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Mobile tech, social good: How these computer scientists are making an impact
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Mobile tech, social good: How these computer scientists are making an impact

Our newest episode of the  featured former  Yaw Anokwa. He’s a graduate of the College of Washington computer science program, the co-founder of the software program startup , and one of many computer scientists behind the  (ODK), which supplies sensible types for accumulating information on cell gadgets in rural areas, creating nations and different locations with restricted connectivity.

Anokwa gave listeners a glimpse into a part of the know-how world that we don’t all the time see: mixing cell applied sciences and social good. He supplies an overview of the methods organizations are utilizing the instruments all over the world, together with reduction organizations, well being staff, authorities businesses and charitable organizations.

Should you missed the present, or simply favor textual content, proceed studying for edited excerpts from the dialog.

Todd Bishop: Give folks a thumbnail sketch of what you’re doing these days.

Yaw Anokwa: I run a bit know-how consultancy with a buddy of mine — a very long time good friend and colleague — Carl Hartung. Our experience is in software program that’s designed to work nicely in difficult environments, so locations with out lots of dependable connectivity or with little energy, novice customers, or little sources. Locations like rural Montana, war-torn Afghanistan, low-income neighborhoods in Oakland. At Nafundi, we’re most likely finest recognized for our work we did on Open Knowledge Equipment, which is that this free and open-source platform that Carl and I co-founded as a part of our Ph.D. analysis at UW.

Bishop: What’s Open Knowledge Equipment?

Anokwa: ODK replaces paper types with sensible types that run on a sensible telephone or pill. It’s actually nice for cell staff. So in case you are a census taker, a well being employee, a police officer, and it’s essential acquire information precisely and rapidly so you will get your outcomes immediately, ODK is ideal. It may be used to gather textual content and numbers, take photos, seize GPS location, scan barcodes, signatures, play movies, and the types themselves are actually sensible. For instance, you should utilize them to assist branching logic and repeating sub constructions and a number of languages and information encryption. The punchline is that we’ve received tens of 1000’s of customers all around the world who use this platform and so they use it to interchange their paper types.

I can provide you a few examples of teams that individuals would know who use the software program. Most individuals know , which is that this microfinance group. They’ve to collect data from debtors after they give them loans. So narrowly, they’d exit with a bit of paper, acquire that information, finally transfer it from a rural place to town, have it entered, after which six months later, it exhibits up on the web site. With our software program — a few of Kiva’s companions have been utilizing it — you simply exit within the subject, seize the knowledge on a cell gadget, seize the image of the GPS coordinate, after which you may ship it proper on over the cellphone community on to a server.

John Cook dinner: What’s the cellphone community like in a few of these areas? They’re considerably distant areas, proper?

Anokwa: You’d assume that in someplace like rural Kenya or Ghana that there’s no connectivity, however there are two issues that you may assure while you’re in rural Africa. One is that you may all the time discover a Coca-Cola product. Pepsi has no probability (laughs). Secondly, you may virtually all the time discover connectivity. Be it a cellphone connection, voice or SMS or GPRS, you may usually discover a cellphone connection. And even in case you can’t discover one within the current space that you just are in, you’re usually shut sufficient to a highway the place you may ship that data. So the way in which ODK works is that we collect lots of that information offline, after which when a consumer comes near a cellphone community, they’ll then ship the info over the cellphone community to a server within the cloud or a server in the principle metropolis.

Bishop: What are another examples of organizations on the market that are utilizing Open Knowledge Equipment?

Mobile tech, social good: How these computer scientists are making an impactAnokwa: You guys are acquainted with the Egyptian elections that occurred. It seems the Carter Heart makes use of ODK to collect details about elections. In order that they go to a website — once more, they take an image and fill out a kind — after which ship it off to a server. So the Carter Heart can now acquire election information because it’s occurring in actual time.

New York Metropolis, their division of well being, makes use of ODK for lots of the well being operations — gathering emergency response information and people sorts of issues.

In all probability our greatest consumer is a hospital community in Kenya. They’ve received about two million folks within the space. They go house-to-house and do HIV counseling and testing. And due to ODK’s logic, it permits them to encode an complete protocol about when anyone needs to be examined, when anyone shouldn’t be examined, throughout the kind. In order that they collect data, after which the shape helps them maintain these sufferers. And it’s touched perhaps about 775,000 sufferers for the reason that challenge was began.

Bishop: You’ve gotten one of the vital coveted levels on this planet proper now. Folks at Google can be clambering to rent you. However you’ve determined to take what you’ve realized on the UW and apply it extra towards issues associated to social good. Why did you make that call?

Anokwa: That’s a unbelievable query. To be honest, the ODK challenge began at Google as a part of a sabbatical challenge by my advisor, and there was quite a lot of individuals who helped. So I’ve had the prospect to work at Google to do some social good. I believe for me, what I care about essentially the most, is getting an opportunity to take the talents that I’ve realized and truly apply them to issues that individuals aren’t engaged on. There are loads of folks right here in Seattle who are a lot smarter than I, who could possibly be writing software program for SQL Server. I believe the gaps are in software program that’s designed to assist of us in these resource-constrained settings. And all that mentioned, I don’t need to make it look like I’m some Mom Teresa determine. It’s loads of enjoyable to be out on the sector and touring and serving to of us the place we are able to. And likewise, what we’ve been in a position to present from our explicit consultancy, is that it’s lots worthwhile. We’re in a position to make a residing bulding the software program, touring the world and likewise having some impact. So for us, it’s a win-win.

Cook dinner: So how did you provide you with the thought initially, or get on this a part of computer science?

Anokwa: You realize, there’s a small however rising group of computer scientists at UW who’ve been working on this area we wish to name ICTD, which is Data and Communication Applied sciences for Growth, principally know-how for good. There are a few us who’ve all spent a while within the subject and seen the impact that software program on cellphones can have on the lifetime of the poor. In my case, I had an alternative to volunteer at  in a really rural hospital. I used to be there for six months serving to them deploy a medical document system. As a part of that work, I noticed the impact that a bit little bit of know-how might do. Within the case of say, HIV care, with the ability to observe affected person data throughout a number of visits , as a result of HIV is a continual illness, you really want computer systems to try this. Getting a computer to run in a rural setting that may keep up regardless of energy cuts is one thing that computer science might help with. In order that’s form of how I received began.

Bishop: What sorts of know-how are you truly utilizing in your each day life?

Anokwa: I’ve to confess that I’m an enormous fan of Apple merchandise. I rock an iPhone 4S and a MacBook and that’s form of how I work day-to-day. Though I write lots of Android software program, I nonetheless form of favor iOS for some motive. I wish to name it a work-life steadiness. ODK is all about work, in order that runs on Android, and my private aesthetic is that of the iOS.

Bishop: So why these two issues? Why ODK on Android?

Anokwa: Android has a ton of options that makes it unbelievable for the work that we do. We’re speaking about information assortment in rural environments. We’ve a gaggle of customers who are primarily based within the Amazon, within the rainforest, and an iPhone 3GS, as nice as it’s, simply doesn’t work nicely in these environments. It must be waterproof, very sturdy, as a result of these are of us who are going out into the sector for months at a time. Android offers you a ton of platform selections, from gadgets that are a pair thousand {dollars} that are completely actually bulletproof, to low cost $50 Android telephones. In order that selection is de facto essential. Moreover, it’s actually essential for us, as researchers, to have the ability to do all the pieces that we might. The UW staff has some tasks within the lab the place we’re connecting moveable ultrasound items to the gadgets. And iOS, once we began, didn’t have these capabilities. So for us, each at Nafundi and on the ODK staff, it’s actually about a wide range of gadgets, and simply how versatile the platform is.

Bishop: So why the iPhone in your individual life, and why not the iPhone 5?

Anokwa: I need to handle prices. I can’t all the time be upgrading. So I’m ready for the iPhone 5S, which I’m assuming might be popping out in a few months. For a similar motive I like Android for its flexibility as a consumer, I truly don’t need to be managing that complexity in my day-to-day life. I like that Apple has thought of what design selections I believe are cheap. And since I’ve been a Mac consumer for a very long time, these design selections simply form of match how I work. I just like the aesthetic; I like how the apps are written; I like the alternatives which were made so there’s no motive for me to configure my telephone the entire time.

Bishop: Is it simpler to program on a Mac or on a Home windows PC?

Anokwa: I haven’t touched a Home windows PC for ages. I favor programming on a Mac, primarily as a result of it offers me a bunch of flexibility. So even in case you drop right down to the command line and write some shell script, it’s simply simpler for me to do it that means. I can spin up digital machines, so I’ve a Home windows VM in case I would like to check some software program there, or a Linux VM. So for me, the Mac offers me essentially the most bang for my buck by way of growth. I can write software program for just about any platform.

Bishop: OS X, the present model of the Mac working system, has its roots in Unix. Is that also apparent to anyone such as you while you’re programming on the Mac?

Anokwa: Completely, completely. Once I have to do one thing on the command line, the entire instruments that the Unix ecosystem supplies you are proper there. I can grep for recordsdata. I can run hint routes. There are a bunch of instruments there. And I believe, primarily based on what I’ve seen at UW, virtually all of the graduate college students have Macs for that explicit motive. As a result of in some unspecified time in the future, it’s essential use Phrase, and it’s nice for it to have the ability to work, however at one other level you want to have the ability to write a command line app, so OS10 makes that tremendous simple.

Bishop: You’ve gotten computer science in your blood. You grew up in Ghana, and also you got here to the US while you had been how previous? 

Anokwa: I used to be about 9 when my household left Ghana and landed in Indianapolis, Motor Metropolis. I used to be there earlier than I moved out to Seattle for grad faculty.

Bishop: What received you interested by computer science within the first place?

Anokwa: I’ve all the time seen computer science as a solution to resolve issues. As a really small baby, my dad was educating at a college, which I suppose these days is thought for basketball, and he had an previous Mac. And the way in which we received onto the community was to make use of this small modem, and the modem was very sluggish. My dad refused to purchase a brand new modem. And I used to be in a position to determine — utilizing a collection of macros — a solution to get that modem to dial up in the course of the evening and enter all of these sweepstakes. And these sweepstakes I used to be going after had been modem sweepstakes to win a 56k modem. So I wrote the script, and throughout the third day of operating the script, I received a modem. So from that time forth, I’ve all the time seen computer science as essentially the most superb skillset to have. For me, it helped me win prizes, and now it’s a profession, however it’s all about fixing issues.

Bishop: You ended up going to the College of Washington and graduating along with your doctorate in computer science. 

Anokwa: I do have a bachelor’s in electrical engineering. I come from extra of a {hardware} background.

Bishop: Should you had been a mum or dad with a youngster in highschool or junior excessive with an actual aptitude for science and math, what would you do to encourage them, or to get that child into computer science?

Anokwa: I believe I’ve a little bit of an perception into this drawback. My fiance, Hélène Martin, used to show and began the computer science program at Garfield Excessive College, and now she’s at UW as a lecturer and runs the outreach program. So the very first thing I’m going to say is it’s essential open up your internet browser, after which go to , and on that web page, it’s an enormous record of sources, in every single place from Okay-12 sources for people who are taken with computer science. The UW runs lots of summer time camps for youths, men and women, and likewise does lots of outreach for lecturers. So for instance, in case you’re a trainer who’s taken with math and science and doesn’t know something about computer science, the UW runs all of these applications to coach you and convey you up to the mark so you may supply computer science. And also you’re precisely proper — children, particularly at a younger age, who’ve a math and science aptitude are unbelievable matches for computer science. I’ve completed talking at a few of these camps, and it’s all the time thrilling to see younger computer scientists work out how highly effective these instruments are and the way it can change lives.

Bishop: What language would you inform them to begin with?

Anokwa: I’m fairly language agnostic. I’ll write in no matter language permits me to unravel the issue. Once more, I take a really engineering focus to this. No matter language I have to study, that’s the language I’ll study. I believe that there’s a battle within the computer science schooling group about which languages work finest. It’s form of a toss up between Python and Java. UW at present teaches Java first. For the youthful ages, there are a few instruments that are on the market — Smalltalk, Scratch —so there are these instruments that are extra optimized for youths. For the camps, I believe they use processing languages extra for graphic language that helps children actually get engaged.

Bishop: You point out that your fiance Hélène is a lecturer on the UW now and he or she had lots of expertise at Garfield. So do you guys get into coding wars? What’s date evening like?

Cook dinner: It looks as if a actuality TV present, “Coding Wars.”

Anokwa: We strive to not combine relationship and work, I suppose. So it’s not like at dinner we’re speaking about which languages are finest or what not. We’ve loads of different stuff to speak about. In all honesty, she’s much more compassionate about computer science than I’m. She loves computer science as a self-discipline, as a science. She loves discussing totally different programming languages, et cetera, et cetera. I see computer science as a device, so for me, I don’t significantly care in regards to the class of the code, does it work, does it not work. Whereas, typically after I’m working at dwelling, she’ll look over my shoulder and say, “Oh, that’s the fallacious means of doing it. It’s best to use this fraction, et cetera, et cetera.” So we battle over these sorts of issues, however you realize, she’s a pure computer scientist and I’m a really sensible computer scientist.

Bishop: You guys are each motorcyclists too, proper?

Anokwa: Yeah, now we have that in frequent. Computer science isn’t actually a harmful profession selection, so we figured motorcycling was a bit extra pleasurable. We each journey year-round. She’s received a bit sports activities bike and I’ve received a barely larger bike, and we cruise round Seattle within the rain and within the dry, having a good time.

Bishop: – Hélène was certainly one of our “Geeks Who Give Again” calendar pinups, as we name them. We’ve received an ideal image of her along with her bike.

Bishop: How does know-how translate into your bike? Do you’ve gotten all kinds of fancy GPS or is it simply pure machine?

Anokwa: It’s fascinating as a result of Hélène additionally comes from a {hardware} background. She grew up in First Robotics, which is that this form of hands-on robotics craft. And myself, rising up in Indianapolis, I’m an enormous automobile man. So once we’re writing code, we’re writing code, however when the computer systems get shut down, we speak mechanics, additionally. We frequently simply exit and work on the bikes. Working with our fingers is one thing that we get pleasure from doing, be it bikes or computer systems

Bishop: Sounds such as you guys have a protracted future collectively.

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