Friday, March 6, 2015

Falling in love with the Internet of Things (The Xibra story)

Growing up, I was always fascinated by machines. I spent hours to an end dismantling whatever electronic I could get my hands on to figure out how it worked and often in the process destroyed it. This created some tension at home because my parents were always taking appliances to the electrician for repair.

Then in my fifth grade, I bugged my dad to enroll me into the Wiz kid's computer training summer program. To which he finally agreed to because he realized that there was nothing he could do or say that was going to capture my imagination quite as much as a computer had. At the time, I was in between Uganda, where I studied and Nairobi where we lived as a family.

After my P.L.E (7th grade), I was given my very own desktop machine. Remembering back to that moment, I experienced complete exuberance. The following week, it was at the back seat of Dad’s Peugeot as we drove to downtown Nairobi to Wananchi telecom, which was the more affordable ISP option to Africa online, to have the necessary software installed so I could dial in. From the first time I was connected and logged onto, I was hooked to the Internet of Things (IoT).

Later that year of 2003, my parents and I moved to America where we lived for the following year and a half before eventually settling back to Uganda where we have been ever since. It has been a huge learning experience to live home again. Especially for my parents who had been away for close to thirty years (they fled the country during Idi Amin, the dictator’s reign because they felt their lives were in danger).

The Internet of Things (IoT) is the network of physical objects or "things" embedded with electronics, software, sensors and connectivity to enable it to achieve greater value and service by exchanging data with the manufacturer, operator and/or other connected devices.
Think of your entertainment system in your house. It is now possible for a smartphone to stream music directly to the system wirelessly via Bluetooth and hence giving the stereo a higher value because it changes a consumer’s entertainment experience.

In May 2013, I was fresh out of University and already running a media company with my former classmate Carlos. At the time we had just done some decent work for a few clients and I was feeling pretty optimistic about the future. While surfing the internet late night one night as I usually did, I was frustrated at how one of the local daily’s website had a poorly organized library. Then the idea hit me.

I realized that the experience of a reader could greatly be improved if he had an application that could predict stories he would be interested in and go ahead to notify him via alerts. That way, people would be able to read more relevant content.

I had a eureka moment. I immediately sent my older brother, a programmer, an e-mail to see what he thought about the idea. As I thought about it more, I realized that I did not have the necessary coding skills to write the code for the application, so I looked for someone who could.

Frank and I were classmates in O’level. We hadn't talked much since then but when we met again, we immediately clicked. He was a quiet fellow, however when the conversation was about robotics, hacking and anything else awesome, you had his attention. From the many brilliant ideas we brainstormed, developing and marketing a student management system seemed to be the one thing Uganda needed.

It was almost a joke to imagine that more than 90% of schools managed their data on paper. Not only was this a danger to the lives of the people in the school (fire hazard) but it also seemed illogical as to why schools had not moved to data systems. After talking to Geoffrey, a school accountant, I realized that the software that was often available and affordable on the market was not tailored for our structural systems and worse; schools were not educated on e-commerce tools to enable them to purchase the needed software online.

Frank and I got to work right away and two years later, we finally have a smart student system that aggregates various data to provide foresight for administrators, which in turn empowers them to better plan for their schools.  Our solution may not solve all the developmental challenges our country faces. However, empowering Head teachers with information to make informed decisions is a good starting point.

How do schools benefit from this? With our system, it is possible for the caterer to determine how many students on average actually eat lunch during the week, which can lead him to reduce the portion of rice cooked by 3 kilos per meal. When you multiply the number of kilograms over the course of the term, the school saves. But this is only possible if a system by design accounts for the structural setup of society.

It is becoming increasingly important for companies developing solutions for Africa to first understand the people and their needs before rolling out products. Mobile money is an example of an innovation that solves a real socio-economic problem. Africa needs more innovations like that.

I fell in love with the Internet of Things because I saw a real opportunity to be part of something bigger than my own ambitions by developing solutions that make people’s lives a whole lot easier. When I started out on the Xibra venture, I thought to myself, “who am I, an arts major to create a solution that will solve a real problem?”

After many hours of reading tech digests and countless studies of observing how people respond to some of the solutions we have created, I now understand that with enough determination you can teach yourself just about anything. The secret is in learning to give yourself every opportunity to improve and get things right.

The the answers to Africa’s problems like poverty and healthcare are among us, the rising generation and all that needs to happen is for opportunity to meet preparedness. And I believe that with the amount of digital data available, developers should take advantage to design solutions that are more afrique-centric.

That is my story of falling in love with the Internet of Things.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

The music video I never finished and what I learnt from it

In 2012, I partnered with my cousin Cmo (Simon) to shoot a music video for an upcoming gospel artist, D-best (Duncan). We had a few meetings leading up to the day of the shoot and when the day finally arrived, I met up with Simon early in the morning to drive to Bunga to pick up the shooting equipment from 'Ninja's studio.

Because we were literally doing it for nothing, we cut many corners so that we could get everything on a cheap. Hiring equipment from Ninja was the best offer at the time since he was also coming a long with us to help setup the jib, which proved to be helpful, however we soon discovered that having an extra person on set cost more when feeding and transportation was factored in.

Duncan showed up with Sami - K around 10 am in a mini-van with his friends, who were to be set extras. Simon was tense the whole time because he was the producer, who was charged with the responsibility of raising every single penny. I was focused on art direction. I had assured both Simon and the talent that I was qualified to shoot the video and I had already sold them on a concpet that had captured their imaginations.

As the camera rolled on, I started to realize what a horrible mistake I had made by taking on the assignment. Somehow, it sounded a better idea in my head than in reality - a reality where things were starting to go wrong and fast. The first challenge we faced was with we location, Watoto church, which we hadn't booked in advance. After a standoff of some sort with security, we were granted only thirty minutes to use their parking lot which wasn't nearly enough time to get all the shots I needed to but non the less we proceeded, hoping for the best.

The second challenge I soon discovered was that the single battery for the camera that  Ninja had given us was half empty which meant I did not have the luxury to call for different takes in an effort to save the little battery we had left.

Once it was a wrap on the first set, we headed over to the the second one - Hotel equatorial rooftop. We lost a significant amount of time while Simon, who was had tenancy in the building, negotiated with the custodian. Once we got permission, we setup quickly and started shooting right away. It was around 2 pm and the skyline of Kampala looked exactly like I had imagined in my concept. At least something was going right. My excitement did not last long because I soon discovered that the battery had given way completely, just fifteen minutes into the shoot.

In our moment of disappointment and blame sharing, Ninja came up with a brilliant suggestion. He offered to get us a second battery but that meant going back to his studio in Bunga, a 20 minutes drive and that meant we would miss our dusk shoot. We eventually decided to load everyone into the small Raum Simon had hired, to head over to that side of town. I suggested finishing the rest of the shoot from Gabba landing site. I had no idea whether we would even be allowed to shoot from there but we went either way.

When we reached Gabba, we simply set up the set without asking anyone for permission. We figured that if we acted like we were supposed to be there, it wouldn't be a problem. 'And cut,' I shouted an hour later after the second battery fired as well. Even though I acted like we had recorded everything we needed to, I knew that we had only covered a third and there was no way I could ask Simon to raise a budget for a second day shoot because clearly, he couldn't.

Back in my dorm room, I struggled for days to put it together and the video in the link is the result. However it was never quite finished because I was unable to get a graphics guy to color grade it and with time we all eventually forgot about the project. But looking back at it now, I realize that even though it was not a successful project, I learnt just as much from it about directing and funding a film. Below is a quick summary of the lessons I learnt.

  • Always be willing to try. The only thing worse than failure is never trying at all.
  • Finish you work. I procrastinated a lot and that perhaps cost me the entire project. Even when you think that what you are working on is the worst piece of art you have ever created, work on till the end because you cannot possibly understand the value of a creation unless it is complete.
  • Own up to your mistakes. I should have been straight with everyone from the start that I had messed up and that my projections were slightly off. It would have saved both of us a lot. Own up to your mistakes early on.
  • Understand your worth. In truth I could shoot an award winning music video however because I was not confident of my skills, I under valued the project which in the end did not serve either of our purposes.
  •  Partnerships are important. This venture was the first I entered with someone and working with Simon helped me realize the importance of going into ventures with other people.