Prologue to the Sanitation Hackathon

Florian Rathgeber and Fayaz Valli at the World Bank, Washington DC.
Florian Rathgeber (right centre) and Fayaz Valli (left centre) at the World Bank, Washington DC.

Taarifa was announced in various mediums as being a winner of the sanitation hackathon. To this end two Taarifans are currently representing all Taarifans in Washington DC and San Francisco. More will come from this, I’m sure. However, all of the projects of the sanitation hackathon should be given the same pedestal and treatment.

The number of projects and energy that the sanitation hackathon generated should not be lost, and energised by the constant support and coverage;

“The event featured nearly 1000 registered hackers at ten locations worldwide who developed some 62 new prototypes.” – Sanitation Hackathon Site

While this moment is still in the here and now we should all move forward, collaborating, instead of competing. From this solve the technical challenges within the sanitation issues which we face. Undoubtedly, it is a naïve and deterministic proposition to suggest that technology will solve the world’s problems. However, events like the sanitation hackathon have demonstrated that technologists from all walks of life can work together. Building a social side to these systems is a bigger problem than the technological ones, prizes and recognition aren’t replacements and should not be considered replacements for this. The hard work starts now.

Written and submitted in the Hotel Kilimanjaro, Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania (-6.81669, 39.293198)

H4D2 April 12th – 14th

The HXL-Team
The HXL-Team

Last year I attended the H4D2 (Humanitarian for Disaster 2.o) organised by (and at) Aston University and Geeks Without Bounds. One of the outputs that I worked on was the HXL Extractor. Basically take data out of  GeoSPARQL, a geospatial semantic database and fire it into a GIS program. One of the team members had already been experimenting with and semantic databases and triplestores (this was most definitely a good thing, allowing us to move quickly) so our ‘mission’ was to create a middle layer to connect to a triplestore, then using the WFS-T standard to fire the extracted data into a GIS program of your choice. Interestingly the ‘project lead’ was communicating with us from Geneva via Skype, this and the prior work bellies the need for clear and concise problem statements prior to the hack. Because some of the team had been able to think about what they had to do we’d been able to work more effectively, even while learning technologies on the fly.

Going to the International Conference for Crisis Mapping Hackathon in Washington a few months later, HXL was still going strong and I got to meet the instigator of the project CJ Hendrix face to face. He’d amassed a team which went on to rightly take first prize at ICCM, now its being used by by UNOCHA with papers forthcoming. The project is growing, as evidenced by the amount of work going on in the team repository. Understandably our small team in Birmingham just did a little bit, but every little bit, helps.

Now H4D2 is coming around again on April 12th – 14th. This will then be followed up by SMERST (Social Media and Semantic Technologies in Emergency Response) a more academic focused conference on April 15th – 16th. Most importantly, you didn’t need to code to contribute, all are welcome from designers, videographers, bloggers, journalists and you! Registration for the H4D2 is open and is again at Aston University in Birmingham. Register here: http://h4d2.eu/registration. It’s going to rock.

Written and submitted from the Serena, Dar Es Salaam (6.810617, 39.288284)

Mapitude: Open Data, Open Platforms, Open Communities?

(Open) Data Needs Open Service for Enterprise

I was fortunate to be invited to give a talk at Mapitude. Unsurprisingly I spoke about community mapping, spatial data infrastructures in developing nations and Taarifa. I also touched upon open data and how services and platforms using open data need to be developed. I think that open data is great – for more info watch this TED talk by Tim Berners-Lee – however I believe open data is only the beginning not the end point of data development.

We need platforms and services, which are open and free to use for the vast majority of citizens. This presents opportunities for new business models, while the data should be free at the point of service, the costs of collecting and distribution (if not crowdsourced – I’m not implying crowdsourced is free to produce either) need to be paid by someone/something. Data is just data, it doesn’t help improve sanitation or water access but wrapping it into a service or platform could and should.

Platforms and services like Taarifa, Ushahidi and Open Street Map all are very expensive to run, however need to be free for the public good that they serve. I doubt advertising can fully meet the needs and costs – look at Facebook, whereas I believe over a long term grants and loans are unsustainable. A freeium model could be the way forward, tailored around a service being offered which the platform sits on, which is free up to a limit. Deciding on who to charge for an what is a difficult question and would be needed to considered carefully, with questions around licencing and ‘fairness’ paramount. As such the communities which create the open source software which drives the platforms and services need to be part of any decision that takes place and be at the heart of the community and process.

I’m not saying that open source platforms and services using open data need to make a large profit, this is a charitable enterprise after all, the profit needs to be reinvested to support innovation, be it buying equipment, investing in training or paying for hosting. However open data, open platforms and open services need to make money, which can be reinvested in supporting its community, providing free services to those that deserve and need it, while enforcing payment from those that can pay.

Written and submitted from Mokka City, Dar Es  (-6.8162376,39.2885885)

Dictator/Benevolent: Janus, Dichotomy?

Taarifa is one of the best things I’ve been involved in. In various forms it’s had shout outs in the New York Times to Random Hack Of Kindness. One of my tasks is to help deploy it in Uganda soon. I recently sent this email to the Taarifa development mailing list. I feel that the … Continue reading “Dictator/Benevolent: Janus, Dichotomy?”

Taarifa is one of the best things I’ve been involved in. In various forms it’s had shout outs in the New York Times to Random Hack Of Kindness. One of my tasks is to help deploy it in Uganda soon. I recently sent this email to the Taarifa development mailing list. I feel that the role of a founder in a project always needs to be considered. I’m wondering what other people think?

Taarifans!

Taarifa is a platform that is fix my street for slums. I’m unsure whether this post is a massive shout out to my ego or what. However I want to start a discussion on the role of the founder in community projects, be them open source or not. I do so mindful of a line from ‘Batman: The Dark Knight’ ringing loud and clear; “You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.”

At this juncture I should point out my love for another open source project, Open Street Map. I owe a lot to many members of the OSM community, either directly or indirectly. The OSM project and its community has shaped who I am over the years. From an exchange student dragging his local girlfriend mapping because she had local knowledge to going down some deep rabbit warrens elsewhere in the world. I love OSM, I love what it stands for and I love its community to the point where at one stage my health was severely compromised. However things within haven’t been plain sailing with a simple comment of “We are the Board! Shape the project!” effectively a call to arms for the project’s betterment taken as a powergrab by the board -nb I’m not singling people out for this one, the thread is included for reference, good luck if you reach the end!

In my eyes the OSM and its foundation OSMF are making the world better. Viewing it like accounts, they’re contributing more to the black column than the red. In my eyes Taarifa is doing the same, and should continue to do the same until something better comes along, or the project is dead. A lot of people in the skype channel and email have thanked me for organising Taarifa, going to talk to people and the such like. The truth is I’m just a loud, talky person. At times when things are starting maybe that is what’s needed. In future probably not. Taarifa is potentially going to be a foundation, at the very least it needs to do something around it’s identity and outward communications. It’s to be discussed at the coming hackathon and I think we should welcome it! We need to discuss what we want our structure to be, is it anarchy, benevolent dictator, committee? I don’t know, but together we should. Future plans regarding funding, grants, deployments all come under this, at it’s core where do we see this going?

My input now I think is to create the culture or influence it. I want people to love Taarifa as I do. I think the community and what we’ve done and accomplished is phenomenal. As such I’d like to shout a call-to-arms to Taarifans and other developers looking at Taarifa to JFDI if they believe strongly enough into it. Make things better, by consensus. If that isn’t working, fork the project and show why your solution is better. Then pull. Also difference is good. I believe it is ingrained in the Taarifa community’s inception that by defending and debating our positions this makes OUR project better; Remember the whiteboard sesssions! Which as it’s a humanitarian project, enables better usage and happier users which does ‘GOOD’. We’re getting new members who weren’t at the hackathon – hello there! – joining. Every person I speak to, sees how Taarifa can make a big difference, people in Uganda are hopeful, in some small way, the world is watching!

So what about the position of the founder and the quote at the beginning? Is founder the best way description; in some ways you on this list now are founders. I want to be involved in Taarifa for as long as I can, but not at the forefront. People change, they loose their hunger, they get different skills sets. And this is a good thing! One of the most contentious things I have is a business card where I’m purported to be a “Geospatial Innovation Consultant”. Geospatial Consultant fine, using ‘Innovation’ however is esoteric and buzzword bingo. At some stage in my life I innovated, I took a risk and though it cost me very dearly it apparently paid off. Now I don’t really innovate, I research, I just ‘do’. Not necessarily innovation, that baton has been taken up by someone younger, better looking with ‘nicer’ hair than I. My role should be to help them – whoever they are – to innovate bigger and better than before. I guess I’m seen at the forefront of Taarifa at the moment. But as an open note, if you think you can do it better do it. The project is bigger than me, you and the community. At the moment very deep decisions are being made or will have to be made, and they’re made with the information we have now, not 20:20 hindsight. The best team at the time should be guiding and shaping those decisions, not yesterdays team. At the hackathon, I remember drinking some cola, looking at each of the developers hacking and thinking ” I’m the dumbest guy in the room”. Everywhere on our table people created frameworks or made coordinate reference systems. Really smart things and all of you should be damn proud.

The time will come where I will need to step aside as being shouty. This is a natural process, not requiring politicking or a ‘nasty’ process. So I rally “You are the founders, shape the project, own it”. Personally I’ve only ever been able to see as far because I stood on the shoulders of giants. Your shoulders. Thank you my friends.

Will see YOU at the hackathon!

Mark