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The website is a simple affair: a distinctive logo sits above a lean-looking booking system that allows users to enter their journey start and end destination, date and then click for available buses and prices. Its simplicity is deceptive: redBus is a smart technological solution to a very complicated problem in India: booking and buying a bus ticket. The service it offers – relief from a chaotic, frustrating and time-consuming task – is transforming the experience of travel in India.
Based in India’s technology hub of Bangalore (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bangalore), redBus (redbus.in) is a web start-up begun by young whizzes from technology companies who decided to take a risk and venture out and do something new.
Back in 2005, redBus’ three founders, all graduates of one of India’s top engineering schools, were working in Bangalore for well-known information technology companies such as IBM, Texas Instruments and Honeywell.
As they tell the story on their website, it was the difficulty of getting a bus home during the Hindu religious festival of Diwali that prompted the inspiration. The trip was a last-minute decision, and buying bus tickets proved far from easy. On top of failing to get a ticket from various travel agents, journeying around Bangalore meant encountering the city’s traffic gridlock.
This experience led to the idea of developing a service to book bus tickets over the Internet.
RedBus quickly evolved into an innovative service offering multiple options to customers. They can call a phone number and speak to a customer service representative or use a mobile phone to book a ticket. RedBus claims to have sold more than 8,000,000 tickets to date.
Tickets are also delivered to customers in major cities in advance of their travel. Even more conveniently, redBus developed a service called mTicket. It sends the ticket by SMS (mobile phone text message) straight away when a customer makes a booking. The mTicket appears on the display screen of the mobile phone and the customer just has to show their mTicket to the driver to board the bus.
RedBus uses partnerships to expand their distribution network, and this means redBus tickets can be purchased at more than 75,000 outlets. The company now works with more than 350 bus operators, allowing customers to book tickets on more than 4,500 routes across India.
The service set out to achieve two goals: create a one-stop shop for ticket purchases, and to make it possible for customers to get tickets when they needed them and not be told they have been sold out.
Indians were already having success with booking airline tickets online. But nobody else had thought of doing central, online sales for bus tickets before.
Research was behind redBus’ success. The founders interviewed bus operators, consumers and venture capitalists before setting up the business.
They then set about writing the code for the Internet service and put together a business plan and presented it to The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE) (tie.org) – a network of mentors who help young entrepreneurs. With the support in place, they were able to leave their well-paying, secure jobs to start redBus.
Among the many challenges they faced was changing the mindset of bus operators used to dealing only with travel agents working out of sales offices.
It also took time for the concept to take off. But as word-of-mouth got around, more people started to use the website. The young team grew from just three to 50 within nine months.
Their business success, as they describe it, is the result of listening to, and soliciting feedback from their customers. They say it has helped them identify what is going wrong and fix it, and describe their business culture as “learn, implement, grow.” They also have a culture of sharing ideas and mistakes to encourage learning. It seems it is this buzzy, youthful and always-learning business culture that is behind redBus’ success.
2) TiE: Fostering Entrepreneurship Globally: The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE),was founded in 1992 in Silicon Valley by a group of successful entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and senior professionals with roots in the Indus region. TiE’s mission is to foster entrepreneurship globally through mentoring, networking, and education. Dedicated to the virtuous cycle of wealth creation and giving back to the community, TiE’s focus is on generating and nurturing our next generation of entrepreneurs. Website: tie.org
An African NGO believes the Internet is the single biggest key to rapid development in Africa – and it is working to connect youth, women and rural populations to the web, and in turn, switch them on to the vast resources stored across the world’s Internet sites.
After initial successes with a youth project and with farmers, Voices of Africa (VOA) (http://www.voicesofafrica.info) is now seeking to scale up its work to fan out across Africa – and take its services to the world’s largest refugee camp, the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.
The youth and technology empowerment NGO has developed a business model to deliver low-cost Internet access and e-resources to Africa’s slums and rural farmers.
VOA argues that “the digital divide, defined by a lack of access to information for a specific population, symbolizes the largest difference between developed and developing countries: the opportunity to obtain and utilize information.”
“The digital divide runs much deeper than hardware and software,” it says. “While equipment is necessary it is not sufficient. The real heart of the digital divide is that those without access to information resources often suffer needlessly while the solutions to their problems are floating in the air.”
But why is the Internet so important?
“The internet puts the choice of content at the fingertips of the user,” explains executive director Crystal Kigoni. “Traditional media is one way communications. Internet is bi-directional.
“Our NGO is completely grassroots. We train the people who train the people. It is an each one, teach one philosophy and is highly effective. We also design our projects to be self-sustainable after one year of successful implementation.”
The philosophy behind Voices of Africa – “Sustainable Development through Information Empowerment” – is to give people the information and resources to take better control of their lives.
Access to the Internet in Africa is patchy and, for the poor, an expensive resource. The penetration of mobile phones in Africa has been spectacular in the past five years. But there are limits to the resources people can afford to access with their phones. Issues abound about data costs, mobile phone networks, and mobile phone capability.
The e-learning resources include high quality training videos, presentations and screencasts (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Screencast) – like a movie, it is a digital recording of changes on a computer screen and is used to teach software – to share on the web. The resources are also shared through compact discs (CDs) and iPods (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPod).
Project coordinator Nick Kungu coordinates the staff working on the pilot Kenyan projects: a Rural Internet Kiosk; a Youth Empowerment Center; and KiberaNet, which launched in August 2011. VOA uses a part-time and volunteer staff of more than 20 Kenyans and four international ‘virtual’ volunteers.
The group is also working with farmers in Kutus, central Kenya, to help them get a better price for their products and introduce sustainable agriculture practices. This is done through online courses so the farmers do not need to travel. It is hoped by doing this they can improve the supply of food for the country.
The Youth Empowerment Center in Webuye constituency of the Western province of Kenya involves a partnership with the government of Kenya to teach computer basics, research and data collection, social media, ICT (information communication technology) for development, social business and community health.
In rural areas, the need for information cannot be overestimated. In the remote countryside, there are few schools with adequate resources and almost no community libraries. The lifesaving knowledge the people require has to date been completely beyond their grasp. As one rural woman in the Western province of Kenya exclaimed to VOA after encountering the resources on the Internet, “It is like being brought from the darkness into the light.”
Another project in development is SlumNet, which seeks to combine the Internet with low-cost devices like tablet computers and netbooks. Its pilot scheme, KiberaNet, launched this month in the Kibera slum of Nairobi, Kenya to test the business model. VOA hopes to then expand it to Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone. It is using a business model to bring low-cost Internet access to Africa’s slums that is fully funded by the local communities and the users.
It has identified the key needs of youth in slums that need to be met: a way to access the vast resources available on the Internet; a way to generate income, undertake low-cost learning, and organise for social justice; ways to overcome social, economic and political isolation; a way to access affordable equipment and resources to improve their quality of life in the short-term.
To make it a sustainable business model, the community takes a 60 percent stake in the incorporated entity. Voices of Africa will select six local civil society organisations to take another 10 percent stake in the business. VOA takes 10 percent and the remaining 30 percent will be open to outside investors.
It involves setting up a closed intranet system and Internet access covering the entire Kibera slum, which has an estimated population of 2 million, a majority under the age of 30.
KiberaNet hopes to act as a community hub for socialising, education and generating content. A key part is creating an atmosphere that is welcoming to novices. The business model is about delivering the bandwidth of Internet access and simultaneously generating a sustainable source of income to keep it going. Partners in the business include Promote Africa, Plexus Group and Future Optics Networks.
VOA also has been blogging about its time in Kenya’s Dadaab Refugee Camp (http://www.unhcr.org/cgi-bin/texis/vtx/page?page=49e483a16) at their website, www.voicesofafrica.info, and has been developing plans to expand services to the camp, home to over 400,000 refugees from drought and famine in Somalia. The camp was only designed to hold 90,000 people. The chronic food insecurity has caused a massive humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa, leaving over 10 million people in need of help.
“There are plenty of resources going in but it is aid business as usual,” claims Kigoni. “You see lots of waste in many areas, and a lack in others that would be extremely beneficial. Hence, why Voices of Africa has come up with the youth technology and empowerment plan that accompanies a general information and communications system, DadaabNet.”
DadaabNet will be a youth-run community Internet service and education service. VOA plans to use a wireless intranet, internal communications systems and low-cost internet access in the refugee camp.
The project is the first of its kind in Dadaab and a first in Kenya, claims VOA, allowing free educational content without needing to access the Internet.
The intranet will host free educational videos that can be accessed by mobile phones and computers. The topics covered in the videos include health, nutrition, sanitation and computer training and how to use technology for sustainable development.
The curriculum is also approved by Nazerene University to certificate level.
The system is supervised and would be able to offer resources to other NGOs seeking to provide services to the camp’s residents. The intention is to open up opportunities for education and employment youth who are currently unemployed.
At present the youth in the camp, many of whom have not completed secondary school, get by ‘hustling’ for work, according to VOA. By being left to their own devices, there is a risk they will fall into negative behaviour like crime and drug use or be preyed upon by terrorist organisations operating in the area like al Shabaab, they maintain.
“In our dreams, everyone everywhere in the world can have the opportunity to develop their minds. It is through this creativity that Africa will rise,” concludes Kigoni.
The devastating earthquake that hit the Caribbean nation of Haiti on January 12 was a huge tragedy for the country’s people and for the large international aid community, including the United Nations. But the disaster has seen the use of new information technologies – often assembled by volunteers – to bridge the gaps in critical information and bring a semblance of order to the chaos of a large disaster. And many of the technologies being used in Haiti now arose from past disasters and crises in the South.
Remarkable stories from the disaster include a woman who used her mobile phone to text message Canadian officials she was trapped and needed rescue, to a filmmaker who used an application on his iPhone (http://www.apple.com/iphone/) to treat his wounds: “I was able to look up treatment of excessive bleeding and compound fracture, so I used my shirt to tie my leg and a sock on the back of my head and later used it for other things like to diagnose shock,” claimed Dan Woolley to NBC Miami.
Measuring 7.0 in magnitude (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2010_Haiti_earthquake), the quake killed over 212,000 people, injured 300,000 and affected more than 3 million out of Haiti’s population of 9 million. Hundreds of thousands have lost their homes and are now dependent on food aid to survive. Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere, and is ranked 149th of 182 countries on the Human Development Index.
In the aftermath of the earthquake, communications were knocked out and it was difficult to grasp the scale of the disaster. Major infrastructure was either severely damaged or completely destroyed.
The public telephone system went down, and the two largest cell phone providers, Digicel and Comcel Haiti, were both disrupted. Most radio stations went off the air in the immediate aftermath and a week later, just 20 of the 50 stations in Port-au-Prince were back on air.
This represented the worst of all scenarios for disaster response: not only was the scale of the tragedy enormous, but existing government structures and the large international aid mission were equally badly hit. First responders and the government’s infrastructure were paralyzed in the hours after the disaster and it took some time for the aid response to build to significant levels.
But while communications were down in the country, outside it was a different story: people around the world were using the internet and mobile phones to begin piecing together the e-response to the earthquake.
After the disaster, technology-savvy volunteers around the world kicked into action to find ways to help. They have built software to aid in tracking people, using technology to map the disaster area and ways to use mobile phone text messages to find the missing.
Kenya’s Ushahidi (www.ushahidi.com) is a free software mashup (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashup_%28web_application_hybrid%29) born after the post-election violence in Kenya in 2007 and 2008. It gathers citizen-generated crisis information – SMS (text messages), email or web resources – and then places the information on a map or timeline. It is put together by volunteers from Kenya, Ghana, South Africa, Malawi, the Netherlands and the United States.
Ushahidi’s founder is Kenyan Ory Okolloh, and the first version of the software for download is called “Mogadishu,” after the capital of Somalia.
It was put to use in Haiti (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports/submit) as users populated its online maps and timelines with information on the location of people in need of food and water, those trapped in rubble or those in need of medical attention. It is a real-time reporting system for people in a disaster, offering a way for people in need to broadcast to the outside world.
Sample reports on the timeline look like this (http://haiti.ushahidi.com/reports): ” SOS food, water and care needed in the Bertin Zone of Carrefour S.O.S. for the people of Carefour in the Bertin area, Titus Road, Froide River, these people haven’t recieved anything yet like water, food, care.”
“Alive under the Rubble of Bar Lakay Restaurant, Ave. Christophe 6633. Carole Joseph is alive under the rubble of the Bar Lakay restaurant on Avenue Christophe.”
The UN estimates there are more than 900 non-governmental organizations operating in Haiti. One of the best ways to try and coordinate this large aid response is through innovative information technology.
The Ushahidi software has spawned many creative variations to track a wide range of problems. In the Philippines, TXTpower (http://www.cp-union.com/ushahidi/) is put together by the Computer Professionals’ Union to keep an eye on mobile phone companies and their business practices. In Mexico, a mashup (http://www.cuidemoselvoto.org/) was put together for the 2009 federal elections. Stop Stockouts (http://stopstockouts.org/) keeps track of near real-time pharmacy and medical supplies in health facilities and pharmacies in Kenya, Uganda, Malawi and Zambia.
In San Diego, California, computer programmer Tim Schwartz quickly contacted his network of fellow programmers to address the problem of information being spread too widely across many web sources. In a few hours they put together http://www.haitianquake.com, a way for people to post and locate missing relatives.
It was online in less than 24 hours. It was followed by many other similar services and they were merged into a service eventually put together by Google called PersonFinder two days later. Google’s PersonFinder grew to have more than 32,000 missing people listed.
Another response has been Crisis Camps (http://crisiscampmiami.org/) in London England and cities across the United States. Technology workers got together to brainstorm relevant solutions to help the aid effort, and developed tools including Tweak the Tweet, Port Au Prince Basemap (up-to-date data on what his happening on the ground), The Haiti Timeline (developing a real-time history of events as they unfold), Family Reunification Systems, crisis wikis (http://crisiscommons.org/wiki/index.php?title=Crisis_Wiki), Mobile Applications 4 Crisis Response, translation (Creole to English for example), Mapping NGOs in Action (in the chaos of a crisis, this seeks to track what NGOs are working where), We Need, We Have Exchange (a way to post requests for resources or help).
“It really is amazing the change in the way crisis response can be done now,” Noel Dickover, a Washington, DC-based organiser of the Crisis Camp tech volunteer movement, told The Independent newspaper.
“Developers, crisis mappers and even internet-savvy folks can actually make a difference.”
Josh Nesbit is a co-creator of a text message service for mobile phones that is being used by international organizations like the United Nations and the Red Cross. Haitians are able to send free text messages from mobile phones on the country’s Digicel service. The messages include requests for water and food. The messages are organized and tagged with key words by volunteers in the Haitian community in New York City, and Haitian radio stations promote the service. It was developed based on similar systems already running in hospitals in Malawi.
In Haiti, mobile phone networks were back up and running within a few days – many within 24 hours. Haiti is poor, but it nonetheless has impressive mobile phone ownership rates: one-in-three people has one.
OpenStreetMap (http://www.openstreetmap.org/) is another excellent resource in a disaster and represents a significant step forward in helping people to respond. Real time data is uploaded to satellite photographs of the disaster area and people then can add updates on the location of working hospitals or where infrastructure has been damaged. The information comes in by many forms, from the micro-blogging service Twitter (www.twitter.com) to eyewitness reports.
Reports from Haiti have talked of rescue teams uploading the maps to their GPS (global positioning system) devices for easy access, or printing then in A4 form to carry around.
The utility of this service has been confirmed by many working on helping Haiti. “We have already been using their data in our initial post-disaster needs assessment,” Stuart Gill of the World Bank told The Independent.
Dutch mobile phone maker Intivation (http://www.intivation.nl/) is distributing for free solar-powered mobile phones in Haiti to help with aid efforts and is launching the phones for sale around the world as well.
6) International Community on Information Systems for Crisis Response and Management: They will be having their conference on Defining Crisis Management 3.0 from May 2-5, 2010 in Seattle Washington USA. Website:http://www.iscram.org/
7) Telecoms Sans Frontiers: Focuses on providing communications in the first days after an emergency. Website:http://www.tsfi.org/
8) InSTEDD NGO: InSTEDD’s mission is to harness the power of technology to improve collaboration for global health and humanitarian action. An innovation lab for tools designed to strengthen networks, build community resilience and improve early detection and response to major health-related events and natural or human-caused disasters. Website: http://instedd.org/
9) Web mash-ups: Programmable Web website offers all the resources required to get started. Website:www.programmableweb.com/
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.