Kenya: U.S. launches East Africa software competition “Apps 4 Africa”

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United States Under Secretary of State for Public Diplomacy and Public Affairs Judith McHale launched the “Apps 4 Africa” contest at the Innovation Hub in Nairobi, Kenya, July 1.

The regional competition seeks to harness the power of African software developers in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda and leverage the power of digital technology to improve the lives of ordinary people in East Africa and worldwide. The competition runs through August 31.

Jessica Colaço, the manager of the Innovation Hub (or iHub) in Nairobi, calls it “a tech journey in East Africa, a journey with social change to better the lives of the people.”

Apps 4 Africa, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State, is “a competition meant to leverage the really exciting technology space in East Africa,” Josh Goldstein, an Appfrica Labs Fellow, said in an interview June 25. The contest challenges local coders and software developers to create software tools that will meet the needs of citizens across East Africa. The competition is co-sponsored by Appfrica Labs of Kampala, the Innovation Hub of Nairobi and the Social Development Network (SODNET) of Nairobi. An awards ceremony will take place in early September.

Goldstein, who spoke by telephone from Nairobi, said the goal is to see how technology can improve the work of civil society both in cities and rural areas and to generally expand “the amount of tools available locally for different public interest groups to do their jobs.”

These groups, he said, are addressing a range of issues from water and sanitation to security and health.

Goldstein is working in a loose conglomerate of innovation labs called Afrilabs that are operating throughout East Africa. Developers are tackling tech-related problems in an attempt to solve some of these public interest issues.

“The goal,” Goldstein said, “is very practical: to award prizes to the top applications that are built in the public good that serve the needs of these organizations. The way the contest is going to work is that individuals and civil society groups are submitting ideas for problems that they think technology can solve to the Apps 4 Africa website.”

African software coders and developers will take the ideas and create software tools and applications that will be submitted to a set of judges.

The contest will “get tools into the hands of people who are doing good work in this region already, and also just amplify the really exciting nature of the tech community here in East Africa. … This ties into Secretary [of State Hillary Rodham] Clinton’s idea of digital diplomacy and Internet freedom and a number of different initiatives that she has called for,” he said.

What is most exciting about this contest, Goldstein said, is that it is meant to motivate the creation of local content. “What that means is [designing] things that are relevant to the needs of everyday people and civil society groups in the region. They have different needs than the tools that are built in the U.S. and Silicon Valley.”

In East Africa, he said, “they are often using very basic Nokia phones or have limited power or Internet access and financial capabilities. So the real goal is to build low-cost, easy-to-use tools that can help [public interest] groups communicate and succeed in their mission. Like any innovation contest, it would be difficult to predict what would come out, but the type of platforms that we are talking about are everything from SMS to help groups communicate with their staffs in rural areas, to database applications that can be accessed on a simple phone.”

“It can also be about helping citizens in general,” Goldstein added. “Parallel to President Obama’s Open Government Initiative in Kenya and around the region, more and more governments are opening data sets. What that means in practice is that people who care about the public interest, who have an interest in what government is doing and in transparency, could build applications that visualize data and make it more accessible to everyday people.”

That, he said, “could go a long way towards keeping people accountable and building transparency. So yes, we are really excited about a really wide range of topics ranging from rural connectivity to open data.”

For instance, the government of Kenya might release its data on public spending. “The idea behind the ‘open data movement’ is to make that data very accessible in ways that are visually appealing not just to developers but to the larger community.” Using that data, public interest groups can advocate for improving education or health care, Goldstein said.

Digital technology tools are also increasingly valuable for people trying to provide health care. For example, Goldstein said, people could build applications to help community health care workers in rural areas access information for better diagnoses or collect patient information on a mobile phone that can be accessed later.

In East Africa there are 50 million mobile phone subscribers and at least 15 million mobile Web users. The number of information technology graduates and tech entrepreneurs is growing, providing new opportunities to foster social and economic growth.

John Kipchumba of SODNET, a Kenyan social development network NGO (nongovernmental organization), describes the contest as “a wonderful opportunity for local value-based technological innovations on challenges faced daily by citizens and organizations.”

Expressing thanks to the U.S. Department of State and to his East African partners, Kipchumba said he is looking forward not only to a successful partnership, but also to “sustainable follow-up with already established partnerships.”

Goldstein called it “really exciting” to be working on the frontier of innovation and technology.

“There is a mantra here: ‘If it works in Africa it will work anywhere,’” Goldstein said. “A number of technological innovations have come out of East Africa in particular, such as Ushahidi, a crisis response website, [which] originated in Kenya” and has been used elsewhere.

“It is just a very exciting time and place for East Africa, which is why I am excited that the State Department is interested in this concept,” Goldstein said.

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