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.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Making Sense of My Thoughts on Civic Software

I spoke on a panel at a conference a couple of months ago: Reinventing Older Communities, Building Resilient Cities.  The panel I was on was titled "Innovation with New Information":
Governments are using technology to better understand challenges and create solutions to meet them. Residents are using technology to report problems to local government for quicker resolution. In this session, we explore how technology is changing the relationship between governments and their constituents and offering greater efficiency, transparency, and accountability in the process.
I was one of 3 panelists.  Each of us gave a 15 minute presentation on some particular topic.

The topic I chose was "Building software for citizen engagement".  As I struggled to develop my presentation, I realized how general a topic I had chosen (a persistent problem of mine).  A few days before the conference, I had still not been able to nail down my presentation and was feeling rather distraught.  I decided that, rather than continue to bang my head against the topic, I would go see a movie (I admonished myself for relaxing with the conference date so close, but I needed the break anyway).  And it's a good thing I did (it's also a good thing that Joss Wheadon is so talented).  I'll explain why below.

Yael Borovsky from Technically Philly covered the panel and summarized my talk better than I gave it (don't bother watching the excerpt video).  Here is what I wanted to get across:

I went to see The Avengers the other day and it helped me make sense of my thoughts on civic engagement software.  Good civic engagement software should help inspire people to solve achievable, human-scale problems.

I went to a midnight showing -- 12:30 actually -- so when I left the teater it was quite late.  I won't say much about the movie, as I don't want to spoil it for anyone, and the specifics of the movie aren't important anyway.  But I was energized.  I felt like I could leap over cars and take any of the baddest bad guys in a fight if I had to.  I was inspired, and a world of possibility seemed open to me.  Yes, that "world of possibility" mainly consisted of vigilante justice, but that's not important.

Inspiration is a powerful thing.  Unfortunately, in our every-day life, there are too many things that have the opposite effect.  Sure, some things are uninspiring, but I would say that the opposite of inspiration is disempowerment.  One stimulates you to action, the other encourages inaction.  One expands your perceived realm of possibility, the other reduces it.

Disempowerment doesn't always take the form of someone telling you that you cannot do something either.  Often, it is instead a message that there is nothing you can do.  For example, in Philadelphia, the school district is broke.  They're being dismantled, 40 schools are closing next year, and 6 per year for a few years after that.  This is the framing that the issue has most often taken.  As framed, it's a problem that no ordinary citizen can address -- it's a "city-scale" problem (it may be bigger than that, but I'll jst call all big problems city-scale for now).

In the face of this type of problem, people will do two things: (1) consider what effect the problem will have on themselves and their family, and (2) consider what they can do to mitigate the effects of the problem for themselves.  There's not any point of considering a solution to the stated problem, for an ordinary citizen, because it's just too far outside of their circle of influence.  I think this is, again, because of the problem framing.

A few people are able to cut through the problem framing and see that it is in fact a collection of many smaller problems.  For example, the following post showed up in my Facebook feed one day i early May:
Schools are closing and if you weren't already aware moms and dads, the City of Philadelphia isn't offering "Summer Enrichment Programs" either, which means that there will be an exorbitant amount of children in need of some outside tutoring or help from wherever their struggling parents can find it. I wish I had a center that could accommodate every single child being left out due to these horrendous "budget cuts" but I can't. However what I can and will do and you can too is volunteer some of your time this summer on a consistent basis to the youth in your communites!!! I don't want money getting in the way of providing a service that most who need it can't afford so I will be offering my own "Enrichment Program" for a handful of "Early Childhood" age children this summer for free. Every Saturday morning I will offer this service for at least 3 hours. If you have a child in the SW area or are dedicated enough to drive from wherever you are and would like to get your pre-k, kindergarten, or 1st grade child some additional help with reading, phonics and basic math, before the new school year I am sure that we can make some progress together. Again this will be "free enrichment" not free babysitiing so there will be no drop-offs. If your child is here you will be as well...."team work makes the dream work"!!! Inbox me for details and soon so that I can come up with an offcial schedule as soon as possible!!!"

Reframing problems on "human-scale" returns power to humans.  Another simple example: in Boston, in the winter, it snows.  It can snow a lot.  And the snow can cover and bury anything that's stationary for long enough.  It covers everything including fire hydrants.  As a consequence, in the event of a winter fire, emergency personel find themselves wasting valuable time finding and digging out the hydrants.  The city doesn't have resources to dig out all the hydrants.  And neither do you.  This is a problem framed on city-scale.

In the face of this problem, a project emerged: Adopt-a-Hydrant.  This is a web application that allows anyone to "adopt" any particular hydrant in the city.  It says, "when it snows, this hydrant might be buried, so we'll notify you so that you can check on it".  It took a city-scale problem and reframed it to human-scale.  (Access to open data is a part of this.  Hiding detailed information and knowledge about the world behind the wall of Government, and only letting the knowledge out in large aggregated chunks disallows human-scale reframings.  If the city didn't provide data on the locations of all the fire hydrants, Adopt-a-Hydrant couldn't have been built.)

Empowerment is only part of the solution.  The other is what we started with -- inspiration.  Both are crucial.  Inspiration with no real power will fall flat, and power with no inspiration won't even get started.

Make visible the people who are doing things, especially small and local things (the person who shovels out a fire hydrant down the street when it snows has a real impact).  Hold them up as heroes and tell their stories of achievement.  Further, don't just make these people visible, but demystify their process of making change.  People will be more likely to do things if they know how, or at least know that they have access to instructions.

The internet has borne tools successful at doing all of these things: inspiring and empowering people to mobilize resources they have access to in order to make an impact on their own or other peoples lives through access to information, networking tools that augment real-world activity and interest, and technology that removes the hassle of traditional barriers to entry (for example, accepting electronic payment).  The field of civic engagement software remains ripe with opportunity in this respect and I'm eager to see what's developed next.

I'll continue to think about this, and I hope that I get another chance to give this talk (or one like it).  I feel that the content is true and isn't often framed this way, at least when talking about software.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Understanding the Engagement Toolkit

Today, @chachasikes called a meeting of the Pheattle (that's Philly and Seattle combined) team to try to get a clearer idea of one of the projects we're doing with the cities.  I thought it was helpful.  We ended up with a set of ideas that drive us, and a set of metrics that would lead us to feel that whatever we create is successful (see below).

We have been calling the project The Engagement Toolkit.  We knew that the point of it is to be a resource for civic leaders and potential civic leaders to get their initiatives going, but were still fuzzy on the details.  Energy throughout the meeting was dragging.  There was a sense that peoples passions weren't coming out into the ideas that they were expressing.  This was the reason for the meeting in the first place -- we were all having difficulty getting behind the Engagement Toolkit as an idea because we had never agreed as a group why we were working on it.  We could have just gone on and created anything, but (as Chach likes to say), that's not why we're in Code for America.  We're here to create things that we're passionate about; things that we think will address issues that are near to our hearts.  We want to express our love of humanity through our work, and if we're not doing that, then we're not realizing our reason for being here.

After much of the meeting had passed by with our uninspired input, we had an idea to each tell everyone what they were passionate about in regards to what the Engagement Toolkit could be, and what their metrics for success are.  Here are the (abbreviated) results:

What’s exciting?
  • It's a good time.  Community organizing is sexy now. Facebook is watered down. There’s not a hub for inspired people to share their successes -- to show off. Excited about putting together a bar that appeals to organizers' narcicism.
  • Schools in Philly suck, and there are certain groups of super-moms who are teaming up and saying they’ll be involved in their local school, which is horrible, and make it good. There are others who want to do that as well. If we were able to provide a mechanism for sharing those strategies, that would be awesome.
  • Education about and sharing of experience is exciting. There’s so much good that happens that it just makes sense that there should be an easy way for people to learn about what others do.
  • Creating civic leaders. Encourage and convince (or con) non-civic leaders to take action. Turning complainers into civic leaders.
  • Making it exceedingly easy to do something positive in your community.
  • There are cool things that people are doing to make their city a better place, but they’re really hard to find. There are weird ways that people help, and I would like it to be more easy for people to find what those ways are. If it was more transparent and people could see “recipes” for getting things done.
  • Would have loved to have a tool like this when doing community organizing so that I could know who it is that’s out there already organizing events, so that I could talk to them; ask to share organizing letters, contacts, etc.
  • Bringing knowledge from people who know how to get things done to people who don’t know how to get things done. Also, putting the spotlight on people who are doing the right thing.
  • Excited about imparting practices that good leaders have now onto new leaders.
Metrics of success
  • Seeing people getting involved/voluneering because of the ET
  • Seeing people exchanging organizing knowledge through the ET
  • Seeing people organizing who haven’t organized before
  • Seeing people taking action who would not otherwise have
  • Seeing people making an impact on real people in real places
  • Seeing people contributing their stories of successes through the ET back to the ET, demonstrating investment in the community
  • Seeing people getting up to speed with community organizing faster than those who came before them, which we may measure by surveying people when they register
  • Seeing companies wanting to provide plugins for their software to connect with the ET