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Jon Gosier is one of the most impressive figures from the African technology scene to make it internationally. He is a TedX senior fellow, and works as the Director of Product for SwiftRiver at Ushahidi, which is a “platform for making sense of streams of realtime data.” Gosier is also the founder of Appfrica, a business incubator for East African technologists. Gosier spoke to Memeburn about the future of crowdsourcing and why East Africa is such a thriving technology hub.
Memeburn: What is it that has turned Kenya into the “Silicon valley of africa”?
Jon Gosier: Hunger. It’s natural progression. In parts of the world that have essentially been discounted by everyone as sources for innovation, there will always be people who actively work against that mischaracterization. Some people are beginning to notice that these places don’t lack innovation because of some difference in culture or people, it’s just socio-economic timing. For quite some time, people have been working hard to make Kenya a place that warrants the same opportunities, interest and investment that exist elsewhere. They’ve always been there, they’re just now getting recognized for the work they are doing, or the work they’ve enabled their children to do.
MB: Why is mobile such an important milestone in the web for emerging markets?
JG: Reach. Mobile reaches more people, in more places around the world, than any other communication device. The form factor works for people who spend hours working or traveling. Mobile devices are also (generally) more affordable and, thus, more accessible. As technology converges (from computers to mobile devices like handsets and tablets) the barrier to participation on the web falls for the majority of the planet, who are mostly offline.
MB: Can the mobile web change rural africa for the better?
JG: Yes. In three key areas, the first is in local content. I used to work with young people in East Africa who would say that they weren’t interested in some online communities because they were too Western-centric. As the people around them come online, they’ll produce more local content which encourages more local participation. It seems like a bit of a causality dilemma but they happen in tandem, because of each other. I think this sort of diversity of knowledge is what’s missing on the web right now. We assume the internet is a global phenomena – it will be when there are rural populations who are just as removed physically as they are in language or ideas.
There’s also more quantifiable changes. I wrote an essay a while back called “MOBILE GUTENBERG, BANKING PAPACY” which discusses how m-banking and other mobile solutions across Africa are as transformative as the printing press was for Europe.
MB: Are there differences between the tech scenes in Kenya and South Africa?
JG: I feel like South Africa has some advantages: A longer history, more success stories, and generally a more mature business environment. Most of the big African ventures like (MTN, Naspers, Canonical) have South African origins or ties. The world expects a lot of innovation and success from the country.
Kenya also has it’s advantages. Because it’s not the first place people look to invest, it’s the outlier which makes relatively small success seem bigger, given the context.
MB: What do you think the most important apps to have emerged for a new generation of Africans?
JG: I ran a contest last year called Apps4Africa where local developers in East Africa were challenged to develop apps that solved problems in their respective societies. The winner was a low-tech project that allowed farmers to measure the gestation period of cows with a mobile phone.
The most important apps to emerge have nothing to do with their uses of technology, rather it has everything to do with who’s making them. Applications made by people who understand and appreciate the intricacies of the African continent.
MB: What plans does Ushahidi have going forward?
JG: Ushahidi is growing incredibly fast. And contrary to popular belief, we’re growing on revenue earned. So I think the future for Ushahidi is continuing to do more in the business space.
On the Swiftly.org side of things, we’re a growing team of data geeks. We’re beginning to get into areas of reputation and social currencies with RiverID. It’s exciting times here in the ‘House of U’.
MB: Is crowdsourcing changing the way that things are done in the media? And online in general?
JG: Yes and no. In some ways, crowdsourcing is just an extension of old media techniques enabled by new technologies. Here’s an example – instead of having listeners call in to a radio show, the radio show can now tweet thousands of listeners and get back thousands of responses almost instantly. The communication hasn’t changed it’s just been made more efficient. That’s a small innovation around an old practice.
But what has been incredibly disruptive is the increasingly democratic effect crowd participation is having on the creation of news. Blogging, Twitter, Facebook; are often cited as the mechanism for discovering ‘sources’. When a story breaks 10 000 miles away in a foreign country, it’s no longer efficient to wait for the AP to raise a team on the ground and deliver the story to media channels.
Global reactions are now instant. A bomb goes off in Country X and immediately photos, videos, and tweets emerge from some of the people who either experienced the event, or witnessed it first-hand. The story is told as it unfolds to anyone with access, and interest, who’s been made aware.
This means that the traditional editors, or gatekeepers of information are no longer ‘authoritative’ simply because they can’t possibly verify the breadth of information being released. All we have now is multiple views of the same story, and our own ability to asses what to believe.
MB: What can peopel expect from your talk at net prophet?
JG: I’ll talk a lot about currency and crowdsourcing. Why do people in San Francisco spend hours, days, even weeks of their free time online supporting revolutions in Egypt? They aren’t being paid, but something is being exchanged. There are a lot of people who criticise crowdsourcing as a methodology. I’d argue that they don’t understand currency, the exchange of one thing for another, that’s becoming the way in which the world trades. If you understand this, you’d get that crowdsourcing isn’t an advent of technology, it’s a natural progression (in someways a regression) of society. Trade.
MB: Are there are any other crowdsourcing projects we should know about that we maybe haven’t seen?
JG: Well, I mentioned RiverID which is online reputation tracking. Unlike some of the other tools out there that do this, we’re not at all concerned with ‘popularity’. Instead we’re trying to form a profile about your contributions to different communities (say, an Ushahidi deployment or Wikipedia page) and what the members of those communities think about you. We’re looking at your online reputation, not your ability to influence people to go out and buy things.
As far as tools that we don’t make, I’m liking HARO (helpareporterout.com) right now. It’s a crowdsourcing platform that matches journalists with potential sources for stories. By pre-vetting contributors, HARO helps journalists quickly find people to interview when they’re writing stories. You can imagine if the topic is breaking news or unfolding through social media, the journalists worst enemy is time. HARO significantly speeds up that process.