South Africans rock Texas

A group of South Africans recently descended upon South by South West Interactive, in Austin, Texas, for a week of brain food.

3 May 2010

As early as three o’clock in the morning, a red-eyed crew wearing scarves with the colours of the South African flag gathered in the lounge of a downtown hotel in Austin, Texas. All jet-lagged, they spent the cool and quiet morning hours working, writing and preparing for a day of talks and panel discussions.

Half the work was in selecting which sessions to attend. With some 17 000 visitors, South by South West (SxSW) was the biggest the small city of Austin had seen to date, and each hour was filled with a dozen or more presentations, demonstrations and debates.

The festival – it is much more than a conference – comprises three distinct tracks, covering music, film and interactive technology. Most of the South Africans were there for the last, but it is impossible to escape the vibe and energy of Austin when the entertainment world descends upon it in the mild spring weather. The local students are still on spring break, the streets are closed in the evenings for parties, concerts, and film premieres, and everywhere you look are people living up to the city’s unofficial slogan: “Keep Austin Weird”.

Among the early risers was Eve Dmochowska, a South African entrepreneur who not only took the initiative in welding the South Africans travelling to America into a recognisable and semi-organised delegation, but also had a proposal for a panel discussion accepted at the prestigious event.

With her to discuss the concept of the CrowdFund – sourcing startup investment in small shares from social networks – were four other prominent South Africans: Heather Ford used to be a director at iCommons, before taking off to California to study at UC Berkeley’s iSchool; Justin Spratt is an Australian immigrant (the traffic isn’t just one way) who co-founded Internet Solutions’ startup incubator, IS Labs; Brett Haggard is a veteran technology reporter; and Gareth Knight is an entrepreneur who has had success with startups in the UK, and has contributed much in terms of experience and advice to support local entrepreneurship.

Their panel, one of many that drew only a small audience, was nonetheless very well received. A reporter for a local news station listed Dmochowska among the best presenters at the conference, among such luminaries as Clay Shirky and Marc Cuban, and the audience was enthused, excited and appreciative of a panel that focused not just on the panelists’ own business, but on those of others. The CrowdFund idea itself, which combines a startup fund with a support network that offers advice, working space, and other services, was in many ways unique in the world, and garnered a lot of plaudits and questions from the interested attendees.

Eve Dmochowska, Heather Ford and Justin Spratt present the CrowdFund to a small but appreciative audience. There was little corporate representation in the delegation. Jack Kruger, head of digital at Old Mutual, was there to imbibe the latest in social media and technology. Lynette Kloppers and Andy Hadfield were there on behalf of First National Bank, and Heidi Patmore represented Nokia. Most others – including Gaby Rosario, Allan Kent, Cath Duncan, Joey da Silva, Marcel Rossouw and Pete Flynn – came from the media, advertising or technology small business sectors.

This year’s SxSW was where locationbased data came of age. The value of geosocial services such as Foursquare and Gowalla became clear in the busy halls of the Austin Convention Centre, surrounded as they were by a myriad party, food and entertainment options. Neither startup won the war, but both are clearly on the map now, in much the same way that Twitter hit the big time at SxSW a few years ago.

Among the more interesting debates at the festival was a no-holds-barred argument between Marc Cuban, who sold for billions and now runs HDNet, and the quiet Israeli, Avner Ronen, the founder of Boxee. The former disputed that there’s a revenue model for free online television, and although he made a number of excellent points, it was hard not to come away with the view that no matter the revenue that exists in cable and satellite television, Ronen’s world of online television on demand is where momentum is taking us.

Wide open world

Danah Boyd, a social media researcher who now works at Microsoft Research New England, presented a keynote speech on privacy versus publicity.

“No matter how many times a straight white male tells you privacy is dead, it is not true,” she began, before presenting a troubling list of privacy violations by companies we’d all like to be able to trust, such as Google and Facebook. She contextualised these in terms of the social rituals that establish our control over what we want other people to know, and when we’re prepared to trust them with private information. In the end, it’s not about whether or not something is private or public, but how public it becomes.

“Making something more public [than it already is] is a violation of someone’s privacy,” she said. Privacy is a nuanced, complex beast, and how we (and technology companies) think about it is critical not only to how we behave online, but also to what we should be able to expect from companies in order to repose trust in them.

Privacy, and the expectation of privacy, changes with context, with age, with social group, and even over time. It is an evolving process, which is why it is important to engage users. “Ask them, before making a change. Don’t rely on the ability to roll back when you’ve gone too far as a company. Because sometimes you simply can’t.”

Twitter kids of Tanzania

Several sessions were about, or included, discussions on technology in Africa. One of the most inspiring was Stacey Monk, Melissa Leon and AJ Leon, who were invited by Jeff Pulver, of #140conf fame, to talk about a project in Tanzania. Schoolkids in a rural village were given the tools to get online, and join Twitter.

One of the children, Leah Albert (@leah_albert), asked people to share whatever they’re grateful for. If they responded, they got an opportunity to donate. If they donated, they’d get their Twitter handle added to a Thank You wall at Mama Lucy’s school. “This classroom was built by gratitude,” the wall reads.

Others shared their experience of a traumatic event in their lives, which helped the children realise that they’re not alone in the world. Still others, who were too shy to speak up in class, found that they could tweet their questions, and took to the technology quickly. Most were just excited to share their stories with people in the United States or Europe, and to learn about places that they couldn’t dream of visiting. It made the world smaller for them, and gave them a new sense of their place in it.

As Glory Abraham (@glory_abraham) tweeted: “@mamalucy are you aware that i can change the world? i’m very proud of myself...”

In another session, Teddy Ruge, the co-founder of Project Diaspora, set up live links to several projects in Africa, demonstrating to the American audience that there are many who merely need better connectivity or funding to create great products.

Among the projects that were highlighted was Udima, in Uganda, a platform for transparency in aid funding, tracking where money is coming from, and how it is being spent. Somewhat higher tech, Silica is a natural language system that recognises keywords and builds tag clouds to help people comprehend information better.

iHub, in Kenya, and Appfrica Labs in Uganda, both support startup businesses and technology projects with physical workspace, shared internet access and business incubation services. Many of the projects focus on the promise of mobile technology, by means of which Africa hopes to leapfrog a wired world that it may never know. The drive and determination of the entrepreneurs that were showcased was palpable.

“This is the Cheetah Generation,” said Ruge, quoting George B.N. Ayittey, an economist and author at George Washington University and the Independent Institute.

“They’re disruptors to the status quo.” If there’s a message for Africa from this year’s SxSW festival, it’s the sense that government projects or top-down solutions imposed by foreign organisations have failed to deliver hoped-for development in Africa.

However, far from being despondent, Africa was very much present at the cutting edge of technology and geekdom, and its citizens were optimistically and energetically taking matters into their own hands.

Ruge, Dmochowska, Monk and others got their applause from the palpable feeling that it is possible to solve Africa’s problems, for Africans, by Africans.

Ivo Vegter’s attendance at SxSW was made possible by Old Mutual.