Juliana Rotich
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Living in Africa is to be on the edge, metaphorically, and quite literally when you think about connectivity before 2008. Though many human intellectual and technological leaps had happened in Europe and the rest of the world, but Africa was sort of cut off. And that changed, first with ships when we had the Renaissance, the Scientific Revolution and also the Industrial Revolution. And now we've got the digital revolution. These revolutions have not been evenly distributed across continents and nations. Never have been.

Now, this is a map of the undersea fiber optic cables that connect Africa to the rest of the world. What I find amazing is that Africa is transcending its geography problem. Africa is connecting to the rest of the world and within itself. The connectivity situation has improved greatly, but some barriers remain. It is with this context that Ushahidi came to be.

In 2008, one of the problems that we faced was lack of information flow. There was a media blackout in 2008, when there was post-election violence in Kenya. It was a very tragic time. It was a very difficult time. So we came together and we created software called Ushahidi. And Ushahidi means "testimony" or "witness" in Swahili. I'm very lucky to work with two amazing collaborators. This is David and Erik. I call them brothers from another mother. Clearly I have a German mother somewhere. And we worked together first with building and growing Ushahidi. And the idea of the software was to gather information from SMS, email and web, and put a map so that you could see what was happening where, and you could visualize that data. And after that initial prototype, we set out to make free and open-source software so that others do not have to start from scratch like we did.

All the while, we also wanted to give back to the local tech community that helped us grow Ushahidi and supported us in those early days. And that's why we set up the iHub in Nairobi, an actual physical space where we could collaborate, and it is now part of an integral tech ecosystem in Kenya. We did that with the support of different organizations like the MacArthur Foundation and Omidyar Network.

And we were able to grow this software footprint, and a few years later it became very useful software, and we were quite humbled when it was used in Haiti where citizens could indicate where they are and what their needs were, and also to deal with the fallout from the nuclear crisis and the tsunami in Japan. Now, this year the Internet turns 20, and Ushahidi turned five.

Ushahidi is not only the software that we made. It is the team, and it's also the community that uses this technology in ways that we could not foresee. We did not imagine that there would be this many maps around the world. There are crisis maps, election maps, corruption maps, and even environmental monitoring crowd maps. We are humbled that this has roots in Kenya and that it has some use to people around the world trying to figure out the different issues that they're dealing with. There is more that we're doing to explore this idea of collective intelligence, that I, as a citizen, if I share the information with whatever device that I have, could inform you about what is going on, and that if you do the same, we can have a bigger picture of what's going on.

I moved back to Kenya in 2011. Erik moved in 2010. Very different reality. I used to live in Chicago where there was abundant Internet access. I had never had to deal with a blackout. And in Kenya, it's a very different reality, and one thing that remains despite the leaps in progress and the digital revolution is the electricity problem. The day-to-day frustrations of dealing with this can be, let's just say very annoying. Blackouts are not fun. Imagine sitting down to start working, and all of a sudden the power goes out, your Internet connection goes down with it, so you have to figure out, okay, now, where's the modem, how do I switch back? And then, guess what? You have to deal with it again. Now, this is the reality of Kenya, where we live now, and other parts of Africa.

The other problem that we're facing is that communication costs are also still a challenge. It costs me five Kenyan shillings, or .06 USD to call the U.S., Canada or China. Guess how much it costs to call Rwanda, Ghana, Nigeria? Thirty Kenyan shillings. That's six times the cost to connect within Africa. And also, when traveling within Africa, you've got different settings for different mobile providers. This is the reality that we deal with.

So we've got a joke in Ushahidi where we say, "If it works in Africa, it'll work anywhere." [Most use technology to define the function. We use function to drive the technology.] What if we could overcome the problem of unreliable Internet and electricity and reduce the cost of connection? Could we leverage the cloud? We've built a crowd map, we've built Ushahidi. Could we leverage these technologies to switch smartly whenever you travel from country to country?

So we looked at the modem, an important part of the infrastructure of the Internet, and asked ourselves why the modems that we are using right now are built for a different context, where you've got ubiquitous internet, you've got ubiquitous electricity, yet we sit here in Nairobi and we do not have that luxury. We wanted to redesign the modem for the developing world, for our context, and for our reality. What if we could have connectivity with less friction?

This is the BRCK. It acts as a backup to the Internet so that, when the power goes out, it fails over and connects to the nearest GSM network. Mobile connectivity in Africa is pervasive. It's actually everywhere. Most towns at least have a 3G connection. So why don't we leverage that? And that's why we built this. The other reason that we built this is when electricity goes down, this has eight hours of battery left, so you can continue working, you can continue being productive, and let's just say you are less stressed. And for rural areas, it can be the primary means of connection.

The software sensibility at Ushahidi is still at play when we wondered how can we use the cloud to be more intelligent so that you can analyze the different networks, and whenever you switch on the backup, you pick on the fastest network, so we'll have multi-SIM capability so that you can put multiple SIMs, and if one network is faster, that's the one you hop on, and if the up time on that is not very good, then you hop onto the next one. The idea here is for you to be able to connect anywhere. With load balancing, this can be possible.

The other interesting thing for us — we like sensors — is this idea that you could have an on-ramp for the Internet of things. Imagine a weather station that can be attached to this. It's built in a modular way so that you can also attach a satellite module so that you could have Internet connectivity even in very remote areas.

Out of adversity can come innovation, and how can we help the ambitious coders and makers in Kenya to be resilient in the face of problematic infrastructure? And for us, we begin with solving the problem in our own backyard in Kenya.

It is not without challenge. Our team has basically been mules carrying components from the U.S. to Kenya. We've had very interesting conversations with customs border agents. "What are you carrying?" And the local financing is not part of the ecosystem for supporting hardware projects. So we put it on Kickstarter, and I'm happy to say that, through the support of many people, not only here but online, the BRCK has been Kickstarted, and now the interesting part of bringing this to market begins.

I will close by saying that, if we solve this for the local market, it could be impactful not only for the coders in Nairobi but also for small business owners who need reliable connectivity, and it can reduce the cost of connecting, and hopefully collaboration within African countries.

The idea is that the building blocks of the digital economy are connectivity and entrepreneurship. The BRCK is our part to keep Africans connected, and to help them drive the global digital revolution.

Thank you.