Saturday, December 27, 2014

HBS Pitch Builder recreated

Years ago someone introduced me to the Harvard Business School's Elevator Pitch Builder. I found it to be a great, simple tool every time I started a new project or venture that I needed to explain to people. At some point in the last couple years Harvard redid their business school's site and did not port over the pitch builder.

Well, I liked and got so much use out of the tool that I decided to recreate it: (source). It's optimized for smaller screens. This was also a good exercise in playing with material design concepts using CSS animations. Check it out. Let me know what you think at @mjumbewu.

Friday, December 26, 2014

The Smartest Cities Rely on Citizen Cunning and Unglamorous Technology

[V]endors like Microsoft, IBM, Siemens, Cisco and Hitachi construct the resident of the smart city as someone without agency; merely a passive consumer of municipal services – at best, perhaps, a generator of data that can later be aggregated, mined for relevant inference, and acted upon. Should he or she attempt to practise democracy in any form that spills on to the public way, the smart city has no way of accounting for this activity other than interpreting it as an untoward disruption to the orderly flow of circulation. ... All in all, it’s a brutally reductive conception of civic life, and one with little to offer those of us whose notions of citizenhood are more robust.


The true enablers of participation turn out to be nothing more exciting than cheap commodity devices, reliable access to sufficiently high- bandwidth connectivity, and generic cloud services. These implications should be carefully mulled over by developers, those responsible for crafting municipal and national policy, and funding bodies in the philanthropic sector.

(via @CityLab)

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Quick Thoughts from the 6th ICAT in Nairobi

I just returned from the 6th International Conference on Appropriate Technology in Nairobi, Kenya and have so many thoughts to share. I want to get some of them down before they evaporate.

The Conference

This is my 3rd ICAT. I had the pleasure of attending in Accra, Ghana in 2010 and Pretoria, South Africa in 2012.

We had a number of great, hands-on and discussion-based workshops at this conference. I was able to attend two. The first, a workshop on assembling 3D printers, spanned several days and was an incredible challenge. The design for the printers we built came from Michigan Tech’s MOST Lab. The idea for the printer is that almost all of the parts for the printer can either be easily sourced from a decently large hardware store wherever you are in the world, or printed from another 3D printer. So, as long as you have one working 3D printer you should be able to obtain the parts for another. The only exceptional part is the controller board (

The other workshop I attended was on building a low-cost radio station, presented by RootIO. Here, Jude Mukandane walked us through the internals of a RootIO radio station (which just consist of a few simple electronic components, a radio transmitter, and a cell phone), as well as the software that powers the stations (an Android app and a Web app). My thanks go to Jude and Chris from RootIO for planning the workshop.

We had several inspiring and polarizing keynote speakers, but my favorite was activist and scholar Patricia McFadden, who among other things spoke about:
  • the notion that appropriate technology alone is insufficient without other elements of social transformation
  • the historical relationship between women and technology that has been undermined by patriarchal systems
  • the necessity to transform technology markets to being focussed on human sufficiency

On Friday morning, I had the pleasure of planning a trip to visit iHub with a few of the conference participants. About 10 conference participants piled in a van to get a tour of the space and the way that all its parts work together. As the theme this year was “Technological Innovation to Empower Africa”, it would have been a shame to miss a relevant case study institution like iHub while in town, so I’m glad that the trip worked out at the last minute. A huge thanks to everyone at iHub who helped it work.

On Friday through Saturday we had the 2nd ICAT hackathon. Several things went better in this event than in the first hackathon in 2012. For starters, the 2012 hackathon had very little participation from conference-goers. There are a number of factors that could have contributed to the low participation rate:
  • the hackathon was held at a venue away from the conference, and most conference-goers didn’t have their own transportation
  • the hackathon was scheduled to run simultaneously against several workshops, a keynote speaker, and a trip to Soweto/Jo’burg/the Apartheid Museum
Some of these factors were repeated this year (like scheduling the hackathon to be run against a Saturday off-site trip), but others were mitigated. Before this year’s hackathon really kicked off we had a round of Ignite talks where several conference and hackathon participants presented. I gave an Ignite about what a hackathon is and why people should participate (not my best Ignite performance, unfortunately, but a passable introduction hopefully). There was no conflicting programming scheduled for the first night of the hackathon, and it was held on the conference premises. As a result, participation from conference participants, at least in the initial stages of the hackathon, was relatively high.

I think the sequence of events this year was good, but there are definitely improvements that can be made for next time (like setting an earlier deadline for Ignite slides, asking for more help with the planning and execution of the talks/hackathon, and ensuring that there are more conference participants around for the presentations and judging portion of the hackathon). Stay tuned for a brief rundown of the Ignite talks and hackathon projects.

As a member of the conference organizing committee I can say that we have a number of improvements to make in the planning of the 2016 conference, and that we should start by ensuring that the next time people hear from us about appropriate technology is well before the 2016 conference. I mentioned in my Ignite presentation that a hackathon is primarily a community building activity, and that notion should be extended to this conference as a whole. To really be successful, INAT needs projects, collaborations, and engagements that sustain beyond the biennial conference.

Some other major themes for next time that I heard or noticed:
  • We should continue to incorporate visible hands-on activities as part of future conferences. These were very engaging both for people participating in the activities as well as those watching. There were so many questions about the progress of the 3D printers and a couple of the more visible hackathon projects.
  • Increasing the meaningful participation of women in the conference is very important.


I also have some quick impressions about the ICAT’s host city this year. Nairobi is very much a city’s city. I only spent a few days there, and covered very little of the city’s area outside of a car, so I can only say so much about it. Some things that struck me:
  • Speed bumps everywhere. As I understand it, this infrastructure came out of an abundance of automobiles crashing into pedestrians. However, I don’t get a sense that’s they’re meant as a temporary solution to the problem. It seems to me that Nairobi is in dire need of some more deliberate holistic transportation planning, taking into account walking, biking, matatus, and private vehicles.
  • Matatus! Such an interesting industry. There are of course informational improvements that could be made (and I see that there is some excellent work that has been and is being done in this area, like It would be interesting to see the city further embrace these vehicles as part of their transportation network, perhaps by having matatu-only lanes along some of the bigger roads at rush hour, or giving subsidies for more environmentally friendly matatu vehicles.
  • Security guards and metal detectors at every door. Based on a handful of conversation, Nairobi seems very much like a city in transition. Population has nearly doubled over the last 20 years and crime rates have steadily increased with it. It’s worth noting, anecdotally, that I spent a bit of time walking around certain areas of the city during the day and never felt particularly unsafe. If you keep your wits about you as you would in any large urban area, chances are that nothing will happen to you. However, it is also true that Nairobi is, statistically, a relatively high-crime city.
Ultimately, it’s a city that I wouldn’t mind immersing myself in for a bit more time, especially to learn more about and participate in the burgeoning tech scene.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

A phone worth keeping...

As I mentioned before, I'm helping to organize the International Conference on Appropriate Technology in Nairobi this year. As it gets closer, I'll be sharing a series of short posts about projects and information that's inspiring to me and my notions of appropriate technology. This is the first in that series.

The way that we use and dispose our electronics is unsustainable and needs serious revision. I enjoy my new phone or computer every other year (or every year) just as much as the next techie, but the impacts (environmental and social) of this rapid replacement cycle have been weighing on me for a long while.

I was certainly not alone in feeling this way. Phonebloks, an "independent organisation with the purpose of encouraging the development and production of products that produce less electronic waste," organized an incredibly successful Thunderclap campaign last October to raise awareness about the issue and the idea. 979,255 people agreed to allow the project broadcast from their social media accounts in late October 2013.

Phonebloks's most compelling partner to date has been Google's (formerly Motorola's) Ara Project for a modular phone. The Ara project intends to create a phone whose components can be easily swapped. They have tossed around $50 as the price for a base model of this phone.

Critics have noted the technical infeasibility of creating a modular phone that people will actually want with today's technology (though Google disagrees), but it's the experimentation with the ideas that excites me. With the increasing ubiquity of mobile tech, it's refreshing to see design innovations that potentially lower our environmental impact.

Let's discuss on twitter...

Thursday, June 19, 2014

International Conference on Appropriate Technology in Nairobi this November (yay!)

I'm helping to plan the International Conference on Appropriate Technology * in November. This year (the conference happens every other year) we'll be in Nairobi, Kenya at Kenyatta University!

The details of what I want to bring to the conference are still being worked out (watch this space!), but I'm leaning towards (1) an Appropriate Technolgy Hackathon and (2) an unconference around Sustainability & Responsibility in the Tech Industry (I'm curious what kind of meaning that will have to an international audience).

Appropriate tech, in context of this conference, is tech that is designed with special consideration for the environment, both social and natural, into which it will be deployed. Often it is considered in contexts of constrained resources. Think solar cookers in places with inconsistent access to public energy. Think heavy use of mobile tech where access to computers is low. Appropriate tech is tech whose means of production can be owned by the communities who will be benefiting from it. It's tech that empowers people.

To get into the groove, I'll be sharing some appropriate technology related tidbits here through the next few months.

* High on my list of to-dos is a website refresh...

Sunday, August 25, 2013

AirBnB for farmers and eaters

This is a post that's been sitting around in my draft box for about a year. It's not doing any good there, so I'm publishing it as is. Does anyone know if a thing like I describe exists?

- Mjumbe

Here's an idea: AirBnB for CSA farmers (and patrons).  For short, let's give it a Web2.0 name like "" (someone come up with a better name).

Someone should capitalize on this.  Think about it, everyone needs to eat!

I haven't been a host on AirBnB for long [I'm not any longer, but was for about a year], but here are some of the things that I enjoy about the system, from both host and guest perspectives (we'll call the analogs on farmers and eaters):
  • Handle the money - Make sure that it is as painless as possible to get money from the eater to the farmer.  Farmers should be able to focus on farming and eaters should be able to focus on eating.  I don't think farmers get into farming because they like dealing with credit card companies.
  • Don't be greedy - Charge only a small surcharge for farmers.  They're doing the work and it's important that they feel they're getting most of the benefit.
  • Allow bidirectional reviews - In a peer-to-peer network, it's important that not only the eater has a good experience with the farmer, but also vice versa.  Make sure your farmers feel like they're protected against entering into relationships with bad eaters.
  • Focus on the customer service - The success of the site will depend on the how well it facilitates interaction between eaters and farmers.  It should remove as many barriers as possible between an eater finding, getting information about, and contacting a farmer.
And, some things that I wish AirBnB had that should (ideally):
  • Let the farmers access their data ... ALL OF IT -- Farmers should have access to simple analytical views on all of their sales data, and be able to get a dump of it all if they want to do their own analysis.
I don't know enough about CSAs (yet) to come up with a complete list of requirements, but here's a start:
  • Farmers should be able to create a profile for their farm where they can post...
    •  pictures
    • a schedule
    • the food they grow/harvest
    • the buy-in they're asking (price)
    • details about how they operate (again, I don't know much, but there's some info under "Variations" at
  • Eaters should be able to find farms that are located near them, or that drop off near them
  • Eaters should be able to leave reviews and ratings of farmers (but only farmers they've received food from), and farmers should be able to rate eaters (but only those that have received their food)
  • Eaters should be able to select (shop for) food from a given farm through the site
Who is the target market:
  • People new to CSAs.  For them, there should be plenty of informational material on how it all works.
  • People who have used CSAs, but are moving to a different area or city.  These people will probably want to keep using CSAs, and need to find one to patronize.
I don't know if one could tell beforehand which of those two groups would be the primary market for the site.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Working towards open legislative data

(I also posted this over on the OpenPlans blog)

A few weeks back, I sent out a solicitation to a bunch of city clerks and other people connected to City Council bodies around the country that use Granicus's legislative management software, Legistar. I was requesting signatures on a publically available letter as a statement of the importance of opening the legislation data that Granicus collects through Legistar. This type of data has been a persistent interest of mine ever since I helped start Councilmatic a couple years ago.

The Method

To find the cities that use the software I searched Google for all sites on the domain (i.e., with the search query ""). Then I wrote a little scraper to step through the pages of that search and collect the subdomains. I took the results and started collecting contact information for the City Council contacts in those cities (see those results here — it's a far-from-complete list). I then contacted the people in that list with a little bit of background about myself, my projects, and the letter's purpose:

The letter is meant to let Granicus know that their clients think that it is important to have their data open and available to the public, specifically through an API. The letter is directed at Granicus because, as the letter states, they are in a unique position to open this data for a number of bodies all over the country at one time. The developers at Granicus are in favor of this type of action, but we believe that hearing from their clients that this is important would help them to prioritize it further.

...Many opportunities for business enterprise, journalistic storytelling, public advocacy, and citizen experimentation are lost when there is no access to quality data sources.

For demonstration of the latter point, see amazing work done by the likes of Open City folks in Chicago, or AxisPhilly in Philadelphia, or work coming out of the Code for America fellowship. There are many more examples of applications built with open data (here's a list of seven more apps covered by Mashable), but the data has to be out there in a way for developers and tinkerers to work with first.

An additional, unstated purpose was just to raise awareness about the value of opening this data, particularly with so many different parties interested in local legislative data recently.

The Response

I received responses from 5 of the people on the list, two from cities that agreed to sign. Both of the cities with favorable responses were from people that I had some prior connection to, at least through some common acquaintance, underscoring the importance of personal relationships and trust when making changes. I think that it is reasonable to expect a low return rate for any cold-call communication. The person on the receiving end is even less likely to response, I think, when they don't understand the purpose of the solicitation. We're still far from a point where an open data vocabulary is common in government. For example, one of the contacts that got in touch with had this response:

Please note that any documents pertaining to the [city represented] that would be available through Granicus/Legistar are already available to any member of the public through our website. I am fairly confident that is true of any city that utilizes their services. Have a good day and a wonderful new year.

The benefits of making data open and available in raw formats is something that I have found difficult to communicate outside of one-on-one conversations. It is definitely a big step to make data available in a human readable format, but computers aren't good at getting information in the same ways that humans are. Enabling people to build new things, tell new stories, and otherwise make the data useful to more people in more ways requires access to the data in a more computationally malleable form.

What's most frustrating is that, often, data is already sitting in a repository somewhere ripe for developers to use. This is evidenced by the fact that many documents, such as every Legistar legislation record, are generated from raw data. That data is simply inaccessible in its raw form. Access to the data is mediated by the format that the document is rendered into. Scraping is an option in this case, but it is an overly complicated, inherently fragile solution, and there are better solutions to be had.

Data openness initiatives like these have a higher chance of success when there are local supporters who understand the issue and can coach city contacts through what it all means. This is the approach that the OpenCity group is taking in Chicago, with some success. If I did this over, I would start with cities that have a local Code for America brigade to help with the outreach.