- Bag checks by security when visitors enter and leave iLab
- An automated doorbell that rings whenever the front door is opened
- Having at least one iLab staff located in the lab at all times
- Locks on computers and all equipment in the lab at all times
- Making sure we have all the details of our equipment (not just the computers) – serial number, model and make – recorded so we can easily identify our equipment should it be taken
- Possibly hiring another security officer to station directly outside the iLab door
Saturday, 14 January 2012
Wednesday, 21 December 2011
The Global System for Mobile Communications (GSM) operators in Liberia, particularly LonestarCell MTN http://www.lonestarcell.com/ have begun offering this service, which is quite timely and has its advantages in a country where the economy is growing. At the same time, like the M-Kesh of Mozambique, the uptake of mobile money services in Liberia has been slow to start.
One way to start branding and customizing these services in Liberia would be for the GSM operators or Liberia Telecommunications Authority http://lta.gov.lr/ to come up with a unique nomenclature for this service instead of Mobile Money which is the generic name that refers to the technology.
Recently in Nigeria, GlobaCom and UBA has signed an MOU with the Government to launch it's Mobile Money service which though not yet functional but have named U-Mo .See http://www.thisdaylive.com/articles/glo-uba-sign-mou-on-mobile-money-service/97220/
In other countries in Africa, such as Kenya, the M-Pesa mobile money service is blooming and has helped bridge the urban-to-rural gap in banking and money transferring services. When fully adopted in Liberia, I believe these services will help boost the economy. For example, institutions like the government can make salary payments using Mobile Money for county officials thereby avoiding transporting huge amount of dollars from county to county for the sole purpose of salary disbursement.
Why Mobile Money?
Many Liberians have to travel far from home to find work and need to be able to send money back to their families, particularly in far-flung counties. Existing money transfer options are extremely expensive and many people cannot afford it.
Traditionally in Liberia, money has been transferred in a risky unregulated manner via long expensive trips carrying cash in an unpredictable environment. Technology in the banking sectors has begun to close this gap, and this is where Mobile Money comes in – allowing users to make frequent transfers without having to personally access a bank.
Mobile Money can lower the cost of remittances as it removes the need for physical points of presence and ensures a timely and secure method of transaction. This technology has been a great success with a lot of benefits to individuals, societies and the Governments. Can you link to a site where there is evidence/accounts of the benefits?
However, there are a few aspects that the LTA (Liberia Telecommunication Authority) as a regulator of GSM operators needs to address relating to Mobile Money Transfer:
Should the regulator allow a non-banking institution, such as all the GSM companies in Liberia, to get into the banking domain by accepting deposits and doing most of the functions of a bank without applying the same level of regulations on it as with banks?
How will the regulators and financial institutions bring interoperability in mobile banking?
How do the unbanked customers of mobile banking build their credit history?
In the case of Liberia, we are in our early stages of Mobile Money’s growth and we need to carry out a lot more awareness and publicity of the service in order to have it widely spread and adopted as soon as possible.
For those who are interested, I will outline what you need to do to sign up for Mobile Money. Since it is only LoneStar Cell MTN whose offering the service currently, I will outline the user procedure related to Lonestar:
To register for Mobile Money you need to:
Fill out an application form
Provide valid identification card (Passport, Driver License, Voter ID)
To complete Registration:
Dial *156# and the call/ok button
A welcome message is received, Welcome to Mobile Money, please select, Please select ID type
Others (School, Church, Work etc.)
Enter ID number ex. 1214
Select Pin code ex. 12345
Repeat Pin code ex. 12345
To download the entire Mobile Money User guide for Lonestar Cell MTN, click here
Wednesday, 14 December 2011
iLab Liberia is pleased to announce that we have received a $250,000 grant from Google.org to continue our work in Liberia. This grant will enable iLab to continue its current activities and introduce new trainings, upgrade our dedicated internet connection from 1.5mbps to 2.0mbps, double our laboratory space and purchase new computers. With Google.org’s support, it is possible for iLab to meet the growing demand in Liberia for access to cutting-edge ICT resources and trainings.
Some of the new events made possible by this grant will include:
A customized set of trainings for IT professionals seeking employment in Liberia’s NGO community
Providing free access to online courseware in ICTs and computer programming for Liberian students and professionals
HTML, PHP, CSS and Python programming language trainings
Introductory course in ICTs for small business entrepreneurs
Office hours for interested users to learn, experiment and create their own projects with assistance from our staff
ICTs for young women in Liberia: a course designed by iLab and Nobel laureate Leymah Gbowee
Data management trainings with a focus on standardization and portability of information for variety of users from government ministries to NGOs
YouTube parties that allow our users to contribute local content and directly experience the power of video as a learning tool
And these events, piloted and made popular in 2011, will be back in 2012:
Mapping parties where Liberians use Google's Map Maker software to add the breadth and depth of their local knowledge to the map of Liberia
Beginner, intermediate and advanced free and open source software (FOSS) trainings
Hosting Google Technology Users Group meet-ups and other IT-related groups in need of a regular meeting place
Blogging and “social media for development” trainings
Web development classes for high school students
Continuing to host workshops and events for organizations requiring ICTs
We at iLab are incredibly thankful for Google's generosity, and we’re very excited about the possibilities this grant will provide us in the next phase of iLab’s development.
Tuesday, 13 September 2011
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.
Wednesday, 3 August 2011
What programming course would you teach someone in Liberia with little or no previous computer knowledge? That was the question that lay before us as we thought through possible trainings to offer at the *iLab_. Our interest was in a course that would be both relevant and practical to the unique Liberian situation, and one that will prepare them to take advantage of the possibilities the Internet brings—looking forward to the landing of the Africa Coast Europe (ACE) cable in Q2 2012.
As mentioned in our previous blog post titled, Developer Training in Liberia, there are no Computer Science degree programs in any Liberian university, thereby hindering would-be developers from acquiring the requisite skills to compete in the digital age. Also, in an earlier post, Tech Centers in Liberia, we made clear our desire to make the *iLab_ a space for innovation and training.
After some deliberation, we agreed that providing training in the fundamentals of web development using HyperText Markup Language (HTML) and Cascading Style Sheets (CSS) would be an excellent introduction for select first-time computer users without scaring them away.
Just about when this question was laid to rest, the second one arose: Who do we provide these trainings for? As you might imagine, being the only center providing this free training in the country, we could not just open the “flood gates” of interested techies without compromising on the quality of the training, so we had to be selective. Finally, we settled on providing this training for select high school students from across Monrovia, Paynesville, and Virginia to enable them to build websites for their schools.
We selected four schools namely, Calvary Baptist Church School System, College of West Africa, Ricks Institute, and the Bethesda Christian Mission School represented by three students from each school. During our initial visits to these schools, we had to explain to school administrators what web development meant and convince them that the training would be free of charge—which was a harder message to get across, giving that it sounded too good to be true.
At 10a.m. that Monday morning, we had a total of twelve enthusiastic students filling the *iLab_ in preparation for the launch of the *iLab_ Web Challenge on June 13, 2011. To ease the natural tension in the air, we played a naming game to acquaint ourselves with all names in the room. Afterwards, we delved into the training aspect of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.
The structure of the *iLab_ Web Challenge is comprised of three weeks (3hrs, 5 days a week, for a total of 45hrs) of intensive training in web development and 3, 5 hour days, of the actual web development competition. After the first week of HTML training, the participating students produced their first project work—developing a seven-page website for their school using only a text editor. It was an impressive display of talent that had College of West Africa taking the first position.A website made by the College of West Africa team is on the right.
The second week of the training centered on styling HTML files using Cascading Style Sheets (CSS). Whilst HTML proved popular with the error-prone starters due to its forgiving nature (Modern browsers often correct for errors in HTML files and display them properly), CSS was not as forgiving and therefore not as popular. But despite the frustrating effect of errors on the parsed web pages, these students persevered into the mastery of CSS. By the end of the third week, many of them had befriended CSS and some even asked if they could forget HTML and only learn CSS.
During the final week of training (June 27 – July 1), we covered more advanced CSS topics as well as web hosting, domain registration, WYSIWYG editors, updating websites, and browser issues. Students also used this time to fine tune their code structures to make them easily readable by humans. It was also during this week that students presented their first CSS project. Once again, College of West Africa came victorious.
Then came July 11-13—the time set aside for the actual challenge. It was an intensive but beautiful display of teamwork and creativity. Going through code line by line, students perfected their final projects and submitted them for evaluation.
The evaluation process was difficult for us to conclude, considering the enormous amount of creativity and uniqueness of each submitted project. After a rigorous inspection of functionality and style, we concluded on the winner of the first *iLab_ Web Challenge.
So the winning project came from the Ricks Institute (On left), followed by College of West Africa tightly in second place, and Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place and Calvary Baptist Church School System in fourth place.
Representing the winning team were Mohammed Musahson, Samukai Sarnor, and Moselyn H-Mai Johnson from Ricks Institute. For College of West Africa we had Samily Panton, Pete Wiah, and Kaizerline Johnson in second place, and Michari Tomah, Juliawo Cyrus, and Richmond Roberts from the Bethesda Christian Mission School in third place. As at the end of the challenge, the team from the Calvary Baptist Church School System was left with only one representative, Terrence Mandeh, in fourth place.
Looking back on the *iLab_ Web Challenge, we are convinced that it was, and still is, an endeavor worth pursuing. The show of talent by previously computer-illiterate students in such a short period to time confirms to us the potential Liberians have to compete in the global technology arena if given the proper training.
We are aware that although training in HTML/CSS alone does not necessarily make one a career web developer, it forms the basis for more advanced web programming and scripting languages. And as we look forward to another exciting round the *iLab_ Challenge, we are considering teaching these advanced web programming and scripting languages for past participants of the *iLab_ Web Challenge.
Saturday, 16 July 2011