Kenya’s biggest protest in recent history played out on a walkie-talkie app

Article by Stephanie Wangari: “Betty had never heard of the Zello app until June 18.

But as she participated in Kenya’s “GenZ protests” that month — one of the biggest in the country’s history — the app became her savior.

On Zello, “we were getting updates and also updating others on where the tear-gas canisters were being lobbed and which streets had been cordoned off,” Betty, 27, told Rest of World, requesting to be identified by a pseudonym as she feared backlash from the police. “At one point, I also alerted the group [about] suspected undercover investigative officers who were wearing balaclavas.”

The speed of communicating over Zello made it the primary tool to mobilize crowds and coordinate logistics during the protests. Stephanie Wangari

Nairobi witnessed massive protests in June as thousands of young Kenyans came out on the streets against a proposed bill that would increase taxes on staple foods and other essential goods and services. At least 39 people were killed, 361 were injured, and more than 335 were arrested by the police during the protests, according to human rights groups.

Amid the mayhem, Zello, an app developed by U.S. engineer Alexey Gavrilov in 2007, became the primary tool for protestors to communicate, mobilize crowds, and coordinate logistics. Six protesters told Rest of World that Zello, which allows smartphones to be used as walkie-talkies, helped them find meeting points, evade the police, and alert each other to potential dangers. 

Digital services experts and political analysts said the app helped the protests become one of the most effective in the country’s history.

According to Herman Manyora, a political analyst and lecturer at the University of Nairobi, mobilization had always been the greatest challenge in organizing previous protests in Kenya. The ability to turn their “phones into walkie-talkies” made the difference for protesters, he told Rest of World.

“The government realized that the young people were able to navigate technological challenges. You switch off one app, such as [X], they move to another,” Manyora said.

Zello was downloaded over 40,000 times on the Google Play store in Kenya between June 17 and June 25, according to data from the company. This was “well above our usual numbers,” a company spokesperson told Rest of World. Zello did not respond to additional requests for comment…(More)


Report by Mark Kaigwa et al: “The “Dada Disinfo: Technology-Facilitated Gender-Based Violence (TFGBV) Report,” prepared by Nendo and Pollicy, outlines the pervasive issue of TFGBV in Kenya’s vibrant but volatile social media ecosystem. The report draws on extensive research, including social media analytics, surveys, and in-depth interviews with content creators, to shed light on the manifestations, perpetrators, and impacts of TFGBV. The project, supported by USAID and conducted in collaboration with Pollicy, integrates advanced analytics to offer insights and potential solutions to mitigate online gender-based violence in Kenya…(More)”.

Uganda’s Sweeping Surveillance State Is Built on National ID Cards

Article by Olivia Solon: “Uganda has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in the past decade on biometric tools that document a person’s unique physical characteristics, such as their face, fingerprints and irises, to form the basis of a comprehensive identification system. While the system is central to many of the state’s everyday functions, as Museveni has grown increasingly authoritarian over nearly four decades in power, it has also become a powerful mechanism for surveilling politicians, journalists, human rights advocates and ordinary citizens, according to dozens of interviews and hundreds of pages of documents obtained and analyzed by Bloomberg and nonprofit investigative newsroom Lighthouse Reports.

It’s a cautionary tale for any country considering establishing a biometric identity system without rigorous checks and balances and input from civil society. Dozens of global south countries have adopted this approach as part of an effort to meet sustainable development goals from the UN, which considers having a legal identity to be a fundamental human right. But, despite billions of dollars of investment, with backing from organizations including the World Bank, those identity systems haven’t always lived up to expectations. In many cases, the key problem is the failure to register large swathes of the population, leading to exclusion from public services. But in other places, like Uganda, inclusion in the system has been weaponized for surveillance purposes.

A year-long investigation by Bloomberg and Lighthouse Reports sheds new light on the ways in which Museveni’s regime has built and deployed this system to target opponents and consolidate power. It shows how the underlying software and data sets are easily accessed by individuals at all levels of law enforcement, despite official claims to the contrary. It also highlights, in some cases for the first time, how senior government and law enforcement officials have used these tools to target individuals deemed to pose a political threat…(More)”.

21st Century technology can boost Africa’s contribution to global biodiversity data

Article by Wiida Fourie-Basson: “In spring in the Southern hemisphere, the natural world is on full throttle: “Flowers are blooming, insects are emerging, birds are singing, and reptiles are coming out of their winter hibernation,” wrote Pete Crowcroft, known as @possumpete on the citizen science app, iNaturalist.

Yet, despite this annual bursting forth of life, a 2023 preprint puts the continent’s contribution to the Global Biodiversity Information Facility at a dismal 2.69%, with huge disparities between African countries…

Since its formation in 2008 as part of a graduate project at the University of California, the iNaturalist platform has evolved into one of the world’s most popular biodiversity observation platforms. Anyone, anywhere in the world, with a smartphone can download the app and start posting images and descriptions of their observations, and a large community of identifiers helps to confirm the species’ observation and label it as “research grade”.

Rebelo says iNaturalist is now used on a massive scale: “During the 2023 City Nature Challenge almost 67,000 people made nearly two million observations over four days – that is, five observations each second. Another 22,000 specialists identified 60 thousand species of animals, plants, and fungi. Few citizen science platforms are as powerful and efficient.”..

Andra Waagmeester, data scientist at Micelio in Belgium and a Wikimentor, believes the dearth of biodiversity data from Africa can be solved by combining the iNaturalist and Wikipedia communities: “They are independent communities, but there is substantial overlap between them. By overlaying the two data sets and leveraging the semantic web, we have the means to deal with the challenge.”

The need for biodiversity-related knowledge from Africa was first acknowledged by the Wiki-community during the 2018 Wikimania conference in Cape Town. The Wiki Biodiversity Project has since grown into an active global community that leverages crowd-sourced knowledge from platforms like iNaturalist…(More)”.

Youth Media Literacy Program Fact Checking Manual

Internews: “As part of the USAID-funded Advancing Rights in Southern Africa Program (ARISA), Internews developed the Youth Media Literacy Program to enhance the digital literacy skills of young people. Drawing from university journalism students, and young leaders from civil society organizations in Botswana, Eswatini, Lesotho, and South Africa, the program equipped 124 young people to apply critical thinking to online communication and practice improved digital hygiene and digital security practices. The Youth Media Literacy Program Fact Checking Manual was developed to provide additional support and tools to combat misinformation and disinformation and improve online behavior and security…(More)”.

Evaluating LLMs Through a Federated, Scenario-Writing Approach

Article by Bogdana “Bobi” Rakova: “What do screenwriters, AI builders, researchers, and survivors of gender-based violence have in common? I’d argue they all imagine new, safe, compassionate, and empowering approaches to building understanding.

In partnership with Kwanele South Africa, I lead an interdisciplinary team, exploring this commonality in the context of evaluating large language models (LLMs) — more specifically, chatbots that provide legal and social assistance in a critical context. The outcomes of our engagement are a series of evaluation objectives and scenarios that contribute to an evaluation protocol with the core tenet that when we design for the most vulnerable, we create better futures for everyone. In what follows I describe our process. I hope this methodological approach and our early findings will inspire other evaluation efforts to meaningfully center the margins in building more positive futures that work for everyone…(More)”

The AI project pushing local languages to replace French in Mali’s schools

Article by Annie Risemberg and Damilare Dosunmu: “For the past six months,Alou Dembele, a27-year-oldengineer and teacher, has spent his afternoons reading storybooks with children in the courtyard of a community school in Mali’s capital city, Bamako. The books are written in Bambara — Mali’s most widely spoken language — and include colorful pictures and stories based on local culture. Dembele has over 100 Bambara books to pick from — an unimaginable educational resource just a year ago.

From 1960 to 2023, French was Mali’s official language. But in June last year, the military government replaced it in favor of 13 local languages, creating a desperate need for new educational materials.

Artificial intelligence came to the rescue: RobotsMali, a government-backed initiative, used tools like ChatGPT, Google Translate, and free-to-use image-maker Playgroundto create a pool of 107 books in Bambara in less than a year. Volunteer teachers, like Dembele, distribute them through after-school classes. Within a year, the books have reached over 300 elementary school kids, according to RobotsMali’s co-founder, Michael Leventhal. They are not only helping bridge the gap created after French was dropped but could also be effective in helping children learn better, experts told Rest of World…(More)”.

10 Examples of Successful African e-Government Digital Services

Article by Wayan Vota: “African countries are implementing a diverse range of e-Government services, aiming to improve service delivery, enhance efficiency, and promote transparency. For example, common e-Government services in African countries include:

  • Online Government Portals: African countries are increasingly offering online services such as e-taxation, e-payment, and e-billing through online government portals, which allow citizens to access public services more efficiently and provide governments with prompt feedback on service quality.
  • Digital Identity Initiatives: Many African countries are working on digital identity initiatives to improve service delivery, including the introduction of national IDs with biometric data components to generate documents and provide services automatically, reducing paperwork and enhancing efficiency.
  • G2G, G2B, and G2C Activities: e-Government services to different groups, like Government-to-Government (G2G), Government-to-Business (G2B), and Government-to-Citizen (G2C) focuses on activities such as electoral processes, staff payroll payments, healthcare management systems, support for small businesses, and transparent procurement procedures…

Successful eGovernment initiatives in African countries have significantly improved government services and citizen engagement. These examples are part of a broader trend in Africa towards leveraging digital technologies to improve governance and public administration, with many countries making significant implementation progress…(More)”.

Towards an Inclusive Data Governance Policy for the Use of Artificial Intelligence in Africa

Paper by Jake Okechukwu Effoduh, Ugochukwu Ejike Akpudo and Jude Dzevela Kong: “This paper proposes five ideas that the design of data governance policies for the inclusive use of artificial intelligence (AI) in Africa should consider. The first is for African states to carry out an assessment of their domestic strategic priorities, strengths, and weaknesses. The second is a human-centric approach to data governance which involves data processing practices that protect security of personal data and privacy of data subjects; ensures that personal data is processed in a fair, lawful, and accountable manner; minimize the harmful effect of personal data misuse or abuse on data subjects and other victims; and promote a beneficial, trusted use of personal data. The third is for the data policy to be in alignment with supranational rights-respecting AI standards like the African Charter on Human and Peoples Rights, the AU Convention on Cybersecurity and Personal Data Protection. The fourth is for states to be critical about the extent that AI systems can be relied on in certain public sectors or departments. The fifth and final proposition is for the need to prioritize the use of representative and interoperable data and ensuring a transparent procurement process for AI systems from abroad where no local options exist…(More)”

AI often mangles African languages. Local scientists and volunteers are taking it back to school

Article by Sandeep Ravindran: “Imagine joyfully announcing to your Facebook friends that your wife gave birth, and having Facebook automatically translate your words to “my prostitute gave birth.” Shamsuddeen Hassan Muhammad, a computer science Ph.D. student at the University of Porto, says that’s what happened to a friend when Facebook’s English translation mangled the nativity news he shared in his native language, Hausa.

Such errors in artificial intelligence (AI) translation are common with African languages. AI may be increasingly ubiquitous, but if you’re from the Global South, it probably doesn’t speak your language.

That means Google Translate isn’t much help, and speech recognition tools such as Siri or Alexa can’t understand you. All of these services rely on a field of AI known as natural language processing (NLP), which allows AI to “understand” a language. The overwhelming majority of the world’s 7000 or so languages lack data, tools, or techniques for NLP, making them “low-resourced,” in contrast with a handful of “high-resourced” languages such as English, French, German, Spanish, and Chinese.

Hausa is the second most spoken African language, with an estimated 60 million to 80 million speakers, and it’s just one of more than 2000 African languages that are mostly absent from AI research and products. The few products available don’t work as well as those for English, notes Graham Neubig, an NLP researcher at Carnegie Mellon University. “It’s not the people who speak the languages making the technology.” More often the technology simply doesn’t exist. “For example, now you cannot talk to Siri in Hausa, because there is no data set to train Siri,” Muhammad says.

He is trying to fill that gap with a project he co-founded called HausaNLP, one of several launched within the past few years to develop AI tools for African languages…(More)”.