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Apps 4 Africa, an example of government crowd-sourcing, announces winners

,    /   Oct 12th, 2010Government, News, Tech

Three winners have been announced for Apps 4 Africa, a contest initiated by the U.S. State Department that is aimed at harnessing Africa’s tech talent for social change. The competition, launched on July 1, was a rare example of a government agency crowd-sourcing innovation from citizens, in this case East Africans.  The U.S. State Department developed the project in partnership with local tech and civil society groups iHub, Appfrica Labs, and the Social Development Network. The winners were selected from more than 20 entrants from five countries.

  • First place ($5,000 and an iPad) was awarded to Charles Kithika of Kenya for iCow, an app that lets farmers monitor the breeding stages of their cows and manage nutrition levels;
  • Second ($3,000 and a Nokia N900) went to the Kleptocracy Fighters Inc. who developed an app allowing citizens to record and report real-time information on government corruption;
  • Third ($2,000 and a Sprint HTC Desire) went to developers of an SMS savings calculator and prepayment tracking tool designed to help low-income women save and prepay for their maternal health needs.

Apps 4 Africa enlisted individuals or civil society groups to propose social problems they thought technology could help address, and challenged East African developers to build web and mobile apps to tackle them. (Though Internet coverage in the region is poor, mobile phone use is extensive.)

The project ties into a broader policy agenda championed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Variously dubbed “21st Century Statecraft” and “digital diplomacy,” it seeks to “harness the power of connection technologies and apply them to our diplomatic goals,” as Clinton put it in a major speech on Internet freedom earlier this year. Clinton declared that the Internet, mobile phones, and other tools “can do for economic growth what the Green Revolution did for agriculture,” and provide an “on-ramp to modernity.”

Clinton’s State Department has been praised for its leadership on tech and information issues, and has been cited as an example of how governments can incentivize rather than hinder social innovation. “The only reason this is possible is that the U.S. Department of State and the White House recognize that innovation is key to what they want to do,” says Joshua Goldstein, an American technologist based in Nairobi, Kenya, who partnered with the State Department on the project.

The key, he says, has been Clinton’s personal commitment to social and technology innovation, as demonstrated by the placement of an “innovation office” on the same floor as the Secretary. “My sense is it’s only worth doing something if you have that level of buy-in,” he says. “That made it easy to get people to listen.”

“People don’t think the U.S. government is capable of turning something around this quickly,” says Elana Berkowitz, an innovation advisor to Clinton who worked on Apps 4 Africa, and who agrees that Clinton’s personal commitment to digital diplomacy was decisive. “So it’s an exciting example of what’s possible.”

The governmental involvement helped secure buy-in from the regional tech communities, says Goldstein. “The technologists are most excited about things like iPhone, iPad, and developing for these kinds of tools. The folks doing grassroots outreach are mostly people who care about SMS and apps for Nokia 1100s, the cheapest phone on the market here. So it’s a very interesting opportunity for cross-cultural dialogue. The innovation office at State was so impressive to these [technologists],” he says, adding that “for those of us who care about technology but care about it being used for some civic end, the State Department’s interest is perfectly timed.”

Photo: Courtesy of Apps 4 Africa

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