Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Trying to install WindowsXP in Ghana - not a swarming experience

One day my Ghanian friend asked me to look at her PC. She wanted to install new language training software, and the PC sound board did not work properly. I noticed that the sound drivers were not correctly installed, and decided to reinstall WindowsXP. At the end of the installation process, Windows asked me for my authorization code. I was working on an 18 month old HP Pavilion that my friend had bought with Windows XP preinstalled when she was still in Switzerland. When I had entered the authorization code, Windows tried to verify it over the Internet. Oops! Out of luck, as my friend did not have an Internet connection at home. Private Internet is still an expensive option in Ghana, at costs of at least about $50 per month, even over a dialup line. I was then offered a list of Microsoft phone numbers to call to verify my authorization code. Unfortunately, both phone numbers given by Microsoft for Ghana did not work. Finally, I ended up calling the Microsoft Hotline in Redmond, over my Swiss cell phone – my US cell phone does not work outside of the US. After a 20-minute session with the automated phone system, I was finally connected to a human being, who after another 15 minutes of explaining, finally verified my Windows XP authorization code, such that I could proceed in my installation.

I am not looking forward to my next cell phone bill, I doubt I can send it to Microsoft!

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Organizing a Public Transportation System Through Swarm Creativity

On a hot and steamy Thursday morning last July I went with my Ghanaian friend to the “37” Trotro hub in Accra, to learn more about how the Trotro system operates. The Trotro hub is a huge walled-in place of dusty mud, overcrowded with people, little buses, and taxis. Like ants coming and going to their hive on ant roads, hundreds of Trotros enter in a never-ending stream the huge place, while at the exit a similar flow of vans streams out. Inside the place, the little buses seem to cover every inch. What is not taken up by Trotros is plastered with little booths where street vendors sell drinks, dried fruits, pastries, sunglasses, newspapers, mobile phone cards and all the others things travelers might need. Besides the Trotros and the sales booths passengers squeeze by, always ready to jump to the side when a Trotro inches by to its destination, whatever that might be. In a bird’s eye view, the entire station looks like the proverbial anthill, with Trotros, sales booths, and passengers all chaotically intermingled, without a recognizable pattern. But there is a highly efficient system underlying how Trotros operate.

On this steamy Thursday morning I talked with Trotro drivers and passengers, trying to understand how the system works. I got more and more impressed. Sometimes my Ghanian friend had to translate to English, because the drivers only spoke their native Akan language. In the end we were directed to a “bookman”, sitting in a little cabin in a corner of the huge place. The bookman was a slim aged man with wise old eyes. Talking in Akan, he explained the system. As a “bookman” , he is a coordinator of sorts, allocating passengers to Trotros. All Trotros are unionized, which means that each Trotro driver has to choose and join a union. The spots on the “37” station, and on the other five large Trotro stations are shared and managed by the unions. This particular morning the bookman we were talking to was managing the highly lucrative routes to the Tema region, the second largest city in Ghana after Accra and its industrial capital.

Every morning, a Trotro driver checks in with his union “bookman”, paying his daily fee and registering with his license plate number. He is then entered into a list, and is allocated to one of the subdestinations within the Tema region. As there are profitable and less desirable destinations, unions alternate between different spots at the different stations. As our bookman explained to us, his union would only get the Tema spot at station “37” again eight days from now. Tomorrow, he would manage another spot with other destinations at another Trotro station.

At the Tema spot at the “37” station, a wooden sign listing the destination is put on top of the bus and behind the dashboard. At the same time, the driver or his helper are endlessly yelling the destination, because a large number of passengers are not able to read the signs. Once a bus is filled with passengers, the signs are removed and placed inside or on top of the next bus allocated to the same destination by the bookman, while the filled bus inches out of the “37” Trotro station, through a cacophony of yelling and honking bus drivers and street vendors, squeezing by other Trotros, taxis, sales booths, and passengers.

Once on the road, Trotro drivers are feared for their reckless way of driving. As time is money, they do everything they can to get to their destination as quickly as possible, to be able to pick up another load of passengers. If they have dropped off some of their passengers on the way, a naked arm waives out of the passenger side window, indicating to passengers waiting on the street that the Trotro has vacant seats. If they also waive, the Trotro pulls over, and picks them up on the road. This leads to a system – looking highly chaotic from the outside – where the Trotro drivers alternate between driving like madmen and idling along. The reason is that each driver tries to reach his destination as quickly as possible, while at the same time searching for new passengers on the road.

Overall, Trotros are an extremely efficient transportation system covering all of Ghana, entirely based on swarm-creativity and self-organization. For less than the equivalent of a dollar, destinations within Accra can be reached, while tickets to remote towns cost a few dollars. Through their unions, Trotro drivers make sure that every driver gets fair access to passengers and the most lucrative routes. The state interferes very little, its main role is to check and certify road safety of vehicles and driving capabilities of drivers. This means that with no external control, Troto drivers self-organize and collaborate in a highly cost-effective system with every driver being his own entrepreneur, controlling his own destiny

Sunday, August 27, 2006

How a self-organizing Community takes care of palm trees

The husband of my friend, Ghanaian by birth, had recently started an oil palm tree plantation. On about 100 hectares of land he had planted 16,000 palm trees, complemented by a pig barn, a duck pond, and goats and chickens. Of course he could not do all this work by himself, but he needed lots of help. To take care of his farm, he initially hired about 50 workers. The most labor-intensive part was tending to the palm trees. He had recruited a group of about 25 workers from nearby villages to take care of the trees. Their task was to remove the weed around the trees, bring out fertilizer, and chase away pests such as tree-eating insects and rodents. At the last workday of the first month, he paid each worker his agreed on monthly salary, cash in the hand, as is the custom in Ghana. On the next working day, he was in for a really bad surprise. Out of his 25 workers, only 4 showed up. They reported that the others would not want to come. They had currently enough money to get by for another month; some of them might come perhaps in a month or two, when they would need money again.
To overcome this problem, my friend came up with a brilliant idea. Instead of workers, he now hires communities. He does not pay them per day, but for tasks. When I was visiting, he had hired one village to weed 600 palm trees. He had negotiated a price with the elders of the village for this task, now it was up to the villagers to make sure that the work was done. The community needed the money to pay for poles to get electricity to the village. If a lazy villager would not show up for work, the community would force him to pay a fine. During my entire visit at the farm, the community of villagers was hard at work weeding the 600 palm trees, cutting down the weeds with their cutlasses. As my friend told me, he had made similar agreements with other communities to get all of his 16,000 trees weeded.
Relying on self-organizing communities, my friend had overcome the mentality of the peasants, solving his problem of tending to his oil palms not by hiring workers, but by unleashing the power of swarms

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Internet Cafes for Ghanaian Schools

For the last 5 years a group of friends and I have been working on getting computers to schools in Africa. So far we have shipped a few hundred used computers from Switzerland to Kenya and equipped a school in Nigeria. Now we would like to extend our project to Ghana.

The goal of our project is to create learning/innovation communities between Ghanaian middle school students and Western middle school students, age group 14-16 years (at this age the Ghanaians should already master English sufficiently to communicate with their counterparts).

Towards that goal, we are currently working to set up Internet-enabled computer rooms at rural schools, away from Accra. The main problem is to make our project sustainable & maintainable by locals. The idea is to ship a classroom of computers to a school, and identify a local who can operate the computer room as an Internet cafe half the time for profit, and provide it the other half of the time for free to the students.

We just got 20 computers donated in Zurich, now we are looking for a sponsor to get them shipped to Ghana from Switzerland, and also to connect them to the Internet via satellite-broadband. The headmaster of the school in Anloga, at the Ghanaian coast towards Togo is eagerly awaiting the computers.
If you would like to help, or have ideas how to obtain help, we would love to hear from you

Friday, August 25, 2006

Who will be the next US President?

Using our TeCFlow software tool to do coolhunting, I recently checked out the Web buzz on different presidential candidates. The first thing I did was looking at the latest poll results on various US Presidential contenders. Here they are:

As you can see, Hillary Clinton is the clear leader for the Democrats, while Rudi Giuliani and Condolezza Rice are tied for the Republicans.

Using TeCFlow to do coolhunting, and looking at who talks about whom most on the Web, shows another picture:

The most central people (having the largest squares) are Rudi Giuliani, and surprisingly, John Edwards and Al Gore. Hillary keeps very quiet, and is not very central on the Web!
At the same time, we see that two Web sites are clear "kingmakers", one of them - not so surprisingly - Wikipedia, and the other - more surprisingly - is Links from those Web sites greatly boost the centrality of a candidate. In other words, the more back links from one of those Web sites a candidate gets, the more central she or he becomes.

Swarm Creativity in Ghana

In summer 2006 I was visiting an old friend in Ghana. There I encountered amazing examples of swarm creativity and self-organization entirely outside of the realm of the Internet. It already began when I was picked up at the airport of Accra by my friend and her husband. When we drove back to their house I noticed that the streets were filled with small vans of all types, ages, and makes, starting and stopping at odd locations, and picking up groups of people at every corner of the street. When I asked my friends about these vans, I learned that these minivans, called “Trotros”, were the public transportation system of Accra, providing fast, efficient, and cheap transportation in this city of 2 million inhabitants. The most amazing thing about the Trotros, though, is that each van is owned and managed by its driver, without central coordination.
More on later posts