All over the global South, urban and semi-urban areas are growing at a furious pace. Great swathes of mega-regions – places where large cities blend seamlessly into smaller towns and villages creating a giant economic hub – are becoming key economic and opportunity drivers in developing countries. One of the downsides of this rapid growth and economic vitality is the chaos and confusion brought by frenetic change. Into this busy landscape steps the fast-moving new world of everywhere computing, where computers exchange information with almost everything in the environment. A Ghanaian information technology pioneer and entrepreneur is changing perceptions about Africa by using the new technology of Semacodes – and proving a semblance of order can arise from the chaos and bustle of the street.
Semacode – a smart 2D barcode – was developed by Canadian Simon Woodside and is a tool to make everywhere computing a possibility. It works by embedding a web address into a 2D barcode called a tag which can be affixed to buildings, street lamps, and other landmarks. If one would like to know more information regarding the area they are in, all they need to do is find the nearest Semacode and use their internet-enabled camera phone to scan and read the code. A camera phone containing the Semacode’s Software Development Kit (SDK) detects and decodes the tag and sends the user the web address using the phone’s built-in browser. The user quickly learns what businesses and services are in the area and what the current street name is.
With code developed in Ghana called Semafox, one can create Semacodes for objects and contexts using a web browser – (http://sohne.net/semafox/). It is now being adapted by Ghanaian entrepreneur Guido Sohne to solve the common African problem of chaotic cityscapes brought about by rapid change, high turnover of businesses and changing street names. This handy tool has the power to revolutionise how people communicate and do business in the South, and a rival technology using a similar concept – QR code – is already widespread in Japan. Semacode also has its own user-contributed community website, Semapedia, to produce semacodes for any object or building.
Sohne is a computer code developer working for CoreNett – a Ghanaian electronic transaction processing company – and has been working on developing the code underlying the semacodes, and also piloting its application on the streets of Accra, the capital. Sohne (a former Kofi Annan ICT Centre for Excellence developer-in-residence), is an excellent example of how an IT innovator in the South is linking up early in a new technology’s development to help develop and evolve it.“It is rare to find African-created technology being used today in Western cyberspace,” concludes Sohne. It “is indeed a step forward for African technology as well as an indication of the benefits of collaborative development based on liberal software licensing such as open source software.”
Published: June 2007
You can download the Semacode reader software, here. This includes software for mobile phones and computer servers.
The latest stories and updates on Semacode can be found here.
A thorough explanation of rival technology QR Codes and their impact in Japan and how they work, can be found here. At present, QR Codes are used in a variety of ways, from linking to content and advertising in magazines and newspapers, to food product labels, public transportation signage, and as a way to communicate between people on the street.
Crime in the South’s fast-growing cities has a negative affect on economic development and social and community harmony. In Africa, with one fifth of the world’s population, for example, data is very poor on crime and its victims. The absence of good data means prevention and detection of crime is poor, and resources to fight it can’t be allocated effectively.
Over 900 million people – almost a sixth of the world’s population – now live in urban slums (UN) – high-tension places that offer a fertile environment for crime to flourish. In developing countries 43 per cent of urban dwellers live in slums – and in the least-developed countries the figure is 78 per cent. Keeping these areas safe is a serious challenge, especially when trust in police and local authorities is low. People are often afraid of how police will react to reporting of crime. Many rightly believe they will be asked for a bribe, or that reporting a crime somehow singles them out as a troublemaker.
Harnessing the power of people organizing together offers one way of fighting back against crime, and combating the paralysis of feeling there is nothing that can be done. An initiative in Brazil is turning to the powerful collaborative potential of Web 2.0 to track crime and help to solve it. And for the first time in history, Brazilians can now see in more or less real time what crime there is and where it is happening in their country.
Wikicrimes, the brainchild of Professor Vasco Furtado of the University of Fortaleza’s Knowledge Engineering Research Group, is inspired by the very popular user-contributed encyclopaedia Wikipedia, and germinated in his mind while on an academic sabbatical at Stanford University in California in 2006.
Victims of crime can simply map and report crimes using the website, which uses brightly coloured drawing pins to indicate where a cluster of crimes has taken place. Site users answer a series of questions on suspects and witnesses. Anyone planning a journey can then easily zoom in on the places where they will go, and see the crime profile of that area – and perhaps be more cautious and aware to avoid becoming victims themselves.
Brazil’s crime problem is huge: Films like City of God – where gangs fight deadly battles in the slums or favelas – shows how vicious it is.
Wikicrimes, whose motto is “Share crime information, Keep safe!”, began development in April 2006, and went ‘live’ with a launch at the end of 2007. Starting with just two employees, it has now grown to a team of 10.
Furtado was frustrated with police hoarding crime statistics in Brazil, and not letting people know where crimes were taking place: he also believes the police, as in many other countries, manipulate statistics for various political purposes. “The traditional mechanism of data-gathering for which police are responsible ends up giving them a monopoly over the handling of information on criminal occurrences,” Furtado said. And that “is not always in keeping with the precept of transparency and public availability of information required by a democratic system.”
Furtado believes transparent crime statistics are vital to a well-functioning democracy.
“We are still facing very big challenges,” he said. “Cultural change is one of them. We don’t have in Brazil the culture of sharing information for benefiting others. People need to realize that when they register a crime they are helping others, and that should be the reason others will act in the same fashion.”
He tried to get the police involved in the project, by contributing data, but with no luck. Brazil’s police argue their monopoly over crime statistics exists for some very serious reasons. “We are very worried about revealing police data which may restrict the work of the police,” Antenor Martins of Rio’s Civil Police Department told the BBC. “Also we don’t want a feeling of insecurity for the people – they don’t deserve that here or anywhere else in the world.”
Many also worry about a crime profile of an area dragging that area down, scaring people away. The police also worry about inaccurate information. “When people walk into a police station, you sign an incident report. If you give information which isn’t true, you have to respond to charges of giving false evidence,” said Martins.
But Furtado believes trust between citizens and the police is so low, it is hurting the fight against crime.
“The police suffer a lack of credibility among the populace which, in turn, contributes toward the low rate of reporting such occurrences: the so-called underreporting effect,” he said. “Research conducted with victims of crime in several Brazilian states has shown that underreporting may, in densely-populated areas, reach up to 50 per cent for certain types of crimes.”
Furtado believes a better picture of crime will lead to better public policies and policing: “The result of this can be disastrous in terms of formulation of public policies and especially in the planning of police actions, in view of the fact that the official criminal mapping may reflect a trend that is quite unlike what is actually occurring in real life.
“WikiCrimes intends to change the traditional logic of handling information on crimes that have already occurred, and considers that such a change is up to the citizens themselves. It is based on the principle that with adequate support, citizens will be capable of deciding how and when historical information on criminal occurrences can be publicized as well as for what purpose.”
Sao-Paulo-based NGO Sou de Paz works to reduce violence in Brazil, and is a big supporter of Wikicrimes. “If we develop Wikicrimes, we can look at things like domestic violence or information on drug trafficking – things that affect communities but that people don’t report either because of shame or fear,” the group’s Denis Mizne told the BBC. “If you can get access to this information or publicise it together with Wikicrimes, it could help in areas that suffer most from violent crime.”
Wisely, Wikicrimes is acting to address police concerns over accurate reporting of crimes.
“Technically the big challenge is to define mechanisms to identify false registering,” Furtado said. “We are creating fields in WikiCrimes for the user to provide further information that brings more reliability to the crime information registered — links to newspapers, for instance. We are also defining algorithms to compute the reputation of the informants.”
And Wikicrimes is not just for Brazil: they want people from around the world to add to the site and help build up the crime profile of all countries.
Furtado said responses from the general public have largely been positive. “The best I could ever hope,” he said. “The project is for the citizen and I feel that they realize this. Every day, I receive messages from people offering support and giving congratulations.”
“I had no idea of similar projects before doing Wikicrimes, but, recently, I have received some messages of similar initiatives even though with a local scope in Brazil, Argentina and USA,” he added.
“In terms of crime it would be nice if this would show that it’s necessary to publish the crime data that we have in law authorities and institutions,” he said. “If this is a success, I am sure that all the crime data will be available for people, because they will realize there is no way that the authorities can keep it all to themselves.”
Furtado keeps a rolling report on progress with Wikicrimes on his blog.
Development Challenges, South-South Solutions was launched as an e-newsletter in 2006 by UNDP’s South-South Cooperation Unit (now the United Nations Office for South-South Cooperation) based in New York, USA. It led on profiling the rise of the global South as an economic powerhouse and was one of the first regular publications to champion the global South’s innovators, entrepreneurs, and pioneers. It tracked the key trends that are now so profoundly reshaping how development is seen and done. This includes the rapid take-up of mobile phones and information technology in the global South (as profiled in the first issue of magazine Southern Innovator), the move to becoming a majority urban world, a growing global innovator culture, and the plethora of solutions being developed in the global South to tackle its problems and improve living conditions and boost human development. The success of the e-newsletter led to the launch of the magazine Southern Innovator.
The Human Genome Project (HGP) was officially declared complete in 2003. A rough draft of the human genome sequencing carried out by the HGP was formally announced in 2000 and the completed sequence was announced in 2003. This breakthrough spawned many initiatives, including Iceland’s deCode (below), and was reflected in the work I was called upon to undertake for the GOSH Child Health Portal at the time, such as designing websites for the London IDEAS Genetics Knowledge Park and the UK Newborn Screening Programme Centre (at bottom). I photographed the author of Our Genes, Steindor Erlingsson, in Reykjavik, Iceland for The Associated Press in 2002.
India is in the midst of the biggest national identification project in the country’s history. The aim is for every Indian to receive a voluntary electronic identification card containing his or her details and a unique number. Called an Aadhaar, it is a 12-digit unique number registered with the Unique Identification Authority of India (http://uidai.gov.in) (UIDAI). The project joins a growing trend across the global South to map populations in order to better achieve development goals.
About one-third of the world’s urban dwellers live in slums, and the United Nations estimates that number will double by 2030 as a result of rapid urbanization in developing countries. How to improve slum-dwellers’ living conditions and raise their standard of living is the big challenge of the 21st century.
With just four years to go until the 2015 deadline to meet the Millennium Development Goals (http://www.undp.org/mdg), and the current economic downturn reversing some gains, any tool that can make development decisions more precise has to be a benefit.
Innovators are turning to the opportunities afforded by digital technologies to reach slums and poor areas. The approaches vary, from India’s national identification system to new ways of using mobile phones and Internet mapping technologies. With mobile phones now available across much of the global South, and plans underway to expand access to broadband internet even in poorly served Africa, it is becoming possible to develop a digital picture of a slum and poor areas and map population needs.
Put to the right use, this powerful development tool can fast-track the delivery of aid and better connect people to markets and government services. In a country of severe regional disparities and caste (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caste) divisions, the national identification number has the advantage of not documenting people in a way that would bring prejudice.
India’s Aadhaar is intended to serve a number of goals, from increasing national security to managing citizen identities, facilitating e-governance initiatives and tackling illegal immigration. While critics of ID schemes complain about the civil liberties implications of national identity card projects (www.bigbrotherwatch.org.uk), it is a fact that countries that want to increase the social benefits available to their citizens need to understand who those citizens are, where they live and what their social needs are. India’s problem to date has been a lack of knowledge of its citizens: many millions exist in a limbo world of not being known to local authorities.
The unique number is stored in a database and contains details on the person’s demographics (name, age, etc.) and biometrics (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biometrics) – a photograph, 10 fingerprints and an iris scan. Residents in an area find out about the Aadhaar through various sources, from local media to local government agencies. An ‘Enrolment Camp’ is established in the area where people go to register, bringing anything they have that can prove their identity. The biometric scanning takes place here. ID cards are issued between 20 and 30 days later.
On January 13, 2011 the project declared it had registered its millionth person, a 15-year-old named Sukrity from North Tripura. The goal is to register 600 million people in the next four years.
One of the immediate advantages to many poor people is gaining access to banking services for the first time, because an Aadhaar number is accepted as sufficient ID to open a bank account. The identification authority says the scheme will be “pivotal in bringing financial services to the millions of unbanked people in the country, who have been excluded so far because of their lack of identification.”
The Times of India reported in 2010 that Khaiver Hussain, a homeless man in an addiction treatment programme, was able to get a bank account after receiving the identification number. He was able to open an account with the Corporation Bank along with 27 other homeless people. Having a bank account has removed the fear he had of being robbed of his meagre savings while he slept.
Another homeless day labourer, Tufail Ahmed from Uttar Pradesh, said “This passbook and the UID card have given people like me a new identity. It has empowered us.” He has been able to use the saved money to rent a room with four other day labourers.
In countries where no national ID card schemes exist, people are turning to other methods to register and map populations in order to improve their living conditions.
In Kenya and Brazil, digital mapping projects are underway using mobile phones to paint a picture of the population living in slum areas and shanty towns. An NGO called Map Kibera (www.mapkibera.org) began work on an ambitious project to digitally map Africa’s largest slum, Kibera in Nairobi, Kenya. The Map Kibera project uses an open-source software programme, OpenStreetMap (www.openstreetmap.org), to allow users to edit and add information as it is gathered.
Powerful tools now exist to aid digital mapping. Google Maps (www.maps.google.com) is one example.
While the project is impressively ambitious – and it remains to be seen if it is completed as planned – the economic and development implications of this vast data collection and national identification are enormous. It will enable very accurate identification of markets and needs and also of development challenges and needs. This should lead to many business innovations in the country in coming years and also draw in more business from outside the country.
1) Ushahidi is a website that was developed to map reports of violence in Kenya after the post-election fallout at the beginning of 2008. The new Ushahidi Engine has been created to use the lessons learned from Kenya to create a platform that allows anyone around the world to set up their own way to gather reports by mobile phone, email and the web – and map them. It is being built so that it can grow with the changing environment of the web, and to work with other websites and online tools. Website:http://blog.ushahidi.com/
2) Google Android: Get inventing! This software enables anyone to start making applications for mobile phones. And it offers a platform for developers to then sell their applications (apps). Website:www.android.com