Rooted in Community

I finally landed at London Heathrow Airport, after a delayed flight from Barcelona, Spain, where I was attending the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) 63 meeting.  I navigated my way to the citizenM Hotel through the London Underground, at the witching hour of 01:03am. All I wanted to do was take a warm shower and get some rest. But then I saw an iPad next to my bed, with an interface showing instructions on how to “control” the features in my room – switch on the TV, adjust lights according to my mood, set the temperature, open/close the window blinds, set an alarm, play music and so much more. The iPad felt like the much needed “welcome home”; how could I say no? I was Citizen Sarah, Citizen 547.

I finally dozed off after spending ages trying to configure whatever I could; watching a movie; and setting my alarm. As the alarm went off, so many other things happened – including a voice telling me to wake up, lights turning on, window blinds opening, and the TV switching on, etc. I was confused, tired and had not slept enough but I had to prepare for my sessions at Mozilla Festival 2018.

Fast forward 2019, I am now an Early Stage Researcher on the OpenDoTT PhD programme from the University of Dundee and Mozilla. The project aims to explore how to build a more open, secure and trustworthy Internet of Things (IoT). Through the OpenDoTT project, I hope to explore possibilities for smaller-scale local IoT technology and how grassroots communities can be supported in making the best use of them. Alongside my colleagues working on topics ranging from Wearables and the Self, Smart Homes, Smart Cities and a Trust Mark for IoT, I will focus on Communities and Neighbourhoods.

Almost 5 months into the project, I have been reflecting on issues about Africa, access, technology, IoT, communities and digital colonialism. I wonder if my CitizenM room 547 would work the same way if I ‘carried’ it to Kayunga District in central Uganda. How would William Gaver’s Prayer Companion work with a group of nuns in Uganda? On the other hand, why would I ‘carry’ the room or the prayer companion and not design one that fits my context and culture? Dr Alison Gillwald’s article on the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) talks about the South African population using technologies in a consumptive rather than productive way.

Most of the technology I have read about has been developed and used in developed countries, but would it work the same way in an African context? I wonder if our infrastructure in Africa is sufficient to support new technologies and if we have the capacity to use them.The AfterAccess Surveys results show that in Africa, only South Africa has more than 50% of the population using the Internet, while most countries are below 30%, including large economies like Ghana, Kenya and Nigeria. In fact, mobile phone ownership ranges between 9 – 30% for smartphones and 30 – 78% for basic phones in the surveyed countries.

Source: AfterAccess 2019

Looking into the future, and watching Ivan Poupyrev’s TED talk (everything around you can become a computer), I can only hope that Africa is ready for 4IR in terms of knowledge and skills, infrastructure, and policy and regulations. Steve Song’s review of African telecommunications infrastructure in 2018 seems promising. And even if there have been some regressive policies like the social media tax in some African countries, the World Bank’s scorecard on infrastructure development in Sub-saharan Africa shows some telecommunications infrastructure progress and the need to continue the growth momentum.

Am I Citizen Sarah? Am I Citizen 547? I will spend the next 3 years trying to understand what happens behind the scenes in terms of research and design to ensure that my CitizenM room was functional. I will try to understand if my community has or needs a ‘citizen number’ on the Internet, how that affects our privacy and what we can do to ensure that our connected products are more open, secure and trustworthy. Ultimately, I will explore the value of IoT technology to my community and what structures can be put in place so that grassroots communities can participatively make the best use of this technology.

Editorial: Racheal Yiba and Chenai Chair
Illustrations by Charity Atukunda