Tuesday, April 28, 2009

End the Madness

“Jimoh! Abeg! Come Carry Am”

For many people in Nigeria, the first time they ever experienced the real power of information and communication technology was the first time they had a car breakdown (or some other emergency) and they were able to call their mechanic.

A couple of mindboggling things happened in that phone call. First was the fact that as an ordinary Nigerian, they actually had a mobile phone. Remember the Nigerian military governor who declared that phones (never mind the “cellular” phone) were only for the rich? Well, he was wrong. The average Nigerian could now access the whole planet from a little hand-held device.

The second amazing thing in the moment was the fact that the said mechanic had his own cell phone. The average mechanic is several social levels below the average car owner in Nigeria. However, the mechanic was suddenly able to multiply the scope of his business,  accelerate his ability to deliver service, increase his customer base, better manage relationships with suppliers, and reduce his operating costs (I know Jimoh wouldn’t have put it in quite those words, but that is what he could now do). For the guy calling, that first phone call for help from on top of Eko Bridge, in the rain, would have justified the unbelievably expensive N18,000.00 that first Econet Mobile phone cost.

The “Wow”

For some the “wow” moment was the first time they pressed the power button on the beige box, the black and white screen came up, they typed “win” in front of the “>” and a computer program opened. Maybe it was when they opened Netscape Navigator and opened Yahoo.com or when they send their first email. For others it was when they placed an order on Amazon.com and the package was delivered or had that first Skype conversation over the web or downloaded their first album from a disk to their PC or played their first game of Doom or opened the white box from Cupertino or wrote their first GBASIC app and “Hello World” scrolled across the screen. Whatever that moment was, it was an awesome moment of absolute wonder.

Like I said, mindboggling.

Technology, right from the invention of the wheel, from the first time Adam, Cain or Seth first figured out how to start a fire has promised to deliver amazing new capabilities to society. For the most part, it has delivered. From cars to computers, medication to illumination, entertainment to education, technology has made us so much more productive. We cannot imagine living without the technology tools we have now.


The Catch

Technology also promised to give us greatly simplified lives. In that it has failed astronomically. I remember one of the benefits we were told we would receive from the cell phone was that we would be able to go out less because we would call people rather than visit them. Well not only do we  visit more people than ever before, we keep talking on the phone while driving along making us even greater menaces on the streets than we already are. You can’t even get away from people anymore. Your phone keeps ringing. And  you have to answer it. Every time. Do we remember the paperless office? Once we got rid of the typewriter and handwritten documents, we would have a lot less need to use paper documents as everything would be on computers. Well, I think we can all testify that we have a lot more paper on hand, because of computers, than our parents ever did. Oh and that Blackberry they gave you at the office? It’s not a status symbol. It’s a ball and chain.

Technology has complicated our lives. We are overwhelmed with information. The cell phone and mobile internet access means we are always at work. We manage 4 or 5 email accounts. We maintain profiles and relationships on Facebook, MySpace, LinkedIn, Twitter. We are worried about identity theft, internet fraud, the compromise of credit cards, privacy issues. We have to protect our systems from viruses, worms and spam. We have to organise hundreds of photos from our digital cameras, and our worlds nearly come to halt when we lose all our contact information on stolen cell phones. Then there’s the lady I saw the other day with 3 cell phones and one of them was dual SIM. And we have to be on the lookout for the Google Street View camera van to make sure it doesn’t take pictures of our houses!

Is it all worth it?

Actually, it’s not. Not if we let it continue the way it is now. The story made the news a couple of years ago about a British businessman who banned email in his office because his employees were emailing each other rather than talking to the guy 4 feet across from them. They would email customers rather than calling them on the phone resulting in deals and services taking longer to conclude. Write a 10 word sentence. Email it. Receive another 20 email in response 2 hours later. Respond with 5 words. Receive the reply to that the next day.


When I heard the story then, I laughed and made a crack about merry “old” England (and got a dirty look from the expatriate who told me the story), but the man had a valid point. We need to run the technology not let the technology run us.

Ending It

So let’s talk about this. How do we simplify our lives? How do we eliminate the technology that complicates rather than enriches our lives? What habit forms do we need to break? What disciplines do we need to develop? Post your comments and let’s figure out ways to end the madness.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Dana Air, best ICT Driven Airline – Because?

I have a confession to make. Sometimes, it is Tuesday evening I’m back from work and I sit at my computer to write and post my blog and I have no idea what I am going to write about. That’s right folks, the blogs you read every week may have been conceived in the hour before they are written. Now that says a whole lot about my writing style, but I made that confession to say that this is one of those evenings.

So, as I am wont to do, I check out a couple of sites that I usually follow in my RSS reader – not specifically looking for an idea, but to keep my eyes busy while I let my mind wander over several of my ideas to write on. One of the sites I follow is Startups Nigeria. Startups Nigeria covers, well, Nigerian Startups and most things to do with IT in Nigeria. They had just done a story on Dana Air’s being awarded the ICT Driven Airline of the Year in a recent Awards Event. Being someone who fairly regularly has had cause use to the various Nigerian airlines websites, I had to go check out this award winning site.image

First of all, I will applaud Dana Air for winning an information technology award within the first few months of being in operation. Winning any award is no mean achievement and considering the well experienced airlines in the industry that have been using information technology to provide services for some time, Dana should certainly be congratulated. So take a bow, Ladies and Gentlemen.

Now Startups Nigeria did their story and I’m not going to duplicate what they have said nor will I rehash their opinion – for one thing, I don’t plagiarise, for another thing they really didn’t express one. However, having visited the site and experimentally made a booking I have got to ask: why?

I’m trying very hard to avoid being negative on this blog and to be fair and objective when I talk about the product of other people’s labour and investment (my “Cinematic Experience” notwithstanding). So I am honestly really only expressing curiosity when I ask why was Dana Airlines given this award. What have they brought to the table (OK the internet) that makes their web offering better than www.acn.aero, www.virginnigeria.com or www.arikair.com? To be frank, I really can’t find anything.

There are three perspectives with which to look at the website. First is from the perspective of a customer. The site is OK. It is easy to make a booking with the only “bad” part being the requirement to register before I can actually complete a booking. It asks for a bit more information than other Nigerian airline sites ask for, information not pertinent to a flight booking, other than that it basically works. In fact, from said customer perspective, it is better than Aero’s site because they let me make my booking and give me up to 10 hours to pay. Aero make’s me commit my cash at once. On the other hand Aero and others let me use both InterSwitch and eTranzact for payment and Virgin Nigeria will let me use an international credit card as well. My point is compared to others, it is OK. Nothing significantly better or worse.

The second perspective is that of an IT Professional. As much as I can I avoid speaking as an IT professional on this site because it is meant to be from a consumer technology perspective. However, as an IT professional, I understand that behind a website, or more correctly in this case, a web application, there are a lot of technologies and business processes that work in the background to make the entire service offering work. The award was not given because of any such backend processes however, at least that isn’t what the press release states:

"Dana Air was chosen as the recipient of the Best ICT Driven Airline award, despite being a new entrant in the aviation industry, because of its early deployment of ICT solutions. The introduction of e-booking and payment services by the airline is proof of the airline's commitment to passenger convenience and comfort, and deserves to be complimented."

Now this may be nitpicking, but “ICT driven” should mean a lot more than the website they have. It should mean how ICT is used in the running of their operations. I don’t think early deployment of information technology is enough of a reason to give an award. I may be wrong of course, the awarders may actually have taken all that into consideration and did a full and comprehensive comparison with the other airline’s web offerings and backend ICT tools, technologies and processes. I can only work with the publically available information. In any case, any business of the scale of an airline that doesn’t start up with a fully functional booking system with fulfilment capabilities should be hounded out of the industry instantly. So not enough reason for the award in my humble opinion.

From the third perspective, that of a someone familiar with web technologies and website (no this is not the same as an IT professional), I noticed that the website looks remarkably like Arik Air’s. Setting the two sites side by side, it looks like they were built from the same template or the same platform. That is not a bad thing, in fact it is makes a lot of sense. In the old days of web development you built stuff from scratch.

image image

However, in today’s world, a lot of smart people have created platforms that take care of the backend technology so that businesses like Arik Air and Dana Air can take care of the service offerings. Digital Crossings is built on top of such a platform. Blogger, a blogging engine owned by Google is the platform on which a staggering number of blogs are built each with unique content and layouts. Startups Nigeria is built using another platform called WordPress. WordPress is a more powerful platform than Blogger, letting you do a whole lot more. So there is absolutely nothing wrong in two or more Nigerian airlines being built on the same platform. A little bit of investigation (Thank God for Google) shows that both sites are based on an Airline Management System from Travel Technology Interactive. In fact Arik gives the platform due credit at the bottom of their home page while Dana doesn’t.

This was a smart move by both sites to use a specialised platform to rapidly deploy their web offerings. However, my point remains, seeing the sameness between these two offerings, how does www.flydanaair.com stand out?

In my opinion, for any technology product to win an award it must do something that makes it stand out from the pack. It should do make the lives of its users better in some way that other products do not. It should load faster, give more information, have a mobile version, provide access to other complimentary services (hotels, taxi services, traffic information?), reduce the number of clicks to complete a booking or provide live chat with a human being online. At the very least it should look better than the competition.

So using my criteria, who would YOU recommend for an award as the best ICT airline in Nigeria? Let’s do our own little people awards and vote for which Nigerian airline gives the best customer friendly website? Take the poll and be heard:

Choose Your Airline
Which Nigerian Airline Website is the Best
Aero Contractors - www.acn.aero
Arik Air - www.arikair.com
Dana Air - www.flydanaair.com
Virgin Nigeria - www.virginnigeria.com


Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Bridge Builders 1: Rise of the Youth Corpers.

This is the first instalment of what I will be calling “Bridge Builders”. Bridge Builders are people and institutions that are working to help people bridge the digital divide in our society.

Some would claim that Surulere is the heart of Lagos. This borough of Lagos with an estimated population of anything between a quarter to half a million inhabitants is dense puree of Lagos life representing every extreme of the society. From the wealthiest of the wealthy to the most destitute of the poor, all are found deeply intertwined within its maze-like streets.

Surulere, Lagos - Nigeria Surulere panorama taken from Dr. P.T.F’s Flickr page.

Surelere’s very nature means you will find those who are fully enjoying the benefits of information technology living cheek by jowl with those who are not. You will find those for whom a computer is an unknown quantity on the edge of their of consciousness – certainly not something they own, use or interact with regularly. Certainly not a tool with which their lives are interwoven.

Members of the National Youth Service Corps (“Youth Corpers” to the majority of us) decided that this just wasn’t right. Many of these young men and women had grown up with computers. Many have their own computers including laptops. As computer science or engineering graduates they know how computing technology has transformed the lives of individuals and of entire societies. They understood that a dangerous number of people, particularly children, in Surulere were going through life with no access to computer education. Without such an education the opportunities available to people through computing is at risk of giving many Surulere inhabitants a complete miss.image

So they decided to do something about it. The InfoTech Community Development (CD) Group was created to bring the skills of the computer professionals and enthusiasts among them to bear on the problem. In their own words:

“InfoTech is a special CD group in the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) scheme. As our slogan reads “bringing information to the finger tips of the masses”, we believe that with our expertise is ICT we can educate less opportune people in this area. Thus, the group was established with the following objectives in mind;

Our Objectives

1. To enlighten our Community about the relevance of ICT today.

2. To impact youths with ICT skills through the medium of training and encourage them to take up careers in the field.

3. To liaise with the Government Agencies and Non-Governmental organizations with the same vision.

4. To publish and promote publications that creates ICT awareness.”

These are not just words. These Corpers are currently engaged in several projects that are impacting the Surulere communities. They have opened information technology clubs in 10 secondary schools and are involved in training the senior secondary students in computer usage. They are also actively engaged in training the staff of the local NYSC secretariat in computer usage.

These laudable efforts have surprisingly met with some resistance. Take the case of the school proprietor who has no computer training program in his school’s curriculum and yet is very reluctant to grant the Corpers even an hour each week to train his students. Some people, even educators, clearly don’t get it.

The Corpers are not daunted, neither are they content to limit themselves to this training programme. They are actively engaged in building an ICT training centre where more in-depth training can take place. They envision PCs and Servers, networked together with modern software and connected to the internet. This of course, costs money and they don’t have it.

So, they pound the pavement talking to businesses and individuals trying to raise money. Taking pledges of cash, they are equally desirous of donated computers, printers, hubs and switches, and legal copies of software. They are committed to achieving their goals despite discouraging responses from people and organisations understandably reluctant to part with money and equipment during tough economic times.

So if you live or work in Surulere, or perhaps you just breeze in eat pepper soup (or is it lafun?) at Shitta once in while, take a thought to helping these bridge builders in some way. You can visit their facility, look around and see what you can do. If you’re not comfortable with giving them cash or hardware, you can choose to mentor them, or actively participate in their training programmes as facilitators. If you’re a principal or school owner, you can let them into your school and encourage your students to join the IT clubs. Let’s all help ensure that no one is left behind, at least in Surulere.

Contact details are available on their rather nicely laid out website.

UPDATE: I have just been informed that NYSC has asked the Corpers to stop collecting contributions from individuals. They are only allowed to receive sponsorship and donations from organisations. So if you run or work for an organisation that would like to be associated with this great enterprise, please don't miss the chance to make life a whole lot better for someone.


Do you know of any bridge builders out there in Lagos or other parts of the nation? Let us know about them and we just might write about them in Digital Crossings and hopefully, get more support for such praiseworthy works.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009


Ten. That’s right Ladies and Gentlemen, Digital Crossings has been on in the Blogosphere for 10 whole weeks! Ok, so another way of saying it is just 10 weeks. Clearly not a significant amount of time when compared to other blogs that have been running for years and have thousands of posts.

Still, we did get through this first 10 and the portents for the future are only guaranteed to get better as the blog matures, the author gets better at this and the readership grows. Speaking of readership, how have we done so far? Since very few people have deigned to leave comments on the blog (so only 3 people have), we can’t use the comments submitted to count the multiplied thousands that have flooded Blogger’s servers in search of my wit and wisdom. Thankfully there are other tools for this. In the old days I would have had to implement a little tool called a hit counter that would show me with a gauge on the page, the number of visitors I have had. Nowadays, there are more sophisticated tools such as Google Analytics that gives me a whole lot more information.

Google Analytics Map view showing distribution of visitors Google Analytics Map View

We are happy to report readership in 7 different nations of the world. From Puchon in South Korea, through Barbados and the American cities of San Francisco, Chicago, Houston and NYC, baby! Of course, the largest number of visitors come from home base Lagos Nigeria. Yes, Digital Crossings is world famous!

Actually turning off the hype and bombast, we have had 77 visitors from the aforementioned seven countries. That is an average of 7.7 visitors a week in our 10 week history. We are not discouraged however. Hey, it has just been 10 weeks. We are just getting started with this thing here.

Table of Cities and visits to Digital Crossingsimage

Over the coming weeks and months, we will begin to add more structured content to the blog. Much of the material thus far has been mainly this writer’s experiences and perspectives. We ill expand beyond this by covering other people’s experiences and efforts as they make their digital crossings. For instance, there is a group of National Youth Corp Members in Surulere that are trying to make some serious impact on their community that I plan to cover in the next couple of weeks. The Crossings will also be keeping an eye out for innovative products and services that we can point people to. We will test them where possible (translation – where it will cost little or nothing to do so), possibly interview the people behind them and give you our take on them. Another thing we will be looking at is how governments are using computing technology in Nigeria to get things done. Since this is meant to be a learning resource as well we will be doing “how-to's” on a variety of topics. Together with all this, I will still emote, philosophise, rant and rave as is appropriate.

All this should give us material to write for the next 10, 20, 30, maybe even 100 weeks.

Lastly, I am far from being the fount of wisdom and I am really hoping that we can make the Digital Crossings a conversation, rather than a monologue. So, please write in with your thoughts, comments and ideas. I’m even open to having guest writers to take over a week’s penmanship. I would love to have you write. It’s been a blast and I am really excited about what is to come.