“Connecting with Digital Innovation in Africa through Social Media”

 hosted by GIZ  in Nairobi, Kenya

GIZ idea behind this workshop with African hubs was to network with pioneers

m:lab East Africa

and practitioners, to share experiences, create new ideas and discover opportunities in Africa which will eventually help promote international cooperations for sustainable development.

The event brought together a dozen of African hubs including,  iLab Liberia of Liberia, iHub of Kenya, ActivSpaces of Cameroon, Klab of Rwanda, RLABS of South Africa, iLabAfrica of  Kenya, icecairo of Egypt, Wennovation Hub of Nigeria, BongoHive of Zambia, iceaddis of Ethiopia and of course our AfriLabs.

iHub

In attendance were representatives from the KAIPTC of Ghana and a hosts of GIZ representatives from  head offices in Germany and other African Countries.

During the workshop, we had the opportunity to visit Hubs, (iHub, M:Lab, iLabAfrica, Ushahidi) Incubators like(Nailab & iBizAfrica), and Strathmore University which houses the Safaricom Academy, iBizAfrica and iLabAfrica.

The Impact of hubs:

  • Develop skills

    iLab Africa

  • Create jobs
  • Serve as implementing partner for both governments and development cooperations
  • Serve as a focal point for the  community
  • Identify skills and bring them together under one roof where their potentials can be utilized effectively not only on the national scene, but globally as well.
  • Help with local development since it creates local linkages

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iLab’s October 2013 summary updates: A busy but successful month…

Offering free trainings in contextually relevant ICTs that are open to the public. Also hosts tech events and serves as a meet-up space for a range of tech enthusiasts and professionals.

Though busy, this month’s events and training were exciting and interactive. Having 5 events, 4 trainings and 18 co-working days:

 

TED (Technology Entertainment & Design) Talks - TED is a nonprofit devoted to Ideas Worth Spreading. It started out in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, Design. Since then its scope has become ever broader. Along with two annual conferences — the TED Conference and TED Global. We screened these talks for all to watch, enjoy and be motivated! 20 persons were in attendance…

 

Careers in ICT Workshop for students –  Here we taught 15 amazing students from various institutions all they need to know about ICT; possible career paths and what it takes to get there.

 

Mastering the Internet for high school students – After 5 days of dedicated training, 6 students from different high schools were awarded with certificates of outstanding performance. They were introduced to the wonders of the internet as an educational tool and a way to explore what they are passionate about.

High School Students with their certificates

 

Movie night - With 31 attendees, we featured films that inspires discussion and make us think critically about our lives. The featured movie is “Stand and Deliver” - Jaime Escalante (best actor Oscar nominee Edward James Olmos) employed at an inner-city high school where kids are all but expected to fail, Escalante challenges his math students to strive for better things — like acing the AP Calculus test. Despite the obstacles in their lives — including pregnancy, drugs and unsupportive parents – the classmates accomplish their goal, thanks to Mr. Escalante’s untiring support. The real Jaime Escalante, inspiration for the book Escalante: The Best Teacher in America, helped hundreds of underprivileged students pass the AP exam during his career.

 

Workshop on Open Knowledge, Open data and Open Government in Liberia  Ways were explored on how to use technology creatively to make Government information easily understandable for citizens.

 

 

Intermediate Mastering the Internet – An advanced training on how to use the internet as an educational tool for your interest with the aim of making you an expert online. We had 12 persons who took part in this training, but only 8 could come on the certification day.

Intermediate Mastering the Internet Certification

 

Social Media for Social Change – Here we introduced the popular and free social media tools to 10 participants.

Social Media Certification

 

ICT for Small Business – 12 Entrepreneurs are trained on how to effectively and efficiently run their business using Twitter, GnuCash & Google Drive. The training will run till the 4th of November.

Training session- ICT for small business

 

 Mapping Party – 28 persons were present to add their favorite places on the Google map.

We had a workshop on Early Warning and Early Response LERN Improvement with 20 persons in attendance.

We also hosted the Technical Working Group (TWG) of the Government of Liberia in collaboration with Crisis Management Initiative (CMI) on the  Governance Architecture project. The kick-off of a project in which iLab will train and give technical support to the TWG using Ms Visio to do process modeling for Ministries, Agencies and Commissions of the republic of Liberia.

 

Our regular co-working hours that is free and open to the public was open for 18 days with a minimum of 15 persons  using our facility each day.

 

Thanks,

 

Lucy & Luther

Great to be back in LIB!

Celebrating the 10 years of peace, debating about the challenges of the development of the nation, seeing the technology enthusiasm and opportunities in iLab users everyday…it’s great to be back in LIB! Here’s a few thoughts just after being in the country – back home in Monrovia – after holidays.

 

In my native country, Finland, the summertime is slow – people are on holidays, and for over a month not much happens – with the exception of travel and tourism industries. One might expect the same here in LIB, since it’s rainy season, but far from it –we’re action packed!

Even CNN was in Liberia – they got a chance to see the action at iLab, here is the packed house for Mapping party – 60+ people in 2 labs.

 

Just before I left on holidays, we at iLab were happy to reach record attendances in June of this year. Further, in July we had over 200 visits just during our co-working hours – a huge increase.  We’re in the midst of crunching the numbers and will have some analysis on those sometime soon.

 

One of the more novel things for us at iLab is our project on mobile data collection for tracking and monitoring beneficiaries of a child labor prevention project. We are looking at various open-source technology solutions and mobile devices – and defining and assessing technologies for developing  a system for our client and their field force – people in some 30 communities in three counties.  We’re excited – stay tuned for more info.

 

Seems a lot is happening with e-learning right now – lots in interest gained. When Kpetermeni Siakor had his guest lecture on e-learning and the so-called MOOCs – the house was absolutely packed, with some 78 enthusiasts crammed in to listen! We’re talking with several organisations regarding how iLab could facilitate the adoption of the masses of material that are out there.

 

I had a chance to discuss with several youth initiatives and with some staff from the Ministry of Youth and Sports. It is so great listening to the youth in their teens or early twenties asking for iLab support in their initiatives to utilize technology in new interesting ways – for example, how to disseminate text messages among the nearly 200 national volunteers. What was great to hear was that the idea for the project came from a participant in our mobile technologies for transparency and accountability -training!

 

At Samuel K. Doe stadium / Ministry of Youth and Sports

At Samuel K. Doe stadium / Ministry of Youth and Sports – explaining to 185 national volunteers how mobile technology could make their life easier,

Now just last weekend Liberia was celebrating 10 years of peace – no small feat – since its gruesome 14-year long civil war. Of course it is absolutely a great path to be on, even with its challenges. It was naturally disappointing to find Liberia (once again) as one of the most corrupt countries in the world – 10 years after the war, this really is one of the key challenges. On a related matter, equally puzzling and alarming Is the current battle between the media and some government-affiliated persons, relating to investigative journalism.  It seems there is quite a bit to do on the topic of open government and transparency, one of the themes at iLab this year. While the problems are certainly not solved just by technology, we are looking at increasing transparency by using ICTs intelligently. We look forward to working with both civil society organizations as well as government entities like the Ministry of Information, Cultural Affairs and Tourism. Getting government and the citizens to communicate and meaningfully engage will be a long, fascinating journey.

 

Wow, that’s a lot I’ve mentioned – but it’s not even nearly all! Right now we need to make sure we finish delivering what we’ve promised to our donors: our Girls in ICT –program is going strong – an intermediate Python class is just about to start. We continue to work on open government and transparency. We are thrilled to be a part of the IT business plan competition initiative that has been going on and are very much looking forward to supporting the new businesses as entrepreneurship remains one of our key themes. And we will not be forgetting the use of Ushahidi – essentially the reason iLab was started in the first place – to track incidents of conflict or violence all over Liberia, as a part of the Early Warning Early Response working group – 20 or so organizations led by the Peacebuilding office. We just trained 19 volunteers from the Interreligious council and continue to expand our conflict  reporter base.

The future programmers who attended Introduction to Python busy during a workshop on how can the internediate class be even better.

 

All these promising initiatives need further support for continuation next year. With an internet access of 2.8% and mobile penetration of 42% in Liberia, iLab and similar entities have got a lot of work to do – lot of trainings, lot of organizing events,  lot of talking…and lots of negotiations with donors.

 

However, all this is buzzing activity gives us immense amounts of optimism. There is nothing like the energy of people who have learned new skills and who are ready set their imagination free. There is a huge amount of this energy right now in LIB – so let’s keep it rolling!

 

Pitching A Brighter Future for Liberia

Blair Glencorse is in Liberia working on the Accountability Lab, which aims to find answers to problems of accountability. He also started pitch salons, a cross between speed networking and TED Talks.

 

 

While walking around Monrovia recently, I asked a Liberian friend if he could imagine his country as a place where resources were managed sustainably, women were treated equally, corruption was fought consistently and social enterprise was seen by young people to provide real opportunity. “Where on earth would we start?” he replied. We started several days later when I invited him to Liberia’s second Pitch Salon- held again in partnership with the brilliant and generous iLab Liberia and with the support of the RSA- where the Pitch Salon recipe of great ideas, brilliant people and unique format once more led to some fantastic discussions.

 

As always, the pitchers gave an “elevator pitch” for an organization, cause or idea that is engaging, accessible to an informed listener and has the potential to change the world for the better. The pitches this time around were as diverse as they have ever been at a Pitch Salon. Pandora Hodge, a serial entrepreneur in the making, talked about her idea for a student-run art house cinema in Monrovia; Nora Bowier, an environmentalist and community-rights advocate pitched about her pioneering work on natural resource management around the country; Tom Gwagee, the image of a modern African businessman, discussed his idea for a Liberian bike factory using Dutch thinking and techniques; Maryealee Pennoh, a women’s rights activist, gave an impassioned speech about her idea for a summer camp for disadvantaged girls; and Robtel Pailey, an academic with a real understanding of practical problems, discussed “Gbagba” her book used to teach children about the dangers of corruption.

 

The audience of forty or so from across the private sector, government, civil society, media and donors-  and including many of the pitchers from the inaugural Liberian Pitch Salon- listened in, feasted on food from one of Monrovia’s favorite restaurants and provided advice and connections to the pitchers. Business cards were exchanged, funding possibilities were discussed and there was a real sense that the concepts were beginning to move towards realities. There are very few outlets for young Liberians to express their ideas in a collegial atmosphere to people who can really make them happen, and the Pitch Salons are beginning to fill this gap. In keeping with the concept, a film-maker at the event even suggested that the Salons themselves be recorded professionally and shown on Liberian television in the future so that the ideas can reach an even wider audience.

 

A few days later, I bumped into the same Liberian friend I had invited to the event, and asked him what he thought of the Pitch Salon experience. “I saw up-close the passion and creativity of Liberian youth” he said; “the question is not where we start, but why we haven’t started doing this earlier”.

 

Blair Glencorse is an RSA Fellow and was awarded a Challenge and a Catalyst Grant for the Pitch Salons. You can follow him on Twitter @blairglencorse

 

Demographics and Usage – Feb 2012

iLab recently evaluated their usage records from May 2011 to February 2012 to see who is using iLab and what parts of iLab they are using. Here is what we found:

Who uses iLab

By far the majority of iLab users consider themselves students. Since a user can select more than one way of describing themselves it’s possible that many of our users are students while they are also employed. Also, the Liberian education system is notoriously slow and students often have large gaps in their class schedule, so it’s possible that not everyone who considers themselves a student is actively taking class, but in the process of completing an education program. Entrepreneurs and IT professionals round out the top 3 places. Interestingly the least number of users are government and NGO staff. This may appear surprising since these two sectors are the largest sources of formal employment. However, unemployment and informal employment in Liberia are known to be quite high. To encourage those who are formally employed to come to iLab we hold a lot of our events after hours.

What events are people attending

When it comes to iLab events the mapping parties and TED talks are the clear leader. This is most likely because these are our longest running and most frequently offered events. Google technology events and our introduction to Free Open Source Software (FOSS) events are also quite popular. It should be noted that this graph represents the number of individuals that have attended 1 or more of the given events. If we were to count the number of repeat users TED talks and Mapping parties would be much higher. The graph on the left shows the number of users who have attended 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5 or more events. This shows that mapping parties draw more repeats users. When looking at the numbers we do see that TED talks draw more first time users.  As we continue to offer events we hope to better capture the number of new and repeat users for all of our events.

Gender

Finally we end with a look at gender. Out of 335 users 278 (83%) were male and 57 (17%) were female. Quite a large discrepancy. We certainly do our best to encourage participation of both genders, but it seems, as is often the case around the world, participation by the fairer sex is lacking in the technology sector. iLab is currently talking with an organization about creating a curriculum specifically to target young ladies. We’re excited about this opportunity and hope it comes to fruition.

Raw Data

For those of you who want raw data to play with, like all good computer scientist would, please see this Excel File.

 

Thanks,

 

John.

Thank-you Letter from Columbia University

Access to technology is a huge challenge for local Liberians. iLab Liberia in an effort to minimize this gap has used its hub as a single public point for techies and innovators to access the internet in Liberia.

 

Among the many beneficiaries of this initiative are Liberians, expatriates and other INGOs, foreign universities and institutes that use iLab’s facility to enhance their mission, programs and surveys.

 

Below is a thank-you letter from Columbia University as a testimony for the assistance ilab rendered while they were carryout a survey in Liberia.

 

 

SMS and Liberia: A Love Story

These days technology just works. There’s no magic and there’s very little rocket science. You put in some 1s and 0s and get out 1s and 0s. It all works just as it should. The days are gone when bugs, actual insects, would chew their way through the computers wire and cause mayhem.

 

 

Now some of you right now are saying, “Yeah, but I still can’t figure out how to make my Facebook profile private.” That’s a user interface issue; the underlying technology is working perfectly. The layer that exposes that technology to you may be poorly designed, but that’s not what we’re here to discuss.

 

Technology, it hums along gloriously…. until certain assumptions no longer hold true. Such assumptions usually include constant electricity and constant Internet – two things that just don’t happen very often in Liberia. Thus what seems like a perfect combination – SMS technology and Liberia – has a few obstacles to overcome before riding off into the sun set happily ever after.

 

For us at Ushahidi Liberia, we wanted SMS and Liberia hit it off. SMS is a great way for people on the ground to send in reports of what’s really happening. All you need is a phone and a cell phone signal. Most places in the world have cell phone coverage, and more and more people have cell phones. The Ushahidi platform even has built-in support for SMS because it has worked so well in other deployments. Lets start off by getting to know a bit more about the compatibility of this couple – SMS and Liberia.

 

SMS, or Simple Messaging Service, is a GSM standard that uses extra bandwidth in the signaling path that controls call flow. The signaling path is used to tell a cell phone that a new call is coming in, that the call has been hung up, the number of the incoming call and so forth. Since the signaling path isn’t used when there is no phone call, phone companies realized they could add a messaging service on top of this unused signaling path – and thus SMS was born. Because the signaling path is only intended for short messages like, “incoming call +231-6-555-343”, SMS messages can only be 160 characters long.

 

Liberia is a small country in West Africa still recovering from a civil war that devastated the nation’s infrastructure. Despite the lack of power lines, power stations and any kind of hard-wired telecommunications infrastructure, Liberia now has a relatively robust cell phone network. While less than 1% of Liberians have access to the Internet, at least 20% own cell phones and even more have access to shared phones. SMS seems like a natural choice for Liberians to send messages to our Ushahidi Liberia sites, given that even the cheapest cell phones available in-country support SMS.

 

At this point things look good for our two lovebirds. A simple global standard for sending short messages and a country where about all their telecommunications infrastructure can handle is short messages. In fact, such a partnership has worked so well in other countries that the wonderful people at kiwanja.net created FrontlineSMS. FrontlineSMS is a program that turns your average laptop and a cell phone into an SMS gateway for routing incoming SMSs to the internet. By connecting a cell phone to a computer via a data cable, FrontlineSMS can intercept incoming SMS and automatically send them to a website of your choosing – an ideal matchmaker for SMS and Liberia.

 

However, it is here we encountered our first obstacle. Computers need power. You can get around this requirement for a few hours by using a laptop. Most laptops can reliably go 4 to 6 hours without power. Ushahidi Liberia’s first office used a diesel generator for electricity, like most Liberian workplaces that do not have access to a power grid. Diesel isn’t cheap in Liberia, so the generator only ran from 9am to 7pm. That leaves 14 hours without power – in other words, 14 hours without the ability to send and receive SMS via a desktop SMS gateway. Because many of the reports sent to our Liberia instances about conflict and instability, we could not afford to be operational for only 10 hours a day.

 

The second obstacle was an unreliable Internet connection. In Liberia, all Internet connections are via satellite – far slower and more expensive than fiber optic connections. Ushahidi Liberia’s first ISP leased a satellite Internet connection comparable to a slow DSL connection in the US – until the ISP splits that connection among all of its customers who then split their slice of the connection amongst all the users in the office/home. During peak working hours we could make an educated guess that approximately 500 people were using that one Internet connection, causing it to drop out when bandwidth was exceeded, and cause any user to grind their teeth in frustration when it was working but painfully slow.

 

When the Internet dropped out in our office and FrontlineSMS received an SMS to forward to Ushahidi servers, the sending would fail and FrontlineSMS would drop the message without resending. FrontlineSMS does not notify the sender or the receiver that a message failed to send, so it could be days before the person manning FrontlineSMS might realize that half the sent messages were missing. FrontlineSMS, like many platforms, is built under the assumption that the Internet works – as it does most of the time in most places.

 

Considering these glitches, our couple might not be as compatible as we thought – that is until SMSSync came along. SMSSync is an Android app written by the Ushahidi team that replaces the computer as the intermediary and runs the SMS gateway program on the phone itself. Since Android phones can connect to the Internet via WiFi and GPRS, they can receive an incoming SMS and then send it out over the Internet all by themselves. This solved our first problem of power. Phones can easily run 14 hours, or a couple of days, without recharge; that’s what they’re made to do. But we still have the issue of unreliable Internet.

 

To address the Internet, our team worked closely with SMSSync’s creator, Henry Addo, to incorporate a resend function that tries sending a message over and over until it is received by the target URL. Now with this feature added, messages can be received by SMSSync even when the Internet is out and they stay in a holding pattern until the connection returns. At this point it seems like everything is going to work out for SMS and Liberia, but not so fast.

 

There’s still one more assumption that I hinted at earlier – that humans will interact with technology correctly. Even the most well-intentioned, experienced user will occasionally get it wrong. The civil war held up the arrival of the latest technologies, and as a result many Liberians don’t have extensive experience with technology. This is nothing against Liberians, just the reality of their situation.

 

We noticed that every so often we’d receive a blank message from our users in the field; someone probably hit send prematurely. At first we didn’t pay much attention to this, but then we noticed that SMSSync would stop sending messages after receiving blanks. After a lot of hair-pulling, we realized the problem was with the Ushahidi platform itself. It was programmed to reject blank SMSs as erroneous. SMSSync would try to forward the blank SMS to Ushahidi, Ushahidi would reject it, SMSSync would wait 5 minutes and try again, meanwhile all the other messages were waiting in line. We reprogrammed the Ushahidi platoform to accept all messages, blank or otherwise. Messages that appeared to be errors would be marked as such for the users of the Ushahidi platform to decide what to do with them.

 

We also had a similar problem with promotional SMSs from the cell phone companies. They’d send out things like, “Talk free this Saturday.” Often these messages wouldn’t be from numbers like, “06-555-123”, but from “winBig” or “LonestarCell.” Again, we didn’t think much of this, but SMSSync stopped working shortly after receiving these messages. It turns out that the Ushahidi platform is also set to reject SMSs from numbers that aren’t numbers, sending an app like SMSSync into a never-ending loop. We also fixed this in the Ushahidi platform.

 

At this point we’ve accounted for assumptions about electricity, Internet and human users. The final assumption we had to overcome is that the technology will always, from now to eternity, until you tell it otherwise, do what you want. It seems that in an effort to save battery power, Android phones are programmed to turn off their WiFi radios after a certain period of inactivity. Thus SMSSync would work brilliantly for awhile, but then stop forwarding messages for no apparent reason. We’d look at the phone, see the unsent SMS, and since we were using the phone the WiFi would come back on and mysteriously work. Much to our embarrassment, this also took a long time to figure out.

 

At this point I’d like to make it clear that 99% of the time it’s the simple things that get in the way. It wasn’t some small manufacturing default in our phones, it wasn’t a rogue bit of code deep in SMSSync, it was just a simple feature of the phones that, when they aren’t working as SMS gateways, works to the user’s advantage.

 

We fixed the WiFi automatic sleep by installing KeepScreen on the phones. KeepScreen is a free Andoid App that just keeps the screen on all the time. By keeping the screen on, and making the Android think the user is still using the phone, the WiFi also never goes off.

 

Now our phones work perfectly, day and night, through power and blackouts, high bandwidth bliss and connection timeouts, to send SMSs from our users on the ground to our servers high in the Internet’s metaphorical cloud. Finally, after so much struggle and hardship, Liberia, a beautiful country, and SMS, a messaging protocol of elegant simplicity, are together at last.

Developer Training in Liberia

At the heart of all the technological advances in Africa is the hope that African people will use these technologies to their gain. Fiber-optic cables surround Africa’s coasts; mobile operators are investing in wireless technologies like WiMax in preparation for a flood of data that could break existing networks. Mobile devices and computer manufacturers are selling low-cost superphones, tablets, and netbooks, hoping that these devices will integrate well with the African lifestyle whilst platform developers scout the continent in search of developers to build apps for Africans on their systems and networks.

 

At this point it is quite obvious that the focus of these market players is the people—because it is the people who will spend their money on these technologies. A huge “side-opportunity” is created as a result of this new focus—the demand for developers of these Africa-relevant applications. At the moment, a few African countries have woken up to this new reality and are striving to meet this huge demand.

Liberia is not one of those countries awake to this new reality. For public and private sectors alike, the primary focus is on rebuilding systems and infrastructure destroyed by the two civil wars, as well as dealing with international debt accumulated over the years. Instead of technology being the means by which these reconstruction efforts are undertaken, it has become a project of the future. With our education system still weaker than its pre-war status, technical training has still not matured for even the best institutions.

 

At the moment, there are no Computer Science (CS) programs in any of our universities. The closest and only program we have is an e-Learning program for BSc. Information Technology from Amity University in Uttar Pradesh, India, offered through the Pan African e-Network with the University of Liberia[1]. This program primarily focuses on infrastructure setup and management, with little programming. This stands opposed to the programming-rich B.Tech program in Computer Science and Engineering offered in India by the same university[2].

 

Other institutions that offer courses in programming include the Starz Institute of Technology[3] and Silicon Pro. These courses are mainly introductory courses to languages like Visual Basic and PHP/MySQL. Furthermore, training in web development is more concentrated around tools like Dreamweaver than on the underlying programming/markup/scripting languages. These institutions are relatively new and the programming courses are not as popular with students as courses like networking and hardware. Courses in popular languages like Java, C++, and Python which are relevant to mobile application development are non-existent in these training institutions. Furthermore the high cost of these trainings makes them inaccessible to most would-be programmers.

 

Liberia’s small developer community is comprised mainly of people who studied outside Liberia, self-taught, and those who learned on the job. As a result, programmers are in short supply which causes programming jobs to go to foreign firms. There are a handful of tech firms in Liberia that are involved in software development that often have to train their recruited staff to program on the job. This is on a very small scale and benefits very few people.

 

Due to the limited number of programming languages taught in Liberia, developers are often not prepared to build applications on platforms that are language-biased like iOS. Since this is the case mainly for mobile devices, Liberian developers are cut off from harnessing the potentials of mobile applications. To date, it is still difficult to find mobile applications for Android, Apple or Symbian that have been built by Liberians.

This situation leaves us woefully unprepared to tap into the vast opportunities the mobile and Internet revolutions bring to the continent. Without mobile and web developers, Liberia will be left voiceless on these emerging platforms. Mobile and web applications relevant to Liberia need to be built by Liberians but, without effective training in modern languages, this will be impossible to accomplish. It is hard to imagine Liberia playing a pivotal role in the tech industry without a growing developer community. As important as computer networking and hardware are to Liberia’s technological advancement, these skills are inadequate to spur maximum Liberian participation in the global tech arena. They also do not promote innovation as programming skills do.

 

Until our tertiary institutions start offering relevant CS programs, Liberia will remain a consumer of information technology and may never grow to be a provider. Until Liberian students get early exposure to programming, they will be unable to compete with their regional and global counterparts in the technology race. And until we get a shift in our thinking about science and technology education, we will never get free from foreign technological domination.

 

Kpetermeni Siakor

IT Director

*iLab_ Liberia
 

Sources:
[1] Pan African e-Network - http://www.panafricanenetwork.com

Tech Centers in Liberia

In 2007, SocketWorks Global [1] of Nigeria began setting up a technological hub at the University of Liberia to bridge Liberia’s digital divide in the project called the Liberia Digital Bridge with the sponsorship of the International Finance Corporation. After inauguration, the project did not get off the ground, dashing the hopes of thousands of students and staff who anxiously awaited the outcome of the project. This project died without making any significant impact.

 

In an effort to bridge the digital divide in Liberia, various organizations and individuals have stepped up to the challenge by setting up technology centers in Liberia to meet this end. These typically take the form of community libraries, resource centers, and training centers. Since these efforts do not have the strong investment backing that the Digital Bridge project once had, these tech centers are run on a much smaller scale.

 

The most popular approach has been to setup training centers that charge a fee for the courses it offers. One example is the Young Men Christian Association (YMCA)[2]training center in Monrovia. This training institution offers introductory courses in the Microsoft Office suite as well as graphics design. Using mainly proprietary software (i.e. Microsoft products), which inure costly fees for licensing. As a result, despite being registered as a non-profit organization, the YMCA charges fees for courses to sustain the training institution. The downside of this approach is that only those who can afford the fees are eligible to attend. The training center is also not an open space for tech professionals to meet and host events; the YMCA charges for the use of its facilities to host events.

 

A second approach has been to setup resource centers with a hybrid of a library and a computer lab for public use. Two centers with this arrangement are the Information Resource Center (IRC)[3] at the US Embassy and the Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars & Academia (LISSAA)[4] setup by a Liberian citizen living in the US. While the IRC does not charge users for the facilities, computer use is usually limited to an average of thirty minutes a day per person. These centers provide Internet access, a small library and a few computers running Microsoft products. The high cost of running tech centers in a country like Liberia has taken a toll on LISSAA in particular making them charge for Internet use, while the IRC runs safely with US government sponsorship. Since these centers do not have a specific technological focus, users are allowed to do anything like following sports news to using social networking sites without restriction. Occasionally, basic computer training is offered to select users of these centers. In regards to accessibility, the IRC is located on the grounds of the US embassy where visitors are usually screened by security guards before entry. The location is frightening enough for would-be users. This leaves the IRC out of reach for many Liberians who may not be able to muster the courage to go to the US embassy. LISSAA, on the other hand, is located on Benson Street which makes it more accessible for Liberians.

 

Based on our observation of these technology centers, we decided to follow the style of*iHub_ Nairobi. With this arrangement, we setup an innovation hub called *iLab_ Liberia to focus on the tech community, as well as anyone interested in learning more about technology. Usage of our space for training and events hosting is free of charge, and our computers run free and opensource software like Linux and FireFox. At the moment, we are the only people using this approach in Liberia. At *iLab_ Liberia, our focus is to promote information sharing and the use of opensource tools. Instead of offering training in regular proprietary software, users are introduced to web and software development as well as to opensource alternatives to proprietary software. This is significant considering that most users who cannot afford to buy genuine copies of proprietary software often make pirated or cracked copies of them which often leaves them vulnerable to viruses. Equipped with a dozen computers on a dedicated VSAT Internet connection, the tech hub is suited for hosting tech events as well as for providing contextually relevant training to users. This is usually done by understanding what potential users want to learn about and then directing trainings to these needs. This is a paradigm shift from the traditional definition of a tech center which is nothing more than a computer school or Internet cafe.

 

Since inception, we have hosted PenPlusBytes‘ Africa Elections Project workshop to train journalists in technology reporting. We have also hosted Monrovia Google Technology Users Group (GTUG) meet-up sessions and web development trainings. The West African Network for Peacebuilding, Liberia Early-Warning Working Group, and our elections partners have all been hosted for various workshops and trainings at the *iLab_. Right now, we are training thirteen students from five high schools in Monrovia, Paynesville, and Brewerville in web development to take each other head-on in the *iLab_ Web Challenge.

 

We are positive that we can make a far greater impact in the lives of Liberians with this approach to technology centers.

 

Kpetermeni Siakor

IT Director
*iLab_ Liberia

 

Sources:

[1] SocketWorks Global Digital Bridge -http://www.swglobal.com/e-solutions/digital_bridge.php

International Finance Corporation Sponsorship -http://www.ifc.org/ifcext/spiwebsite1.nsf/0/36CA941DCF217B3C852576BA000E29BD

http://www.ifc.org/ifcext/che.nsf/AttachmentsByTitle/Factsheet_Socketworks_OvercomingtheDigitalDivide/$FILE/Fact+Sheet-SocketWorks-Overcoming+Digital+Divide.pdf

[2] Young Men Christian Association –http://www.ymca.org.lr/

[3] Liberia Intellectual Society of Scholars and Academia –http://www.lissaa.com/

[4] Information Resource Center -http://monrovia.usembassy.gov/irc.html

[5] *iLab_ Liberia –http://www.ilabliberia.com/