareness of a particular issue or country’s trade position.

This group also wins the prize for the ‘additional extra’ which I don’t claim to understand at all – but somehow the tool they used to create their ‘stretching’ icons could also be used to show ‘stretching’ cats……. dont ask! [thanks for the link @shish2k ]

Into the finishing stretch, the next presenter showed a role playing game: Trade War. Imagine you are Minister of Trade for India, your task is to work through a series of years making changes to the volume of products and the amount of tariffs you place on trade, with the aim of keeping consumers, producers and exporters happy.

Trade War - role playing game based on trade data

Trade War – role playing game based on trade data

You change your plans each year, and the country you are trading with – in the presentation this was China – responds. Each year your three different communities are graded as to their reaction – pleased, thrilled, grumbling or angry.  When asked if he had learned anything from creating this game, the developer  responded with the unsurprising “you can’t please everyone!”

The last two hacks came from the same team. First up was Tariff bot – a fascinating idea, which as it says in its own profile “tries his best to chip into relevant conversations with data from the World Bank”.

The team correctly identified the challenge that no matter how fantastic your creation, too often it sits on a server somewhere and after the initial flurry of interest, no one uses it. So they wanted to create something that would go out and find people who were having conversations anyway about trade topics. Tariffbot currently uses the twitter search API to find people talking about topics (using certain terms – it currently loves countries and questions) then tweets a link to a data graph of relevant information. Thus  someone saying “I wish I knew more about trade tariffs in Japan” would received a helpful tweet in reply. It isn’t programmed to ‘@’ reply people – the developers wanted to avoid being accused of spamming people, so I’m not completely clear how the questioner would see the helpful answer – but I’m sure with more development this could turn into something really interesting!

The last in show app was a cheeky one, which exploited the fact that there is a google chrome extension that allows you to inject your data into a site (lots of unlikely caveats here – like people accepting unauthorised apps – but it made a nice point…..) Tariffic is a neat idea that for example when a shopper was using the online store of a wellknown mainstream supermarket, and for example chose a packet of coffee, the app would insert a pie chart which told you how much of that price went to the producer, how much went in tariffs etc. It would only work if the supermarket had included the country of origin in the product entry – but nevertheless – an intriguing idea.

In all, a hack that was on the surface, different in many ways from the first DFID sponsored trade data hack, in Cape Town, but actually showed lots of similarities of approach. The developers’ products were further advanced, and many of the graphics more sophisticated, but the energy and enthusiasm that went into making complex issues clear and engaging to people was consistent throughout. I look forward to hearing from colleagues about what was produced at the trade data hack in CCHubs, Lagos.

NB – I didn’t capture anyone’s names, and may well have misunderstood some of the more complicated work. If I have misrepresented your hack, or if you would like me to assign correct credit for your work, please contact me via the comments field, or on twitter @juliac2

UPDATE: Hacks now live on Rewired State: http://hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/dfiddc2012/centres/london

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:  http://hacks.rewiredstate.org/events/dfiddc2012/centres/capetown

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