Liberia

African Tech Hubs: iLab Liberia

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Technology and innovation hubs in Africa interview series: iLab in Monrovia, Liberia (www.codeinnovation.com) As part of our ongoing African Tech Hub interview series, we sat down with Carter Draper, Interim Country Director of iLab Liberia to ask him what it’s like to work in ICT4D in Monrovia and be bringing exponential technologies to help solve the country’s challenges.

Code Innovation: Hi Carter. Thanks for sitting down with us. Tell us a bit about your background and how you got started in technology.

Carter Draper: I currently serve as Interim Country Director at iLab Liberia. My passion for computing goes as far back as to high school in 2000. Upon graduation, I enrolled at several local computer institutions – and opposed my father’s desire for me to study forestry and agriculture at the state university. I now hold a BSc in Electronics Engineering and a Microsoft Information Technology Professional certification from Koenig Solutions in New Delhi, India, in additional to several certifications for web development, coding, networking and hardware.

During the civil crisis of 2001-2003, I co-operated several Internet cafes, which then served as the major gateway to connecting families and relatives abroad. Immediately after the war, I was employed with the National Legislature – a post I merited as a result of my professional ethics and services rendered my nation while operating Internet cafes during the heat of the civil crisis.

African women and girls learn technology skills for workforce development at iLab Liberia in Monrovia (www.codeinnovation.com)

I served for five unbroken years as Computer Technician at the Legislature, providing tech support to both the Senate wing as well as the House wing. While serving with the Government, I was also teaching Electronic Data Processing at the Stella Maris Polytechnic in Monrovia. In 2010, I got a scholarship to earn my MCTS and MCITP in New Delhi. Seven months after my return, I was employed by Ushahidi Liberia, a non-profit technology initiative that monitored the Liberian 2011 elections using technology.

Code: How did iLab Liberia get started? How are operations being run now?

Carter: iLab Liberia came into existence through Ushahidi Liberia operations. We realized the need for an open space for information sharing, access to Internet and incubating innovation, which Liberia was in dire need of then. It was with enthusiasm for technology, access and innovation for all. iLab is a technology hub that continues to narrow the technology divide in Liberia. Over our four years of operations, we have impacted doctors, teachers, students, the Government of Liberia, INGOs, NGOs, civil society organizations and grassroots intellectual groups, by providing them not only a space where they access the Internet for free, but take free courses and events as well as developing technology solutions to leverage the traditional ways of doing things here on the ground. iLab is a US 501c3, a non-for-profit organization that depends on donor funding for its operations. We’re a small organization with a staff of ten, including me, our Country Director.

Graduating in a technology course for workforce development at iLab Liberia in Monrovia (www.codeinnovation.com)

Code: What is iLab Liberia’s business model?

Carter: To avoid depending on our donors to fund our entire annual budget, starting in 2013 we began charging INGOs minimal funds to collaborate with us. This is intended to allow us to generate 25% of our annual budget. However, due to the Ebola virus, there has been a huge drop in paid services, taking us back to depending fully on donor funding this 2015.

Code: Does iLab Liberia work in open source? What is your experience with the open source community?

Carter: Among the many things we do, open source platforms and applications are at the center. We’ve trained entrepreneurs, MSMEs, and startups in GNUCash, an open source version of QuickBooks, Scribus, for desktop publishing, Audacity for audio editing, Cinderella for video, as well as many other open platforms. All our systems run FOSS operating systems (Ubuntu, Linux) and we’ve encouraged institutions to take that direction by training them in Ubuntu, in addition to sharing copies of the OS to nearly everyone that visits our hub.

Code: What has been most challenging?

Carter: Unlike other tech hubs, iLab operates in an environment with no stable electricity, limited and very costly Internet connectivity, and very poor technology infrastructure. In fact, there is only one  institution of higher learning in information technology or its related courses in Liberia. This has caused a very slow emerging technology community.

Code: What are your organization’s specific areas of expertise?

Technology for workforce development at iLab Liberia in Monrovia (www.codeinnovation.com)

Carter: We specialize in promoting open source systems and applications, web technologies, mobile technologies, trainings and organizing tech events.

Code: What are the issues or problems that you care most about?

Carter: Liberia being a developing country, using technology to develop my nation is my highest dream.

Code: What projects are you most excited to be working on?

Carter: Innovative projects that tackle and contextualize real problems. Helping nearly every sector improve their service delivery through technology.

Code: What are your plans for the next few years and what sort of help do you need to achieve them?

Carter: My plan is to improve the skills of staff at iLab and to expand our mission and activities actively in rural Liberia. I will appreciate anyone who’s willing to help in the improvement of our staff abilities to continue and expand the work we are doing here with new expertise.

Code: What companies or organizations would do you most like to be connected to and why?

Carter: Companies that believe technology can improve the lives of people and processes in Africa as well as institutions that are willing to come to Liberia to share their expertise to help make this country a better place.

Community Mental Health

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Community mental health program in Liberia by Second Chance Africa (www.codeinnovation.com) The Washington Post recently profiled Chris Blattman's research into the economic and security benefits of therapy for at-risk youth in Monrovia, Liberia in "Jobs and jail might not keep young men out of crime, but how about therapy?". The gatekeepers of the psychiatric industry are losing power and a much-needed variety of healing will quickly become accessible on a global scale.

It bodes well for individuals, families and communities everywhere that psycho-social services are starting to be democratized. When people assumed that therapy or counseling required one-on-one time with a highly trained specialist or a regular supply of expensive proprietary drugs, emotional support was effectively a luxury (and, indeed, it has been routinely satirized as such with bored and wealthy TV characters gobbling pills from their indulgent therapists).

Bold new approaches to therapy are delivering powerful results for incredibly low costs, indicating that psychosocial services may soon become available to the hundreds of millions of people struggling with the effects of trauma.

Our partners, Second Chance Africa, pioneered a group therapy approach in Monrovia for ex-combatants that ran over five years, eliminating symptoms of trauma in 60% of the people who went through the program. We’re currently looking for funding to help digitize the curriculum that made this possible and to create an open source mobile resource for Community Health Workers to facilitate group therapy sessions of this variety.

We’ve got a rigorous, clinical monitoring and evaluation protocol lined up that leverages the expertise of PHD candidate Jana Pinto, who studies at the Brain and Mind Research Institute at the Sydney Medical School, at the University of Sydney. And we’ll be testing the approach simultaneously with culturally diverse members of the refugee community in Sydney to gauge the effectiveness of our content and method for a wider audience.

If you’re interested to help make this happen, contact us at info@codeinnovation.com.

Google doesn’t really care about African language content.

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We created an "About Ebola" app in African languages.

Ebola virus graphic designed by artist Fouad Mezher for our free About Ebola informational mobile app

Rumor and misinformation are helping Ebola virus to decimate the already weak health systems of Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. Fearful communities react with panic and mistrust when plastic wrapped health-workers attempt to isolate their loved ones or to control the circumstances of their burial. Health workers are dying in large numbers and infected people are hidden and circulated through healthy communities.

With the help of many African volunteers and Snapp.cc, Code Innovation created a free, informational app “About Ebola” to help with the public health messaging around the worst outbreak in the history of this particular viral hemorrhagic fever.

Our volunteers translated this app into some of the most widely spoken languages in Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal and the Gambia in the hopes that smart phone users in impacted areas could share vital messages with vulnerable people in their native languages.

Smartphones are associated with authority and financial success and our hope is that the people who use them to access public health messaging in local languages will enjoy greater social capital and hold more sway in impacted communities.

But we’ve encountered great stubbornness at Google when it comes to acknowledging these West African languages on the Google Play store. Ironically, there’s a Google initiative for saving obscure and dying languages. Google’s Play Store policies are sabotaging this initiative. We know that the spread of mobile phones is outpacing the distribution of computers in Africa; but while Google created a Wolof version of their search engine, they won’t recognize Wolof on the play store, or Jola, or Krio or Liberian English.

When we first tried to let the Play Store know about the existence of Wolof and Jola (primary languages in two robust African economies), we thought the process would take a day or two and we put our faith in the Google support forums. Our posts were removed within an hour as “irrelevant” and we never found an email address or contact form where we could send our request. The lack of any contact for customer service made Google seem like an anonymous futuristic behemoth with no care for the public. Nonetheless, we were undeterred.

Unlike most content creators in Africa who experience this problem, we have several personal friends who work at Google, an advantage that we thought would help to clear things up. But our friends came up blank after several weeks of asking around.

When we arrived at Singularity University in June, we figured our troubles were over because of the close relationship between Google and the university’s founders and various faculty. We explained our problem to insiders who expressed confidence that the situation could be quickly resolved.

But even here, we gained no access. Instead, we began to see the inflexible, colonial attitudes that were standing in our way. After a couple weeks of needling, we received word that Google’s Senegal office doesn’t consider Wolof a written language and that this was one

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of the reasons that it wasn’t to be found in the Google Play Store. Instead, French is the only language from Senegal authorized to appear on that list—same for Guinea and the rest of Francophone West Africa. Similarly, English is representing Gambia, Sierra Leone, Ghana and more.

Language is gendered.

Take a look at the official languages of Senegal

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(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Languages_of_Senegal) and you’ll notice an alarming statistic. As of 2010, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie estimated that only 1-2% of Senegalese women speak and understand French.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a minute. It’s a trend that you’ll notice throughout the Sub-Continent: women who access education less regularly are much less likely to speak colonial languages. They live their lives speaking their own, indigenous, African languages. So when Google makes it harder for Africans to find local language content on the Play Store, they are putting women at a particular disadvantage.

As a last effort, we recruited a world expert in public health and a frequent guest of Google—someone with the clout and situational knowledge to light a fire under the bureaucratic obstructionism that we’d so far encountered. Two weeks later he acknowledged that he’d gained no traction—and wished us luck.

Categorizing languages as written or not-written and basing company policy on these categories is old-fashioned and out-of-touch with reality. All around Senegal and, indeed Sub-Saharan Africa, many “spoken” languages are transliterated into whatever alphabets are most familiar. Popular websites are written in Wolof, text messages are sent in Wolof, advertisements are published in Wolof and, yes, mobile apps that deal with nearby disease outbreaks are also published in Wolof.

Beyond the fact that this grey area of spoken/written will continue to exist for decades to come, there is the fact that our app could have (and will eventually) include all of its public health information in audio files. Audio content in African languages—matched to clear icons and graphics—will likely be the backbone of many useful and entertaining apps that spring up in the next several years. Why would Google want to behave like a colonial gatekeeper, brushing off the languages of people just now joining the information economy?

(In the interest of being even-handed, the Apple Store doesn’t even recognize the existence of Swahili. We won't even bother blogging about the blind eye that Apple turns towards Africa.)

The fact that we’ve chosen to bring this to Google’s attention is an acknowledgment that we believe their broader mission and intention is not in line with their current policies and processes. Somebody inside the behemoth, please help it to recalibrate.

Why Offline Content is the Forgotten Key to Success in ICT4Education

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I’m motivated by another excellent posting from Inveneo: An ICT4E Lesson Learned: Offline Content is Key."

For seven years now, I’ve been creating curriculum for asynchronous online learning experiences for young people in under-resourced settings. That means that everything my teachers and coordinators expect from ministries and supporting NGOs (electricity, computers, internet connections, paid teachers) cannot be relied upon. Even when we bring trainers from overseas, generators fail, computers grind to a halt, internet connections go dead for weeks at a time, or teachers lapse into an overwhelmed silence at the complexity of it all.

It helps me to remember that none of these things are actually problems. I am an educationist and a technologist in developing world settings. I am not responsible for the infrastructure any more than the students or the teachers are. And if I make my programs dependent on things outside of my control, I pass that dependence down to the teachers and the students. Then they all feel more unfortunate and opportunity-starved when the reality of their situation presents its standard array of inevitable obstacles. If, however, I create curriculum that explicitly addresses these obstacles and specifically coaches students and teachers on how to make the best use of their time in any given circumstance, I pass along self-reliance and a confident, unashamed acceptance of whatever logistical shortcomings arise.

Every year, I create a greater percentage of content and activities that must be conducted offline and even outside of the school grounds. My program impact is rising (on all programs) in lockstep with this transition.

It’s easy, working in technology, to feel compelled to prioritize technology at every step and to assume that maximizing user exposure to technology is a de facto win. I think this is wrong for two reasons. First, as detailed in the Inveneo post, there are multiple logistical obstacles that bedevil tech initiatives: internet is unreliable. Electricity is unreliable. Having the computers working in an easy and virus-free way is unreliable. Having the most tech savvy teacher available to help with implementation is unreliable. Having enough computers for all students is unreliable. We know that our programs will face these obstacles; so we should create programs that are unaffected by their appearance. If we are going to use these obstacles as excuses for our program failure, so are our teachers and our students. We encourage failure and quitting when we make our programs dependent on unreliable circumstances.

I think back to my time in high school. There were two types of teachers. One of those types, when confronted with a VCR and television combination (the height of technology at the time) that she could not understand, would waste 15-40% of our class time struggling to figure out the settings, while we all laughed and delighted at our freedom from work. The other type, when confronted with recalcitrant technology would immediately default to a solid back up plan, without skipping a beat—to our dismay and to the benefit of our minds.

We need to write curriculum for teachers that make it very likely that they will behave in an adaptive and authoritative way. This involves lots of signposting. It involves modeling adaptive behavior. My curricular writing has become increasingly sectioned, branching into activities for different eventualities. It contains bolded and italicized header sentences that usually resemble these three varieties:

1. No electricity activity: While you cannot use your machines, have this class discussion, play this game, go on a field trip of this variety, take photographs with the following theme in mind, etc.

2. Electricity but no internet: Use this time to prepare your content for uploading to the internet. Edit images, edit text, explore layout options etc.

3. Access to computers connected to the internet: hurry up and get your content out there and then look into X, Y, Z specific areas of online content, saving and copying what you can to a desktop folder.

Since we began designating our content primarily according to the level of access to technology that our classes enjoy on any given day, our teachers have reported far higher levels of program satisfaction and their progress has been much more rapid and impressive.

Earlier, I mentioned that there is a second reason that prioritizing use of technology in curricular offerings is flawed. The first set of reasons are entirely logistical; but I think that they point to a second and more fundamental reason, which is that offline education remains a rich, varied, absorbable, and in developing world contexts, a necessary component of tech-dependent initiatives.

We as curriculum designers are given access to learners because we are fluent in technology; but we have to remember our roots as educationists and we have to reconnect to classic, high impact educational mainstays like class discussions, teamwork exercises, role-playing games, field trips, and exploration of the wider community.

Now, even when I design online learning curricula for audiences in wealthy countries that have unfettered access to staggeringly fast internet connections, I redirect the attention of those young people entirely away from their machines more and more regularly. I could write curricula that takes advantage of their unlimited access to peak technology; but I do not. Teachers and learners who are new to this technology benefit from more familiar activities that draw on their strengths and experiences. These breaks help them to return to the technological aspects of their program with new enthusiasm and focus.

My classes in Liberia and rural Madagascar provide me with a very useful reminder: my constituent audiences do not assume that everything can and should be made easier with technology. Many of them are starting from a place of 100% technological illiteracy. As the person responsible for the pace at which they are introduced to technology, I must remember that many people do not learn how to swim when they are tossed into a body of water. I need to select the most accessible and appropriate uses of technology and I must introduce them gradually, while providing a clear rationale for each new step into foreign or mediated environments. This helps to make the impact of the technological components all the more significant.