Twitter’s Dustin Diaz brings unobtrusive JavaScript to the people

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

The day 2 Tech4Africa Tech stream kicked off with a presentation by Dustin Diaz, the lead Javascript Architect at Twitter, titled “Unobtrusive Interfaces with JavaScript”.

He began by telling us the story of his life, about his 4 dads and how he didn’t do well in school until 8th Grade, where he got straight A’s and discovered a passion for running. He ended up being ranked 13th in the US for the 800m, which got him a scholarship to the University of Sacramento. He has a degree in Spanish, which he says led him to JavaScript, as they are both foreign languages.. go figure.

Dustin has extensive experience in the online space, he worked at Yahoo! and Google before joining the team at Twitter in 2009. He authored the book “Pro JavaScript Design Patterns” with Ross Harmes.

His passions are JavaScript, Photography and Mixology (yes, making cocktails) and he says they overlap as all of them are expressive and allow you to strive for perfection. Dustin likens HTML, CSS and JavaScript to the Holy Trinity. He took us through the evolution of code and in his unique style, allowed the non-techies in the audience to understand why unobtrusive JavaScript is important.

Twitter’s new product ‘@Anywhere’ is his pet project. It is a cross domain API that allows you to embed JavaScript into your site and integrates with the Twitter API to perform a similar function to Facebook connect but, in Dustin’s words “ours is better because, let’s face it, nobody wants to code in FBML”. @Anywhere allows you to embed a tweet box in your site that enables you to tweet from anywhere, as well as ‘follow’ buttons which facilitate what he calls “frictionless following”.

Dustin’s favourite @Anywhere feature is that you now have direct access to the JavaScript API of Twitter, allowing you to write scripts that will find, follow, message, retweet and display the timeline of a user directly on your website without redirecting the user to

Dustin warned us to be careful before entering the world of JavaScript, “jQuery is like cocaine, one line and you’re hooked”. Hmmm, I’m not addicted yet but maybe I should try it because Dustin definitely makes code sound sexy.

For more on how Twitter built @Anywhere, have a look at this presentation.

Heidi Schneigansz

Content, conversation, community – Social media is about people

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

Social media is about being genuine. The buzz of “social media” has created a pool of people calling themselves social media gurus, experts, mavens, you name it. This frenzy and popularity, still largely in the IT bubble (and where it spills over) creates a layered conversation of buzz words that ultimately alienates people. Since social media is all about relationship and human connectivity, you need to be genuine so that people have something to connect with. Otherwise, you won’t attract many new clients or retain old ones.

Vibrant discussion in the Tech4Africa session crowdsourced the following best practices for companies wanting to be in the social media space (with thanks to Andy Hadfield on stage):

1) Listen first.
2) Don’t have shit products.
3) Focus on – Content. Collaboration. Community.
4) You can’t win every battle. Shake off the failures and learn from them.
5) Understand content, conversations, campaigns.
6) Understand your customers. Some want to buy. Some want to complain.
Some want to engage.

People have, rather obviously, been communicating since the beginning of time. We have given it a new name because we’ve gotten excited about how technology crosses old boundaries and allows us to talk to anyone, anywhere, anytime (provided they’re in the same online community that is).
The only new thing about communication is the technology involved.

Social media is about relationship, about people, about community. Online communities using social media to engage are just doing what humans have been doing for years – forming bonds with one another. The technology itself is almost irrelevant. It’s about how we talk to each other. “Social media just allows people to do what they would have done in the stone age if they had the Internet” (@afairweather).

For brands trying to work in this space they need to constantly remind themselves that social media is about people and about building relationship. That means portraying themselves as a human, not as a marketing brand.

Tips for how to behave online that came from the discussions:

* Be who you are.
* You don’t need to invent conversations – make a good product, put it out there and the buzz will happen if people like it.
* Live your brand.
* Don’t make the mistake of using marketing concepts to think about issues that are actually about people.

Rather than feeling forced onto platforms like Twitter and Facebook because “we should be there”, brands should be focusing on good quality content that creates conversation, and that results in a shared sense of community.

Samantha Fleming

The Red Flag is Up, Stop the Race

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

Many, if not most, large brands, especially non-consumer brands, should stay the hell away from Twitter and Facebook. In fact, says corporate digital guru Andy Hadfield, even commodity consumer brands like banks and cellphone companies should consider _not_ ‘joining the conversation’ on Facebook or Twitter. Because it’s not really a conversation. Conversations are between a person and a person, not between a person and an abstract organisational construct.

We’re clearly in a trough of disillusionment, those many of us in the social media industry who spent the past few years being very excited about the immense possibilities and unknowable future impact. We’re now stepping back, aghast at the monster we have created that is racing off in lots of directions: many pointless, some actively harmful to the online community we have a loyalty to.

Today, World+Dog is doing social media. It’s not that hard to set up social media sites, and the business of providing ‘social media solutions’ has exploded. R15k to set up a Facebook page for some sucker^h^h^h^h innovative and authentic company.

Those who’ve been doing it for a long time are putting up red flags. How about NOT doing it, they say?

Having a Facebook page is a panacea for nothing, commented Alistair Fairweather from M&G.

The bottom line is that people don’t love brands. They may love the product that a brand produces. They may simply use a brand’s product because the brand hasn’t pissed them off enough yet to move to a competitor.

The nub of the matter for the panel, after half an hour of fairly intense discussion and even argumentative tub-thumping, is that there is a fundamental contradiction that cannot be resolved as long as the marketing department is the start and the end of corporates involvement in social media. Mostly, so-called conversations online have little bearing on the product, on the customer support, on the supply chain, on the real world.

Basically, most of the top social media people in SA are honest, realistic, and well-intentioned. They are struggling to look a customer in the eye, knowing that the company makes a crap product and delivers half-baked service, but that wants to be ‘authentic and engaged’ online.

Social media is about conversations that people honestly care about. No care, no conversation. No honesty, no conversation.

Is this the SA social media industry putting the brakes on the hype, looking to inject some realism before too many brands do too many ill-considered, expensive and futile online campaigns? Before brand managers get so burned that it wreaks major damage the industry that is trying to sell them the snake oil?

Let’s hope so.

Roger Hislop

Advice for entrepreneurs

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 2

Marcel Klaassen, from FNB, in his opening remarks of Day 2, gave participants at Tech4Africa four crucial pieces of advice for new entrepreneurs in South Africa:

1) “Smurf it up” – Focus on your passion! Because of the way the world has flattened, you can do what you’re passionate about. You’ll probably find an audience for it, and you’ll probably be able to monetise it.

2) Appreciate business fundamentals but don’t be restricted by them. Embrace the business model, but keep it simple.

3) Be patient. Inevitably you are the curve. Not just ahead of the curve, you are creating a completely new curve. Decide where you are in the cycle. Are you the bus? Or are you the person helping people onto the bus?

4) Quote from Adrian Gore (Founder of Discovery). Being an entrepreneur is like jumping out of an aeroplane with a box of silkworms instead of a parachute, and praying that they are overachieving silkworms!

Samantha Fleming

The knowledge economy is the kitchen of ideas

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Curry paste? … what on earth does curry paste have to do with the knowledge economy? Steve Song says the knowledge economy is like the “kitchen of ideas”. If you don’t have access to the recipe, you waste time making it all up from scratch. But if you do have access to the recipe, then you can tinker, add value, make something totally delicious and explore what it would taste like if you … added more coriander?
Essentially (and with apologies to Isaac Newton), you can stand on the shoulders of giants.
Steve maintains that when the costs of accessing telephony are driven down, it opens up space for a “torrent of innovation”. Give people the basics and set their genius free!

At the presentation of Tech4Africa entitled “Three pieces of kit for a neighbourhood network”, Steve (Telecommunications Fellow for Shuttleworth Foundation) spoke about an initiative called the mesh potato, named for a lovely, obscure sort of connection between the acronyms POTS (plain old telephone system) and ATA (analog telephone adapter) … and possibly some late night Spanish patata bravas?

The mesh potato is an Open Hardware project to create wireless telephony, designed to address the needs of developing countries. In Africa, where most people spend vast amounts of disposable income (in some cases more than 50%) on telecommunications, the cost of access is a substantial barrier to innovation. The mesh potato is designed to eradicate that barrier and give people the freedom to explore creatively without worrying about how much it’s going to cost them. With the mesh potato, people in a village can talk to one another, or connect into a broader network, at minimal cost. Where this will take us, only the future can tell.

In a world where the only certainty is unpredictability and no-one knows what the next big thing is, the question is how to cope in an environment that you can’t plan for? Trial and error is the new planning. Steve advises that you need to take an evolutionary, organic approach. Success survives – and the only way to plan for this is to develop tools that facilitate everyone being a creator.

Mobile networks in South Africa today are making the same mistake that commercial Internet providers in the USA (such as compuserve, MSN and others) made 15 years ago,
when customized internet services were just developing. Their revenue model is based on walled gardens, which automatically restricts innovation. Steve advocates for paradigm shift to an open approach, giving cheap access to telephony, which opens the door to local innovation and problem solving for community problems.

The range of the mesh potato is currently around 400m (although this can be extended through ‘scaffolding’). In South Africa it is legal to use these networks as long as you’re not charging customers. However, if you want to run a commercial service you would need to apply for a license.

Mobile phones haven’t yet fulfilled their potential in the knowledge economy. That change is coming, but it needs to happen faster. The mesh potato will go a long way towards making that happen because it provides, at low cost, the opportunity for people to build their own telephone networks and take it from there.

(The mesh potato is on sale from next month – buy one online from the village telco. It’s designed to survive the weather (and dummies who might not know what cables to stick where), so you can stick one outside your house (UV and weather resistant) and get connected.
Also, the Village Telco is looking for volunteers, partners, investors –contact Steve if you are interested –

Find out more about the mesh potato on this podcast with Steve Song.

Samantha Fleming

Ushahidi: packing a powerful (and honest) punch

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Who hasn’t heard about Ushahidi? That was the first question posed by Erik Hersman today. Astoundingly, about 30% of the crowd raised their hands. My first thought was sheer disbelief – They don’t know about Ushahidi? Where have they been?

I raised my eyebrows at Steve Vosloo who said – perhaps they’re mostly commercial companies; that’s why they don’t know anything about this small nonprofit that packs a powerful punch. The great thing is that after today’s session, a whole lot more people now know about Ushahidi – which, when you do learn more about it, is truly an incredible application.

Ushahidi defines itself as a small organization that dislikes hierarchy and being told what they can’t do, they question everything, embrace innovative thinking and take risks boldly. Their guiding values are openness, innovation, community.

When Ushahidi started, it went from concept to launch in a week. After the Kenyan elections on 27th December 2007, violence broke out in Kenyan communities unhappy about election results. A Kenyan blogger wrote “For the reconciliation process to occur at the local level, the truth of what
happened will first have to come out”. And that began a creative process among friends and colleagues that saw the launch of Ushahidi on the 9th January 2008. The Ushahidi Platform allows anyone to gather distributed data via SMS, email or web and visualize it on a map or timeline.

From their successes, Erik shared some of what they learned in the process of setting it up:

* Keep focused (make ruthless, brutal decisions if you have to)
* Release early
* Do it yourself
* Community = success (if you can’t harness the community you won’t have success)
* Don’t wait for money, just do it

Erik hastened to add – remember that technology is only a tool. Some of Ushahidi’s biggest learning has come from failures – and they are open and willing to share this learning. Often we learn more from other
people’s mistakes than their achievements.

They learned that there’s a difference between building technology, and deploying technology. Experience taught them that building the technology itself is only about 10% of the issue – the other 90% is about building the community and messaging around the technology.

From their failures, they learned the following lessons:
* Own your failures
* Listen
* Fix your mistakes – and quickly
* Think differently but stay true to the spirit of your organization or community.

Erik’s overarching message was to remember these three things:

Technology does help in overcoming inefficiencies, but it takes people to make it happen.
More people need to ask the hard questions that challenge the status quo.
Africans can build world class software and we should expect nothing less.

Ushahidi – if you haven’t heard about it yet, check it out. And watch this space, this is just the beginning of what crowdsourcing information can do in Africa.

Samantha Fleming

Location Scaling and Herding Cats

News from the conference room: this is a series of blog posts in which blogging experts briefly review key Tech4Africa 2010 talks and panels from Day 1 and 2.

Day 1

Joe Stump (SimpleGeo) on scaling a business and handling developers.

The masses of data created in web 2.0 has started following Moore’s Law (according to Sergy Brin) and with this increase in data as well as real time tracking it the overload of information becomes a supply and demand problem. The more data you have, the less the data is worth.

There is a big drive for location based information, however the value of this information decreases drastically over distance and time. The relevance of this information depends on: What the information is; Who it is about and What information is Virtually nearby or relevent. With the large adoption of services like FourSquare and MyTown it becomes evident that this gaming style of applications providing relevant location based information are becoming very popular. [As a side fact, more people visit MyTown per day than the total number of people who have accessed FourSquare since its inception.] At the end of the day users are looking for relevant information that can enhance their current experience.

Moving onto online scaling, Joe stressed the necessity of automation with the cloud as well as separating data into partitions from the beginning being a must. An important question that needs to be answered is whether to scale Up or Out. Out is normally better when you are on a budget and expand by getting lots of basic storage; whereas Up would be investing in high-end servers that are generally very costly. The specific language that you use is more based on the application and are not really a factor when scaling.

Another crutial point is having set standards and conventions from the beginning is critical for continuity throughout the business. It lowers the barriers of entry for new team members and makes the different components work together more smoothly, as well as helping if you want to publicize code at a later date. (This became an issue at Digg) Providing this continuity was best done through regular communication between the teams and Joe is an advocate for the SCRUM model to ensure constant communication. Testing was also a must, with different components being tested automatically and peer reviewed before being uploaded. He also believes in a “Swiss Cheese” style of coding which leaves holes in the code to be filled up later.

Dealing with developers can often be a tricky task – mostly due to their passion and personality type. As the core generators of online services they need to be carefully lead through expansion and given enough freedom to work their magic.

Roger Norton