innovation

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.

Stealth Rally in the Social Sector (Our article on Forbes)

Predicting the future is an unavoidable pursuit at Singularity University, where I met my colleague Darlene Damm, a thinker who has her finger on the pulse of global social innovations by virtue of her position at Ashoka. Darlene and I analyzed some of the macro-economic (and technological) trends that will be impacting business over the next decade and see reason to believe that the non-profit and social sectors will outperform both conventional business and government. Have a look at our conclusions and tell us what you think over at Forbes:

Exponential Technologies and Social-Ecological Design

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Teaching about exponential technology and social-ecological design in resilient systems at Stockholm Resilience Center (www.codeinnovation.com) The Stockholm Resilience Centre is making super useful contributions to humanity and to the planet. They’ve pioneered the nuanced and data-driven concept of “Planetary Boundaries”—the thresholds beyond which we cannot predict the behavior of our planet or our ability to live on it successfully. (The Centre’s Executive Director, Johan Rockstrom delivers a succinct TED talk on the concept here.) Or, for a brief paragraph about each of the 9 boundaries, see here. This concept and others pioneered at the Centre are helping to frame some of the decade’s most urgent debates around climate stewardship.

SRC is staffed primarily with scientists and researchers, but it is working actively to create positive impacts and to foster innovation. Maja Brisvall, who I first met during the Graduate Studies Program of Singularity University, was inspired by the potential impact of exponential technologies to create a similar initiative at SRC called LEAD. In close collaboration with SU mainstay, Kathryn Myronuk, and with contributions from SU's core impact faculty, this program will be culminating in December 2014. While LEAD offers the popular mix of entrepreneurial skills, exponential technologies and social impact, it also incorporates SRC’s priorities by requiring participants to focus their innovations on ecological systems or biodiversity. To the best of my knowledge, this is currently the only program focused on this potent overlap.

While applying exponential technologies to problems in health care or education is a fairly straightforward (and popular) undertaking, far fewer people have taken a serious look at how these technologies can be brought to the service of earth systems and into an area typically looked after by foresters and farmers. We’re watching this intersection very closely at CODE and doing our best to help it develop. If you are working on a technologically advanced initiative to strengthen existing earth systems, get in touch and let’s chat.

Our contributions to the LEAD program hinged on identifying four different industrial age assumptions that limit our vision and impact when thinking about innovations within our social and ecological systems. These are:

  1. Technological innovations should be for the individual and scaled on a 1:1 basis.
  2. Technological innovations should be delivered from the top down.
  3. We should develop our innovations on the assumption that we will continue to centralize and urbanize, discounting other trends and trajectories.
  4. Programs and initiatives should be designed to last and grow indefinitely.

Stay tuned for more detailed thinking around these points.

Also, in case it isn’t obvious, if we don’t work together on bolstering our existing ecosystems and biodiversity, we’ll soon find ourselves treading the dangerous and objectionable path towards Geo-engineering, an exponential technology that we want to keep in the box.

Near and Medium Term Unemployment Stresses

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Unemployment because of technology and the future stresses of economic recession (www.codeinnovation.com)Global trends for youth employment look worrying. We already have 1 billion working age young people classified as unemployed or underemployed. We know that 48% of all working people are in vulnerable employment and recent research suggests that nearly half of the careers that exist today are threatened by robots and automation. This situation is not a modern parallel to what we saw at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution when the Luddites were making a name for themselves. Data-driven analysis and a close look at the global economy make it clear that income earning opportunities are disappearing faster than they are being created. Watch this if you need convincing:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Pq-S557XQU

The end of jobs could turn out to be a wonderful thing. Many of us find labor tedious and limiting. Many people dream of spending their time however they see fit. But we cannot transition magically from an earnings-based economy to an abundance or gift-based economy.

Huge portions of society are vulnerable now. Large numbers of people are joining their ranks every year. (Check out Guy Standing’s thought-provoking books about the “precariat” to understand these trends better.) For them, difficulty finding work means difficulty providing for their basic needs and perhaps the needs of their family.

With optimism about the medium term future, Code focuses on the immediate and urgent need to build self-sufficiency in vulnerable communities. When we cannot identify job opportunities for certain populations, we can still take a look at their expenses and spending habits and systematically eliminate their dependence on food, water and energy that they do not produce and control.

Education Innovations from Singularity University's European Summit

In Budapest, during late 2013, CODE Principal Nathaniel Calhoun joined the faculty of Singularity University for their first European Summit on exponential technologies. CEO’s, policy makers and innovators from around Europe gathered to spend two days absorbing and discussing the breakthroughs that will shape the face of markets and humanitarian work alike. Participants witnessed the world’s first 3D printed exoskeleton in action, discussed Artificial Intelligence with Ray Kurzweil and surveyed the most recent advances in everything from nanotechnology and alternative energy to cyber security and personalized home genomics.

Calhoun’s contribution to the summit focused on the technologies and strategies most relevant to large scale education initiatives, with an emphasis on low income and resource-poor settings. While many companies are focused on services for the tech-savvy natives of wealthy countries, it’s harder to find tech interventions that produce results where infrastructure is unreliable and where the support apparatus struggles to reach those in need. Singularity’s commitment to “impact programming” ensures that faculty (and participants) scour the playing field for those ideas and innovations that can make an immediate and tangible difference to hundreds of millions of people.

Often the discussion of what technology can contribute to education focuses on replacing teachers and creating alternatives to school systems and formal education. Praise of famous drop outs and anecdotes about illiterate children hacking donated tablets are offered as sufficient justification for entirely by-passing the education-delivery mechanisms that are already in place globally. However, there are compelling reasons for leveraging the goodwill, capability and systems already focused on creating educational experiences.

Below, we highlight a series of innovations that, in different ways, derive benefit simultaneously from new technologies and from more traditional approaches.

Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) have been prominent in the news over the last several years, riding through a bit of a hype cycle. In the frothy first year of their rapid growth, MOOCs were touted as the ideal vehicles for bringing education of all types to learners everywhere in the world. Since then, MOOCs have struggled with well-publicized drop-out rates that seem to demonstrate that many learners are simply not ready to undertake the challenge of educating themselves without the personal touch of educators. Even prominent leaders and advocates of MOOCs have come out in the last year to acknowledge the challenges that they face.

Meanwhile, rather quietly, Kepler University in Rwanda has found a superior system for getting the most out of MOOC content while generating employment and creating meaningful networking opportunities for course participants. They’ve created a lightweight, low cost physical university to oversee the delivery of MOOC content. They hire educators and facilitators to help move students through the challenging section of MOOC courses and they ensure that peer learning opportunities are not lost. Their students have massively higher completion rates and the university is expanding into other countries in East Africa, which means that the value and reach of the professional network available to these young learners is expanding as well.

Others innovating in the arena of creating educational institutions are Bridge International Academies, (also headquartered in East Africa) and the UK based NGO, Teach a Man to Fish. Bridge Academies are thriving in Kenya, where they enable capable entrepreneurs to tap into a supportive coaching framework while actually opening and operating elementary schools. The organization loads low cost hardware with high quality content and mentors teachers through the process of delivering learning experiences in all sorts of contexts. The hardware prompts teachers to gather large amounts of data that is analyzed remotely by Bridge Academy specialists and used to help tailor the learning experience for young people.

Teach a Man to Fish helps subscribing schools to become financially self-sufficient. The program is geared especially towards remote rural schools where students may need to participate in agricultural pursuits. These schools typically create one or two small businesses relating to local food products or handicrafts and then provide students with a hands-on business education. Students and faculty operate these businesses in such a way that their educational expenses are entirely covered, which eliminates a powerful barrier to education while increasing the business savvy of people who were previously vulnerable to financial exploitation.

The field of financial and business education has seen some new and improved strategies also in Ethiopia. Instruction around financial education and finance has often been handed over to institutions with a vested interest in indebting their students and profiting from the interest that they must pay—a system that prevents the full benefits of financial education from staying within the community that needs it. Tearfund Ethiopia has seen incredible results with its Self Help Group Program, but more about that particular project in the future...