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African Innovation Foundation Announces Finalists

Izunna Okpala

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The African Innovation Foundation (AIF) today announced the top 10 nominees who will be contending for the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa.

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The African Innovation Foundation (AIF) today announced the top 10 nominees who will be contending for the 2017 Innovation Prize for Africa. The winners will be announced in Accra, Ghana on 18th July 2017 and will see innovators from nine African countries including Democratic Republic of Congo, Egypt, Kenya, Liberia, Morocco, Nigeria, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe battle it out for the prestigious Prize.

This year’s innovators have demonstrated incredible proficiency through innovative solutions addressing challenges in agriculture value chain, health care, energy, communications, service industries as well as surveillance using drone technology.

This year’s cream of the crop underwent a rigorous selection process by a renowned panel of judges including corporates, academia, technology and scientific experts representing top African innovation influencers.

 The inspiring stories of these nominees remind us that innovation and African-led solutions are indeed the answer to Africa’s growth and prosperity.” said Walter Fust, AIF Chairman of the Board.

The Awards, now celebrating its sixth year under the theme “African Innovation: Investing in Prosperity”,  IPA offers contenders a shot at a grand share-prize of US$185 000 and incentives to spur growth and prosperity in Africa through home-grown solutions.

IPA has seen tremendous growth in applications and increasing interest from both innovators and innovation enablers over the years. To date, IPA has attracted more than 7 500 innovators from 52 African countries, making it a truly Pan African initiative. IPA 2017 edition witnessed a record number of entries from over 2 530 innovators across 48 African countries. The Foundation has supported past winners and nominees with approximately US$ 1 million to move their innovations forward. Due to exposure generated by IPA, past winners have gone on to secure over US$30 million in investments to grow and scale their businesses.

“We’re excited for the opportunity to work with our partners to ensure the innovations of the 10 nominees will be available to African markets and beyond. We invite you to join us and unlock the potential of African innovators, starting by investing in these 10 nominees.” said Pauline Mujawamariya Koelbl, IPA Director.

AIF will host the IPA 2017 awards ceremony and its second Innovation Ecosystems Connector on 17 and 18 July in Accra, Ghana. The event will focus on how innovation enablers and businesses can leverage funding streams, investments and resources that are critical to unlock potential of African innovators. Participants at the IPA Awards will get an opportunity to attend the official opening of IPA 2017, experience the innovation marketplace, join high-level roundtable discussions, Zua Hub meet-ups, and networking activities, ending with a celebration of African ingenuity when the IPA 2017 winners will be announced.

The 10 nominees:

  • Peris Bosire, Kenya: FarmDrive is a financial technology company that has developed a mobile phone based application that collects data and provides an alternative risk assessment model for small holder farmers.
  • Nokwethu Khojane, South Africa: Lakheni, Turning Social Capital into Buying Power is a social and business model innovation which seeks to aggregate low-income households into buying-groups in order to negotiate favourable discounts for goods and services supplied to these households.
  • Omolabake Adenle, Nigeria: Voice Recognition and Speech Synthesis Software for African Languages is a software solution that can understand and digitize spoken African languages, and synthesize speech from African languages presented as digitized text.
  • Nzola Swasisa, Democratic Republic of Congo: Lokole is a device that enables access to efficient email communication anywhere with cellular coverage at a price that is one hundred to one thousand times cheaper than accessing email via regular cellular bandwidth costs.
  • Badr Idriss, Morocco: Atlan Space develops software technology that is then deployed to manage the operations of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or drones.
  • Aly El-Shafei, Egypt: Smart Electro-Mechanical Actuator Journal Integrated Bearing “SEMAJIB” is a smart bearing which is versatile and can change its characteristics as it operates.
  • Dougbeh-Chris Nyan, Liberia: New Technology for Rapid Detection of Many Infections Using Only One Test is a rapid diagnostic test that can detect and simultaneously differentiate at least three to seven infections at the same time within 10 to 40 minutes.
  • Olanisun Olufemi Adewole, Nigeria: Sweat TB Test, A non-invasive rapid skin test to detect Tuberculosis  Sweat TB Test, is a non-invasive rapid diagnostic test to detect tuberculosis (TB). TB is second only to HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death in Africa.
  • Gift Gana, Zimbabwe: Dr. CADx is a software solution that helps doctors and health care workers diagnose medical images more accurately.
  • Philippa Ngaju Makobore, Uganda: Electronically Controlled Gravity Feed Infusion Set (ECGF) is medical device designed to accurately administer intravenous (IV) fluids and drugs by controlling the rate of fluid flow based on feedback from a drop sensor.

Apps & Services

Twitter shifts the balance of power from companies to employees

Izunna Okpala

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Last week, a conflict that extended through Instagram, Twitter, and the upstart social network Clubhouse transfixed the worlds of technology and journalism. One reason it created so much interest — you can read detailed accounts from various perspectives at Vice, on Quora, or this venture capitalist’s Substack — is that you can approach the drama from so many angles. But despite the best efforts of everyone, the most clarifying way to understand the story of Steph Korey, Taylor Lorenz, Balaji Srinivasan, venture capital, and Clubhouse has mostly gone unspoken. And those who fail to see it, could be in for a rude awakening.

Journalists and their supporters rallied to Lorenz ‘s side — no journalist deserves attacks or threats. Many investors and those sympathetic to the threads of Srinivasan ‘s anti-journalism joined in the shout. From a distance, it seemed like little more than the latest salvo in a conflict between journalists and Silicon Valley that has escalated significantly this year.

But what if you take the whole discussion of “tech versus journalism” and reframe it as “managers versus employees”? Then, you get closer to the truth of what’s going on.

After all, this conflict started with employees. They were the people who initially described their working conditions under Korey at Away, leading her to step aside as CEO. (She later returned, only for the company to say she would step aside later this year after her comments about the media on Instagram.)

The employees made their comments at a time of increasing activism inside workplaces. Since the Google walkout in 2018, employees of venture-backed startups and public companies have become increasingly comfortable in speaking out — often using social media platforms to call out their employers. This trend has only accelerated since the Black Lives Matters protests swept the nation last month — which, among other things, led to the first-ever virtual Facebook walkout a few weeks later.

Until recently it was relatively unusual for employees to contact journalists directly with complaints about their workplaces — much less broadcast them on Twitter with no warning. But the Google walkout — which took place as much on Twitter as it did outside the company’s offices — showed workers that their stories would find a sympathetic audience on social networks.

Workers still face significant obstacles as they lobby to create more fair and equitable workplaces. But Twitter in particular has given them a place where not only can they be heard, but — crucially — employers can’t really fight back. If you tweet that you hate your manager, your manager is almost certainly not going to tweet back at you. (They can fire you, and say that it’s for unrelated reasons, and in fact they do this. But this often leads to more tweets about how bad the manager is, which means mostly they do nothing immediately.) Thus tweets have given workers an asymmetric advantage in the unrest — a one-sided argument is easy to win — and we’re seeing it play out in new ways all the time.

This dynamic, which is tilted heavily against bosses, goes a long way in explaining the disdain that the managerial class has for what they call “hit pieces.” A “hit piece,” in angry Twitter parlance, is typically a piece of journalism in which one or more employees are granted anonymity to talk about their working conditions. Journalists, myself included, would simply call that reporting. But it’s the kind of reporting that tilts the balance away from managers and toward their employees — and in ways that are difficult to fight back against.

It’s true that this dynamic raises questions of fairness. Not every person who hates their boss has been mistreated.

And yet, does anyone doubt that over the past 20 years, we’ve heard fewer accounts of the inner workings of big venture-backed companies than we would have liked to have? The inequalities that we have heard so much about in recent years took decades to build up, and during that time it has been relatively rare for a journalist to hear from employees directly on the subject. Instead for the most part they were funneled to a public relations person, whose job was primarily to contain any damage to the company.

It shouldn’t be surprising, when a prominent reporter like Lorenz calls attention to posts like Korey’s, the managerial class rises to Korey’s defense. When CEOs can be held accountable not just for their working conditions but for social media defenses of their work, that represents a threat to the entire managerial tribe. And that explains how venture capitalists, who have millions of dollars at their disposal and could comfortably retire without ever participating in a single Twitter fight, have nonetheless come to see themselves as the underdogs in this situation. They got where they are in part because they’ve been good at winning arguments, and now they find themselves living in a world where they get punished for arguing.

The next time you see journalists and tech overlords going a few rounds online, ask yourself whether what you’re looking at isn’t, on some level, a labor issue. Journalists have lately been part of this story more than they are usually comfortable with. But I wouldn’t make the mistake of thinking that this is primarily about us.

It might not be visible from the luxury Airbnbs where tech executives are riding out the pandemic, but there is a resurgent labor movement in this country. The pandemic has made clear that many of our most essential workers are also among the lowest paid — and even for the most comfortable, it’s clear that during a time of crisis neither their company nor the US government will fully protect them from disaster.

You can attribute it to the pandemic, the recession, police brutality, racism, or any number of other crises — but the result is a fire tornado of outrage that is sweeping across the country. Any number of industries are getting caught up in it, and many managers are finding themselves suddenly without jobs as a result. (It is probably not a coincidence that this is most true of the media industry, whose workers are more adept at using Twitter to air their grievances than most.)

Workers are justifiably outraged about the state of affairs in this country, and some of that outrage is being captured by journalists. I find it darkly comic that so many CEOs and tech world Twitter pundits, who never stop congratulating themselves for thinking deep thoughts, are committing the folly that goes back to Plutarch: getting some bad news, and then taking it out on the person who brought it to them.

If pundits succeeds in shooting all the messengers, what else will they fail to understand before it’s too late?

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Apps & Services

Coronavirus: The Covid Tracker software from Ireland is out

Izunna Okpala

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Ireland’s just-released contact-tracing app this morning, where it joined Germany’s Corona Warn-App, which was released three weeks ago.

Gibraltar recently released its Beat Covid Gibraltar app, based on the Irish code.

The Republic’s Covid Tracker software is also the foundation of an app. Northern Ireland is promising to release within weeks. And now there’s a hint Wales could go the same way.

The focus henceforth would be on building a “decentralised” app with the toolkit offered by Apple and Google, which is also being used by Germany and Ireland among a growing list of others.

On Monday, Baroness Harding gave evidence to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee alongside Simon Thompson, the Ocado executive she drafted in to take responsibility for the app.

Mr Thompson started by saying how urgent it was to get the job done. He went on to stress that collaboration with other countries and with Google and Apple meant that “we have growing confidence that we will have a product that will be good, so that the citizens can trust it in terms of its basic functionality”.

Bluetooth doubts

Now it is true that there is very little evidence that Bluetooth-based apps have so far been successful in tracking down people who came close to someone diagnosed with the virus.

People who point to the success of countries like South Korea ignore the fact that its efforts have been based not on Bluetooth but on the use of mass surveillance data, which would almost certainly prove unacceptable here.

Scientists at Trinity College in Dublin who advised the Irish app development team have produced a number of studies showing Bluetooth can be a very unreliable way to log contacts.

After tests on a bus they warned “the signal strength can be higher between phones that are far apart than phones close together, making reliable proximity detection based on signal strength hard or perhaps even impossible”.

‘Good enough’

Germany has celebrated the fact that in three weeks its app has been downloaded by 15 million people out of a population of 83 million. But there is little or no information about whether it is performing well in its core mission of contact tracing.

Then again, countries like Germany, Ireland and Switzerland have taken the view that an app does not have to be technically perfect, and that if there is any chance of it making even a small contribution to the battle against the virus, it’s worth a go.

Countries like Germany might be tempted to point out that they have had that “cake” in the form of an effective manual tracing programme all along. Incidentally, if public trust is vital to the app’s rollout, the people of the Isle of Wight may have something to say about that.

Following the trial of the original, scrapped NHSX app on the island, some residents have been asking what will happen to their data. We’ve asked too – and have yet to receive an answer.

While the Covid Tracker app has been launched by the Health Service Executive (HSE) in the Republic of Ireland, people living across the border in Northern Ireland are able to download it and use it.

Its terms and conditions state that it is intended to be used by anyone living in or visiting the island of Ireland.

They also state that its availability for people living or visiting in Northern Ireland “is intended to help us to inform people living in border areas and to trace cases in those areas”.

Anyone using the app in NI is able to activate the contact tracing facility and can also self-report symptoms using the “Covid Check-In section”.

However, in the section which asks users to enter personal details, including gender and age-range, those living in Northern Ireland can’t add their county of residence. Only counties in the Republic of Ireland are listed – not the six in NI.

It isn’t yet clear what impact this has on the functionality of the app for NI users.

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How to enable and use AI-powered Smart Reply and Smart Compose tools from Gmail

Izunna Okpala

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Google has been adding a lot of performance and machine learning capabilities to its email service, leading up to Gmail ‘s 15th birthday last year. (It may have also sought to compensate for the loss of its Inbox email feature, but this is an case for another day.) Additions included a way for Gmail to write subject lines for you and schedule an email to be sent later.

Navigating some of Gmail ‘s functionality can be a little frustrating. In this tutorial we will concentrate on Gmail ‘s Smart Reply and Smart Compose auto-completion tools, which are designed to save time.

Allowing a machine help you write emails and subject lines may make you feel a little weird, but if you’re willing to at least try it out for yourself, here are the ways to automate your Gmail responses.

Enabling Smart Reply and Smart Compose

To allow Gmail to generate responses and email text, you first have to opt in from your Settings menu. If you are a regular Gmail user (instead of G Suite enterprise edition), here’s what to do:

On desktop

  • Click on the gear icon on the upper right side and find the Settings page.
  • Scroll down to the separate Smart Reply and Smart Compose options and choose “On” for either or both to enable the automated suggestions.
  • You can also choose to allow Gmail’s machine learning to personalize the suggestions based on the way you write your emails by choosing “Smart Compose personalization.” For example, if you greet your colleagues with “Hi, team” versus “Hello, everyone,” it will automatically drop in whatever you use most often.
You can let the AI engine personalize your Smart Compose suggestions.
You can let the AI engine personalize your Smart Compose suggestions.

If you use G Suite, you may notice that the option to toggle on Smart Compose is not available. Your G Suite admin must enable this for the organization, so contact the person in charge if you’d like to test this out at work.

On the Android or iOS app

  • Tap the hamburger icon on the upper-left side to open the side drawer. Scroll down to Settings.
  • Select the Gmail account you want to address
  • Tap the checkbox on Smart Reply and / or Smart Compose to toggle the mode on

Once the settings are turned on, your Gmail is set up to suggest replies and help auto-finish sentences based on your writing style.

What it looks like

Basically, you just start typing, and Gmail will begin suggesting words that might fit the sentence you’re writing.

Be aware that it won’t always come on for every email you write. Because Gmail needs context, you’ll likely find Smart Compose chiming in when you’re responding to an email or if you’re starting emails with some generic statements like “Nice to meet you” or “Hope you’re well.” If Gmail has a suggestion, an opaque set of text will appear next to what you’re typing.

On the desktop version of Gmail, you can press Tab to accept the suggestion. On the mobile app, if a suggested word or phrase appears, swipe right to add it to the email.

Smart Compose can also automatically fill in the Subject field.
Smart Compose can also automatically fill in the Subject field.

Smart Compose can also suggest email subjects. Leave the subject line blank, and start writing your email. Once you go back to fill out the subject line, Gmail will offer a suggestion that you can accept by pressing Tab on the desktop app or swipe right on mobile.

Smart Reply for canned responses

Smart Reply works a little faster than Smart Compose. Instead of suggesting words or short phrases for you, Gmail will offer three responses that might suit the email you’ve received. For example, if you’ve gotten an email reminding you of an appointment, Smart Reply may suggest responses like “Confirmed,” “Thanks,” or “I can’t make it.”

If you are in an email conversation with several people, be aware that responding with a Smart Reply will CC everyone on that email. You’ll have to manually remove the people you don’t want in that response, so it’s best to only choose Smart Reply for emails you mean to send to everyone in the thread.

Should you actually use it?

Choosing to let a machine write your emails may feel impersonal, but it’s not designed to write the whole email for you. Smart Compose and Smart Reply work best when you use them to add filler sentences or quickly respond to yes or no emails. Plus, Gmail has gotten a lot better at suggesting responses that will make sense 90 percent of the time. (In my experience, the responses tend to veer toward affirmative answers, so they may not work best if you’re less prone to agreeing to everything.)

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