Reporting on BarCampAfrica

I just made a guest post on Akvo’s blog. Mark introduces the post…

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I wrote recently about the New Participants in the development process and I’m pleased to introduce one here, for our first Akvo guest blog. Chris Watkins of Appropedia was able to attend the BarCampAfrica event, hosted a few weeks ago on the Google Campus in San Jose. None of the Akvo team could be there but Chris was kind enough to offer his take on what it was about. Over to Chris…

I have a confession: I love BarCamps – the free structure, the inclusive nature, and loads of interesting people. And I’m passionate about international development. So when I heard of BarCampAfrica, I knew I had to go.

To set the tone, during the opening session, we were asked to stand up if we were from Africa or had ever been to Africa – I was surprised to see the majority of the room standing. It soon become clear that this was by and large a group of action takers – people who care, who had gone out and done it, learnt the lessons, and were taking action now.

Read the full post…

For the unconnected

A question at BarCampAfrica: What use is a wiki, for the poor who have no internet?

  1. First you need to develop the information the resource. But over time I’m sure the Appropedia community will put more and more effort into dissemination.
  2. There are all kinds of ways of distributing offline content – in a computer (e.g. OLPC bundles), CD-ROM flash drives,  hard drives, printouts (leaflets, booklets or books*), education programs based on content developed on the wiki.
  3. Phones. A story was told at BarCampAfrica of a conversation in Africa. “Have you heard of Google?” “Yes, of course.” “Have you searched Google from a mobile phone?” “Of course – how else can you search with Google?” You only need one phone in the village with this capability to massively increase people’s ability to find information.
  4. Villagers who have moved to the city to work, that maintain a connection to the village – if they have internet access, they can send or take the information back to the village.
  5. That other way – the one none of us have thought of yet.

There’s no need to put weighting on the different channels. You might think #4 won’t be effective, for example. You may be right. For now, the important part is #1: Create the resource.

* This is one reason that it’s so important to use an open license that allows commercial use, so people can be motivated distribute this knowledge.

Subsidies hurting Africa

BarCampAfrica – The OLPC (laptop) project is another form of harmful subsidy, says one critic. It was a gentle critique – even the critic is a fan of the OLPC project in many ways (as am I – extremely cool tech and great educational ideas).

But it’s clear to anyone familiar with development issues that subsidies really are harmful, much of the time – and the speaker had examples of his own. Like the big headaches for ISPs in Africa when international aid organizations come in and dropping free connections on schools or communities. Such subsidies take out a whole chunk of the market that businesses no longer have access to – then when the aid organization leaves and goes somewhere else, the locals are left with local businesses that are weakened and less able to serve the community.

Now, I still see the OLPC as doing much more good than harm. Sure, they’re taking out a huge chunk of the market… but that market mostly didn’t exist before OLPC’s innovations made it possible to serve these people.

So, I like the suggestions: Open source the design*, let anyone build them, and keep the margin local.

On the other hand, I wonder if there is any possibility of a market-based solution that achieves OLPC’s aims, especially saturation. But if a no-subsidy model leads to more effective markets and institutions, then that may be a more important achievement. It also leaves space for more innovation – e.g. variations on the Educational Television Computer (a.k.a. the $10 computer).

* Actually, isn’t it already open source…? Help me out here...

As with all posts in this blog, the views expressed here are those of the poster, and don’t necessarily represent the Appropedia community.