Saturday saw the first Zambian barcamp, and I attended. A barcamp is something of a loosely organized open plan technology oriented conference, typically bringing together innovative minds in an informal setting. Barcamps are a great way to bring ‘geeks’ together and facilitate cross pollination of ideas and solutions as well as networking.
This one saw significant sponsoring from iConnect and no less than three Googlers attended. Though some 60 individuals registered, less then 30 showed up, including five or so from iConnect.
The eyes were on Google to sort of lead the discussions, and the baton was easily picked up by Googler Eve, with vocal input from Googler Divon. After a bit of soul searching as to what the group as a whole would be interested to talk about, I had enough time for four of the topics before I had to rush off to attend the Christmas dress up hash, followed by Christmas carols, punch and minced pie.
As could probably be expected, the topic that most attendants were interested in was Google’s strategy for Africa. Divon took the floor, explaining that Google’s focus is on growing internet usage and connectivity in Africa, not to directly benefit Google specifically. Apparently, 7% of the Zambian population uses the internet, almost only educated urbanites, Google’s goal would be to increase that significantly. Google is making their interface available in local languages as well as improving their products for low bandwidth locations. And, indeed, I’ve noticed a significant increase in performance using Google Mail over the last two years or so.
Interestingly, with making the Google interface available in local African languages, it turns out that for lesser used, non-literal languages, there is no real consensus on how words are written.
After that, the discussion slowly rolled into talking about the role of IT in education. There’s a severe skills shortage in development, that is, programming. Anyone with some expertise gets absorbed by telcos and banks. Hence, obviously, my creating LusakaLive.com, a very simple solution which fulfills a clear need but, strangely, had not been done before.
On working together with universities to establish training curricula, Divon made it clear he wasn’t too impressed with the public universities on the African continent: “Public universities are basically focussed on extracting donations from international companies.” One of the facilities Google maintains is YouTube.com/edu, which has whole courses contributed by universities. Incidentally, Apple has something similar in iTunes U.
The second topic ended up being a presentation of Google Adsense by Googler Eve, followed by a talk on how to engage government in facilitating the development (programming) community in Zambia. Divon’s suggestion was to, instead of talking about ICTs, to talk about applications deploying ICTs. That is, to talk about the applications and the value, rather than the technology.
The last topic I managed to attend was a presentation of Googler Misha on Google apps. His presentation wasn’t too bad, but his demonstration on how to create a simple Twitter-like application in minutes made me seriously consider moving to Google apps as my development platform. It would require me to learn Python though.
After Misha’s demo, I rushed back home to make it in time to the Christmas hash dress up party. Though there was a clear gap between dressed ups and nonos, it was a lot of fun. And Lynn, who threw the afterparty, had the cutest kitten this side of the Indian ocean.