Tagged: Technology

Here’s why Uber is eating your lunch

THE RISE of the smartphone alongside the Internet, has lead to a plethora of disruptive innovation. A paradigm shift has occurred, so profound and fundamental in its effects, that analysts refer to the fourth industrial revolution and the Internet of Things. The rapid pace of change has caught metered taxi operators sleeping.  Though more than two years has passed since the upstart Uber company appeared on our shores,  metered taxi operators have not found the means to get their proverbial shit together.

Instead of innovating, by producing smartphone apps and websites that would allow consumers to book taxis online, pay with bank cards and utilize the electronic transactions which litter our modern lifestyles — instead of producing efficiency and allowing clients to enjoy the benefits of GPS and other innovations — the metered taxi industry has instead resorted to a bit of disruption of their own. And it is not all good.

Following the equally myopic truckers blockade, the rise of taxi turf wars and a new form of strike action, all may be seen as the gross failure of operators to come to grips with the accomplishments of the new technology. Now one may sympathise with those critics who point out that Uber has merely shifted the cost of operating a taxi from the operator to the taxi driver, the company distributed as it is, allows own-vehicle drivers to enter an otherwise regulated marketplace, and has thus disrupted the cab industry in every city which has adopted mobile telephony. The thing is, Uber’s success is not simply a case of cutting costs.

For years, the cab market has relied upon a form of cartel behaviour, regulated monopolies and guaranteed markets.  The regulations that inform the industry have themselves been the very reason why cab operators have failed to innovate. The reliance on legislation instead of innovation, has resulted in the lack of motive force needed to deliver product and services efficiently, in a marketplace where the type of person who uses a cab is usually not able to afford a vehicle. Uber on the other hand has liberated consumers who would otherwise shirk at the cost of a metered taxi, and who risk being treated as tourists, from the up-market cab operators who seem only to cater to people on holiday.

Software has thus brought greater efficiency in routes, has allowed drivers to gain control over their lives, to save petrol by redirecting around traffic, to know who it is they are letting inside their vehicles, and it is these innovations which are driving the new market, concerned as it is, with safety and affordability, and which has sprung up like fresh daisies around the smartphone. Unless the entire cab industry adapts, then those laggards currently holding Jozi to ransom, must necessarily be allowed to whither away and die, the same way that Hansom cabs and cab drivers with horse-drawn buggies, died out when the automobile brought along a more efficient means of transport.

The current strike action in Gauteng is thus nothing less than the equivalent of a group of irate Hansom Cab drivers demanding protection from the new Anti-Horse technology. One can only feel a sense of pathos, for the inevitable.

SEE: Africa: Two Very Different Responses to Uber – Kenya and South Africa

How Internet rights were included in our constitution

IT WAS in 1995 that I returned from self-imposed exile and America’s West Coast. Having launched what would be the very first online act of mass civil disobedience against John Major’s Criminal Justice Bill the previous year. The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attacks against Whitehall were launched from a techno party at the 181 Club in San Francisco, followed by a landmark Digital Be-In ‘CyberSafari’ videoconferencing event, linking the continent of North America with Africa — that I embarked on a series of public happenings in South Africa, culminating in several inaugural cyber-rights events at the iCafe in Long St, Cape Town.

david-netdemo-event2A photograph from the period shows me at a terminal, wearing a Mondo 2000 t-shirt, at the very first NetDemocracy event in the country hosted by Nodi Murphy and Stephen Garrett.  A simple information activist, participating in an online Internet Relay Chat (IRC) chat with Minister Pallo Jordan alongside 120 citizens from around the country, all of whom happened to be online.

“Internet Cafe expert gets in touch with Posts and Telecommunications Ministers Dr Pallo Jordan via the Internet relay chat held in the city yesterday. More than 120 people from around the country asked him questions about the Green Paper on telecommunications policies.” opined the Cape Times.

Jordan would later the same day, accept a complimentary copy of the Virtual Community,  Homesteading on the Electronic Frontier by Howard Rheingold, as I proceeded to also fax Minister Jay Naidoo, with demands that we resist the urge to simply usher in the Internet Age, but also take proactive steps to protect user’s rights online, rights such as the right to privacy, right to not have one’s communication intercepted, right to receive and impart communication electronically, right to cryptography and pretty good privacy (PGP), the right to download and upload information, the right to copy data and so on.

Successive events the following year in 1996 held during the constitution-building process, charted new territory and included a CuSeeMe video-call with columnist and digital rights advocate Douglas Rushkoff from New York, a public IRC session with the editor of Future Sex Magazine, Lisa Palac , and a controversial session on Martinican poet Aimé Césaire, Léopold Sédar Senghor and Léon Damas entitled ‘Negritude on the Net’, and other such interventions.

The somewhat crude outcome wasn’t exactly what we all intended, in the end, there was unfortunately, no single article in our constitution entitled ‘Internet Rights’, but instead, as fate would have it, the authors of the Constitution and our Bill of Rights achieved the same. By engaging in public consultation, by utilising the very same tools we, as net activists, were advocating, the constituent assembly effected an astonished feat and made good on many promises. Eventually including a suite of astonishing information and communication rights, many of them applicable and ready-to-wear or subsumed under other legal headings.

wired-mag-1996

Wired Magazine information byte on the BoR

The historically important result was noted by Wired Magazine, who reported on the landmark inclusion of information and other rights. A first for any country on the planet.  Thus, article 14 ‘Right to Privacy’, has the crucial right to not have the privacy of our communications infringed.

Article 16 Freedom of Expression aside from granting individuals the freedom to blog, tweet and produce electronic media, contains the all important ‘freedom to receive or impart information or ideas;’

and,

Article 32 Access to Information, guarantees ‘access to information held by the state, or required for the exercise or protection of any rights.’

These three foundational rights or ‘spheres of responsibility’, when read together form an important guarantee of online freedoms and cyber-liberties, and must be seen against the backdrop of the constitution’s formation, as a secular document enshrining civil liberties for the digital age. One can thus be proud of the 21st century wording, which is both progressive and future proof.

For our nation’s founder Nelson Mandela, it was a major milestone in constitution building and alongside the rise of the Internet as the World Wide Web, which had came in the aftermath of our very first democratic election, we had collectively opened the doors of technological progress.

South African’s can be grateful we all have a digital-ready constitution and that the country has one of the most strident and open information provisions anywhere on the globe. Municipal, provincial and national government all actively share information online with voters and taxpayers.

Our taxes are now accessed via an online portal operated by the South African Revenue Service (SARS), as are other government services. A public campaign to provide free and open access to internet and data has been gaining steam, and many metros are now providing wifi for gratis.

Despite the enormous progress and despite such guarantees, as I write this, there are still several current legislative threats before the House of Assembly, pitted against our hard-won freedoms, and include the Film & Publications Amendment Bill, the Copyright Amendment Bill and Cybercrime Bill, all introduced by the ruling party, and all containing wording, stratagems and concepts which run counter to the spirit of the constitution and the nation’s legacy of cyber rights.

It thus remains up to the generation of today, the millennials and especially the new crop of digital activists and open access cadres, to defend online freedom and African cyberspace, to make good on the many promises contained in South Africa’s Constitution.

Worknet, Sangonet & the struggle for digital freedom

FROM two floppy disks smuggled into South Africa in the late 1980s, to an NGO which continues to play a major role in responding to the Information Technology (IT) requirements of the NGO sector in South Africa, this is the unique story of SANGONeT.

In the late 1980s, not long after Bill Gates had moved from his garage into a boardroom, a quiet IT revolution was taking place in Africa. Organisations and individuals, working on the front lines of human rights and development efforts, were beginning to make use of computers, modems and telephone lines to exchange information.

Arriving back in South Africa from Sussex, Alan Finlay says with “two floppy disks, 64kb of memory and an external modem” was, “a leap in the dark”. “No-one knew how it would turn out. It was the future responding to the surrounding environment. 1

WorkNet brought together what Taffy Adler describes as a “motley crew of union, civic and church activists” and some “progressive computer boffins What this motley crew shared was an interest in harnessing the potential of the new communications technologies for change.

Hooking up anti-apartheid organisations and NGOs to basic email services and newsgroups gave these organisations an edge against the authorities who had yet to embrace information technology.

Simone Shall, WorkNet’s first manager, describes his experience getting unions connected.“We were training the unions on PCs, and wrote a small package for them to manage their memberships,” Shall recalls.

WorkNet attracted the attention of techie activists working elsewhere in Africa, and overseas, as a global network emerged, linking non-profit organisations around issues such as environment, women’s rights, and development. GreenNet, a non-profit Internet Service Provider (ISP) become an important ally for WorkNet. With support from a sister NGO called Poptel (Popular Telematics), an international gateway was set up to WorkNet that would connect it to NGOs across the globe.

The initial set-up at WorkNet was rudimentary; nothing one would associate with today’s modern service providers. The WorkNet international link was automated for example, using a simple DOS-based ‘store-and-forward’ email system called Fidonet. The server would dial-up to the GreenNet/Poptel server in the United Kingdom twice a day to download any text mails which were forwarded back and forth from node to node, in a system which predated the World Wide Web.

‘WorkNet originally used some home-brewed scripts to act as a standalone bulletin board system (BBS). Then it migrated to a commercial BBS product called MajorBBS, an early open source programme, Subsequently WorkNet then upgraded to a Sun Sparc station running SunOS, before moving to outsource its network to a commercial provider in the US.’

Although the Worknet service was eventually forced to close as a result of the introduction of commercial competition from services providers such as MWEB and iAfrica, both of whom were able to provider better connectivity, at cheaper rates, SANGOnet continues to support NGOs and is in the forefront of introducing Information Communication Technology (ICT) initiatives in response to civil society requirements and national development priorities.

Lessons which may be learnt from SANGOnet and in particular Worknet, is the way technology may provide activists with an edge, often in periods of conflict, however this edge is only available for a short time, since new technology constantly replaces the old thus levelling the playing field. Often the experience is one of cat and mouse, with each new technological development implemented by activists being countered by big business and capitalism, think of the way pirates use peer-to-peer (P2P) software to download illegal files, in turn service providers invent new technology to counter these threats.

1Adapted from Alan Finley, The SangoNet Story, 20 years of linking civil society through ICTs 2007 ISBN 978-0-620-39102-3

First published online as a chapter in The Media Activist Handbook

Cape Doctor’s Heavy Dose of Medicine

THIS billboard says it all. It’s not what you think, since the Cape Doctor referred to is the Cape’s infamous wind, the South Easter. Just how much of our language is constructed through metaphor and simile? In today’s object-orientated world where computers appear to “know” more than “people”, it is becoming increasingly harder to tell the difference between man and machine. Whither language? Phrases like “Cape Doctor’s Heavy Dose of Medicine” show us just how far we actually are from real artificial intelligence (AI) since the double entendre, confuses the machine while making mincemeat of literal notions of meaning. Just think what it takes to interpret the phrase? For starters one has to divide the sentence into subject and predicate, a simple operation most pupils of school going age can perform but which computers find near impossible.  Then one has to pick apart the implications, discover the meaning, literal or figurative, overt or implied. It is something no computer today is able to do, unless the computer is taught the exception or terms, has a life, a real life outside of the object orientated language that confine machines to the realm of 1s and 0s.

Expert systems on the other hand, cover up stheir mistakes by accessing these errors. It is an interesting area of computer science, but nevetheless I have proved my point. The brain is faster than a computer when it comes to translating billboards.