Egypt's revolution inspires tech start-ups

By Jonathan Kalan

Image source, Getty Images
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Online action: The internet, blogs and social media played a key part in the Egyptian revolution, letting activists communicate with each other as well as tell the world what was happening

Egypt's revolution in 2011 proved two incredibly important things for Egyptian youth.

First, that the combined power of the crowd can accomplish anything. Second, that it takes critical networks of communication and collaboration to activate that crowd.

While the revolution eventually led to the collapse of a 30-year old regime, it has also had a lesser-chronicled impact - becoming a catalyst for a growing movement of technology start-ups booming across the country.

Egypt's swelling mass of young, educated, and enlightened graduates are now working on changing the future of a nation byte by byte, not just brick by brick.

And embracing the principles of the revolution, many of their start-ups are using this idea of collaboration, and the power of the crowd, to make it happen.

Local networking

For at least one start-up, the story begins amongst millions of protestors in Cairo's Tahrir Square.

"The government had just cut off all internet and communication networks around the nation," recalls Mohammad Omara, who has spent years designing semiconductor chips for companies around the globe.

The ability to rapidly spread information, a backbone of the revolution, was in jeopardy.

"I started thinking of a solution to get people connected," he says.

His answer? Bluetooth - a technology available in nearly all phones, PCs, and other devices that wirelessly exchanges data over short distances.

Image source, Getty Images
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Effective networking: Finding a way to extend the reach of Bluetooth technology so that a local network could be set up in Tahrir Square during communications blackouts inspired XoneBee's Mohammad Omara

"With wi-fi, you need to have a router somewhere, and log in," he says. "With Bluetooth, I can direct pair my mobile with you anywhere and start communicating."

The challenge of using Bluetooth to connect the crowd was two-fold.

The range is limited to just 10-20 metres - and it's typically designed for peer-to-peer connections (two devices directly communicating with each other).

Image source, Getty Images
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Call me: Mr Omara's Bluetooth application will let users make free calls on the platform

He needed to find a way to both extend that to cover Tahrir Square - 75,000 square metres - and build a network.

Two years on, and XoneBee, Mr Omara's start-up, has done just that - an intelligent algorithm and application which lets Bluetooth devices 'relay' a call without decoding it.

It can be purchased as a $5 stand-alone device, extending coverage up to 300 square metres, or programmed directly into Bluetooth-enabled phones.

XoneBee is also working on an app that will allow users to make free calls using the network. The service could be used to replace local area networks like internal office phones and walkie-talkies, and even has military uses.

It may also help fix the expensive problem of network overloading, such as in extremely crowded places.

Almost 3-4% of all mobile phone calls are made by people who are geographically close to each other - at different ends of Tahrir Square, for example, says Mr Omara.

If phones have his Bluetooth algorithm installed (coupled with wi-fi and other networks) these calls could be made on a local area network, saving telecoms companies billions of dollars in infrastructure investment, says Mr Omara excitedly.

Image source, Jonathan Kalan
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Head to head: Cairo's start-up cup is just one of the competitions and networking events that have sprung up in the country to support Egyptian entrepreneurs

XoneBee is just one example of this new culture of entrepreneurship emerging from Egypt.

The tide of optimism triggered by the revolution has transformed into a tidal wave of talented and tech-savvy engineers and programmers, determined to put Cairo on the map as a technology hub.

"We have one of the greatest collections of engineering and mobile development talent in the world," says Ahmed Alfi, chief executive of Sawari Ventures.

"What's been missing is what goes around the engineer - product, marketing, business people," he says.

Not anymore. Egypt's young engineers now have access to a highly collaborative ecosystem of co-working hubs, accelerators, incubators, mentoring and networking to support them, transforming their ideas to marketable products.

Shake it up

Image source, Jonathan Kalan
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Instabug co-founders, Omar Gabr (left) and Moataz Soliman

Founded by a pair of 22-year-old Cairo University graduates, Instabug is another collaboration-driven start-up.

Developers need feedback on their apps, but it's often a pain for users to report bugs. Few will actually send an email, or leave a comment on a social media page.

With one line of code, and in less than a minute, Instabug's bug reporting feature can be added to any application - a feedback form activated by simply shaking the phone.

"When you're angry at an app, what's the first thing you think of doing?" asks co-founder Moataz Soliman.

Image source, Jonathan Kalan
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Duly noted: Instabug lets users annotate screenshots of the faulty app, to help developers to fix the problem

"You shake it!" he replies. "It's a completely natural reaction!"

Instabug automatically captures a screenshot, and records information about the phone and the console log, text files that show developers the state of the app.

Users can draw on the screen, make comments, and send it directly to the developer, all without having to leave the original application.

Developers then access the full bug report in real time from the content management system.

Dani Arnaout, a developer and member of the tutorial team at Raywenderlich (a platform for tutorials on iOS development), says Instabug's solution is amazingly simple, and solves an enormous problem in the developer community.

"It really enables greater collaboration between developers and users," he says. "Now it's fun to report bugs."

Image source, Jonathan Kalan
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Come together: At Flat6Labs, Cairo's leading accelerator and incubator for technology driven start-ups, teams get extensive training and mentorship to help expand their companies

Learning together

Egypt's collaborative start-ups go beyond fixing bugs and connecting revolutionaries.

Every year the country's educational gap is increasing, says Mostafa Farahat, co-founder of Nafham, a start-up aiming to build the largest Arabic online educational video platform.

"We have 18 million students. We're already overcrowded, and by 2017, we'll have a shortage of 700,000 seats."

Image source, Jonthan Kalan
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Mostafa Farahat (left) with fellow co-founder of educational start-up Nafham, Muhammad Habib

While in the West, online learning is rapidly growing, these platforms aren't available in Arabic. In fact, only 1% of online content is in Arabic, serving over 300 million native speakers.

Nafham, which means "we understand" in Arabic, is pioneering a new model called crowdteaching, which engages students by encouraging (and rewarding) them to record and upload video lessons themselves.

"We don't want it to be one-way learning," says Mr Farahat. "We want to engage people to create videos themselves."

The videos are vetted and linked to the Egyptian public school curriculum, categorised by grade, subject, topic and date.

Students get points based on participation, and compete monthly to win prizes such as an Android tablet, digital camera, or webcam - all of which will hopefully improve the quality of their videos.

Image source, Nafham
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Peer-to-peer connection: 14-year-old Lara Hossam's geography lesson is one of 1,000 student-made videos

Mr Farahat says the platform, which will earn revenue through advertising, will help remove the burden of paying for tutoring, which costs Egyptian families a staggering $2-3bn annually.

In just three months, students have uploaded 1,000 of the 6,000 videos on the site.

For example, fourteen-year-old student Lara Hossam uploaded a flow chart to explain the demographic characteristics of the desert environment in Egypt for friends who missed a geography lesson.

It's this crowdsourced and collaborative mentality that seems to be pushing Egypt's start-up culture ahead - and making it stand out.

Many of Egypt's young revolutionaries are now looking beyond just disrupting politics for a lasting change. They have set their sights on disrupting "business as usual".

"We have to think outside of the box, and find alternative solutions," says Mr Farahat.

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