Kieron Kirkland | Searching for Social Tech in Africa

2nd February 2016 Posted by: Cat Cochrane

At Tech for Good TV, we're delighted to share recently published articles by Kieron Kirkland, Co-Founder and Director of Cast, a UK-based company collectively helping organisations use technology to deliver their social mission and get early stage ideas to scale

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There are two things that are universal in this world...

People’s problems: While contexts may differ, humans face pretty similar challenges wherever in the world they are; poverty, good health, access to education and so on. Well apart from hipsters, they have their own world of beard trimming and small batch coffee-related problems, WHICH DON’T COUNT).

Code: wherever you go, code is code. Whether you’re writing Javascript in Hawaii or on Hoth, it should look the same and be understandable. That is, in fact, the awesome thing about it. Unless it’s my code, in which case it’s like this…


For the love of code...

Bearing these two universals in mind, I’m continually disappointed that in my field of ‘social tech’ (solving social problems by applying technology solutions) there’s not more international re-use of people’s work, especially as there’s not that much cash to support new work. As an example, there’s about 30 millionslight exaggeration, but only slightnew crisis mapping technologies being developed right now, which seems crazy considering things like the brilliant Ushahidi have been functioning, as well as open source, for years.

So I am currently, thanks to the very kind support of Winston Churchill Memorial Trust (check them out, they are awesome), spending a couple of months working my way around five countries in Sub Saharan Africa to find existing tech solutions that are being developed for social issues. That all sounds very nice, and you may be thinking, why do you need to go to actually go to those countries for that, rather than just use Google? Well, one reason is that there are two other problems that the social tech space faces that I think I can address at the same time:

Firstly, people in the UK (and US) often tend to over engineer tech based products. Like drastically, to the extent where I’ve seen teams create things for local authorities or the NHS that are unusable because the customers don’t have the technology to run them. It’s fine if you have a shiny MacBook and great WiFi. But when your work laptop is running DOS 1.0 and you can’t even use Gmail because it’s not a ‘trusted product’, things get difficult (I’m joking about DOS, but not Gmail). So, given technology is generally less prevalent in many parts of Sub Saharan Africa, yet there’s so many awesome things being developed, I’m interested in understanding how they’re being developed differently to the UK.

 

Secondly, adoption. As a UK ‘tech for good’ community, we’re great at coming up with shiny new products for education, health, social care or whatever. But we’re pretty bad at getting them adopted at scale (e.g. into the NHS). At CAST we’ve felt for a while this is because of the nature of the system the product is trying to engage with. Often not enough time, testing or user research has happened, meaning the product and host system can’t interface, like trying to put Sticklebricks and Lego together. Or perhaps as a more serious example, because data security requirements aren’t met.

However, in Sub Saharan Africa, many people have noted that the mass adoption of things like mobile payments happened because there wasn’t an existing system they had to fight against or replace (so now everything is a Sticklebrick, and there never was any Lego). So I am hoping to understand in the social space whether this holds true, and if not where the clashes are.

                                                                     

                                                      Attaching Stickle Bricks to Lego is no mean feat at the best of times

That makes sense. But I maybe haven’t addressed why I am not just Googling and Skyping all these awesome organisations. Well firstly, as with many areas, there’s a self fulfilling prophecy where someone (normally a journalist) finds one (awesome) company or organisation and suddenly this organisation is held up as the leadingand only light, and globally everyone focuses on them, to the exclusion of all others. That’s great for the leading lightwho are, of course, doing amazing things), but I am interested in the projects that haven’t had the limelight, that are doing amazing thingsbut haven’t got a excellent SEO person making sure their work comes up the Google rankings or doesn’t have the uber charismatic CEO, or whatever.

And lastly, the reason I am here comes back to our first problem. Despite loving digital technology and understanding the colossal potential it offers humanity to address our most pressing social problems, I know that people are interested in people. And meeting someone in person, seeing where they live and experiencing something of the environment they work in, offers a better connection than anything digital I’ve found.

 

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Given technology is generally less prevalent in many parts of Sub Saharan Africa, yet there’s so many awesome things being developed, I’m interested in understanding how they’re being developed differently to the UK

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