Ghana: Signs of Software Success
You are on holiday in Ghana's capital, Accra. Walking down the street, you wonder what that tall building with the clock tower is to your left. On the gatepost, you see a little black and white drawing - a calling card from one of Ghana's leading software developers, Guido Sohne.
You reach for your internet-enabled mobile phone and with its camera take a photo of the small square sign.
Immediately, your phone takes you to a website which says that you are standing next to the University of Ghana in the district of Legon.
And not only that, now you know it was founded in 1948, that it gained full university status in 1961, and that it boasts close to 24,000 students.
The patterned sticker, or tag as it is known, has effectively linked your physical world with a virtual one thanks to Semapedia.
Being left behind
Semapedia is a project which aims to connect real objects with online data at Wikipedia - the popular and free online encyclopaedia written collaboratively by volunteers worldwide.
It also makes use of a new technology, Semacode, which Sohne played a part in creating.
However, any example of African-created technology being used in Western cyberspace still proves the exception rather than the rule.
"If the size of Africa's IT industry corresponded to the edge of a wheel," Sohne says, "each turn would show just how far and how fast we are being left behind."
He maintains that Western societies have restricted the free flow of information and created obstacles to the ownership of knowledge. As a result, he believes developing countries should completely reject intellectual property.
He is among an increasing number of IT professionals who have come to seek a better deal for Africa in the digital age.
One solution they advocate is Free or Open Source Software (Foss). Instead of being subject to copyright, the tools in this instance are made freely available to all and the software created benefits from shared expertise.
"It is highly democratic and also a meritocracy," says Paul Bagyenda - another of Africa's leading IT developers and a recent returnee to his native Uganda.
"Armed with a good grounding in the subject, an internet connection and good ideas, anybody, anywhere can produce the next big thing."
Bagyenda himself contributed to the popular open-source SMS server Kannel, which allows users to download jokes and ringtones via text message.
He now works on Mbuni, providing an interface between multi-media messaging and the world wide web.
"We need cheaper options and one way to do that is by creating free software to do the heavy lifting - in effect, we are offering the big boys some competition."
Already creative wireless solutions are bringing the web to rural areas - whether it is communities sharing one "village" mobile phone or local innovators erecting makeshift antennae to increase the coverage of local networks.
Semapedia itself may rely on upmarket phones and technology that is not yet readily available in Africa, as to create the tags you need access to a computer and printer, but its aim is to bring knowledge back to places in the world where it matters.
Because it is based on such a simple gesture, its co-founder, New York-based Stan Wiechers, believes it will be picked up by children who will adapt it to their needs.
"Show them what they can do with a mobile phone and how they can hack reality," he says.
He also thinks the project has particular resonance in Africa since buildings and streets are frequently renamed.
"They used to say the internet renders location irrelevant, but they failed to take into account that more than 80% of all human knowledge has a spatial reference," he muses.
"I was born in one place but I have lived in many cities. There are places I love."
A Semapedia sticker allows some of that history - buried somewhere on the internet - to leak out into reality.
"African content needs to take its place in the global constellation," Sohne says. "We need more African content - so tag something today."
*This is a free online version of the article that appears in the April - June 2007 edition of BBC Focus on Africa Magazine.
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