Google announced a partnership with the World Bank today to make Google Map Maker data more accessible to government organizations in disaster scenarios. Google Map Maker is the tool for crowd-sourcing the editing and maintenance of Google’s world map. Its user-generated data include locations of hospitals, schools, settlements, water sources and minor roads.
Access to these data will help governments, NGOs, researchers and individuals plan without waiting for the changes to be approved and added to the official maps. World Bank partner organizations, such as government and U.N. agencies, can contact World Bank offices to request access to the data. Kenya, South Sudan, Tanzania, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Zambia, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Moldova, Mozambique, Nepal and Haiti will pilot the project.
Google’s New Gatekeeper
This partnership could improve response time and effectiveness in crises in underserved areas of the world. It’s just a shame that Google has decided to compete with Ushahidi and other open-source efforts to solve this problem. Access to Google Map Maker data is privileged information, and Google has chosen the mother of all elite gatekeepers, the World Bank, to facilitate this program.
The World Bank has supported much-needed online mapping efforts, such as the April 2011 project in South Sudan that enabled Google to put the new country on the map. It has also financially backed apps supporting economic development in a worldwide contest for software developers. In partnership with academic institutions, the World Bank has also backed a Web-based knowledge platform for urban development.
These are all great efforts, but they establish a familiar pattern for the World Bank. In Web technology, just as in global economic development, the World Bank has positioned itself as an unavoidable, privileged gatekeeper, and this time Google helped.
No More Open Source
We’ve reached out to Ushahidi for comment on the news, and we’ll update with the response. While Ushahidi‘s non-profit, open-source efforts carry on, Google is closing off access to its mapping platform upon which great works of software were once built. Having realized the enormous value of Google Maps as a resource, Google decided to start charging for API access last year.
That’s Google’s commercial prerogative, but its proprietary efforts are now in competition with the open-source community. Today’s partnership with the World Bank is a clearer example than the murky history of access to the Google Maps API. Google Map Maker is a moderated Google program, and Google has selected the World Bank as an arbiter of its data.
Last December, Google overhauled Map Maker’s editing tools to make it easier for any Google Maps user to add new data.
What do you think? Is the World Bank a good choice for Google as a partner? Share your thoughts in the comments.
Most of the big social media and app companies are pretty light on hard-core technology. Happy to stand on the shoulders of the tech giants that came before, many focus instead on features, design and UI. This enrages the kind of hardcore math nerds that used to rule the Valley.
Well, they have a new geeky mascot: Uber. Uber only scales and survives with hardcore mathematicians on staff. Among its braniac hires are a rocket scientist, a computational neuroscientist and a nuclear physicist. (That’s an actual staff photo to the left.)
I have no idea what those disciplines have to do with predicting cabs arrivals and sorting cab inventory. But apparently, something.
A new chest-thumpy blog post shows that using Google’s ETAs for New York cabs was leading to horrendous wait times for riders, about 3.6x off the estimates. That’s pretty much the worst possible user experience for a first time Uber user, particularly in a city where cabs are plentiful and users may never give it another try.
Uber dropped the Google API like a hot potato and developed its own algorithm. It wasn’t particularly comfortable about this, because it didn’t have much historical data to go on. But as some graphs in the post show, it immediately did better. How much better? Their quants crunched some numbers for me and found that Uber is on average 186.3 seconds more accurate than Google. And with every ride, Uber gathers more data and the estimates get better.
Do a few minutes make that much of a difference when you’re waiting on a cab? Well remember, this is the average. In some cases the differences between Google’s ETAs and Uber’s ETAs was 15 minutes or more. And if you’re standing in the rain waiting on a cab, hell yeah 186 seconds matter. Given that Seattle is one of the cities next on Uber’s launch list, this is a valuable algorithm to get right.
Uber CEO Travis Kalanick and I talked backstage at Disrupt about how his company lives and dies on its “Math Department,” as they call the team in house. The video is below. (We talk math at the four minute mark.)
Seems like it’s Sub-Saharan Month around here: first Sarah Lacy went to Nigeria, and now here I am in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital and Africa’s fourth-largest city. It feels like a boomtown. There are cranes and construction sites everywhere, throwing up gleaming new glass-and-steel buildings full of shops selling computers and mobile phones. The major thoroughfares throng with people making, trading, repairing, unloading, selling, and generally hustling.
Don’t get me wrong: this is still a poor country. Electrical outages are regular occurrences, the taxis that patrol the city’s broad avenues are rusting Ladas, and the side streets are harrowed dirt strewn with garbage, lined with tin shacks, and patrolled by beggars and feral dogs. But I’ve only seen occasional pockets of the poisonous stagnation I’ve found so often elsewhere south of the Sahara. This feels like a place where things happen. It’s a city and country that could be on the cusp of a genuine transformation, catalyzed by technology—were it not for a single, gigantic roadblock: its own government.
“Oh, they’re great,” Jörn Schultz deadpans about Ethio Telecom (ETC), the government monopoly that controls all phone, mobile, and Internet service across the nation, and everyone in the room bursts into laughter. He shakes his head. “No, no. They’re terrible.”
It’s not just the censorship, though that’s bad enough: the entire blogspot.com domain is blocked, along with various Facebook pages and newspapers. But it’s not what most angers the people here at iceAddis, the new “innovation/collaboration/entrepeneurship” space modelled after Nairobi’s legendary iHub. (I’ll tell you more about it in a separate post.) What upsets this crowd is ETC’s sheer incompetence.
A very brief acquaintance with Ethiopia’s Internet cafes will confirm everything they say in a hurry. Connection speeds are highly variable, trending towards painfully slow, if and when you can connect at all. Ethiopia still hasn’t linked up with the SEACOM fiber that brings broadband to East Africa, explains Markos Lemma, another iceAddis founder; as a result, the entire nation has only 1.2 gigabits of bandwidth for its 85 million people, more of whom are coming online every day. You do the math.
If you have a connection problem, things get even worse; by all accounts, ETC’s customer care makes Comcast seem like Rolls-Royce. Fitsum Assalif, a security hacker and penetration tester (“white-hat only,” he assures me with a grin) grimaces with disbelief, remembering: he also works at a large NGO, and the last time they had a serious connectivity issue, “I had to go to (Ethiopia Telecom’s) data center and fix it myself… They send their workers to China for training, but I don’t know what they get.”
But surely a place like iceAddis could end-run around the problem with a VSAT dish? Lemma (who has set up an entertaining “ETC sucks” Facebook page) shakes his head: “There’s no VSAT, it’s impossible.” The government forbids them for all except the most powerful of organizations; he estimates that there are fewer than half a dozen in the country, for places like the UN, World Bank, African Union. The red tape doesn’t stop there: you need a permit to import “anything with an IP number,” which takes a month—and they usually say no.
This is a proud nation, and with reason: Ethiopia is the only African nation which defeated their would-be European colonizers and remained independent throughout the colonial era. But they need to start looking to the rest of Africa as an example. “They’re so far ahead of us in Kenya,” Assanif says forlornly, meaning the fierce competition among mobile and Internet providers there, and the access and innovation that has thrived as a result.
It’s ironic that Ethiopia’s current government are the same people who overthrew the brutal Marxists called the Derg twenty years ago; alas, they seem to have inherited some of their archenemies’ fondness for monopolies, protectionism, and bureaucracy. I believe mobile Internet access is a transformational force that could turn African nations into economic lions to rival Asia’s tigers—but only if it’s fast, cheap, and ubiquitous. And that will never happen here while every bit of Ethiopia’s Internet is controlled by a dinosaur monopoly with no competitive incentive to improve.
But is Africa’s largest market prime for foreign venture capital investment, and how does it stack up to other frontier emerging markets Sarah has been visiting? Just after she got home, we shot a Why Is This News on her takeaways: Was she crazy to visit Nigeria like some people in the Valley said, or should we all be going there?
Ever since he could remember, Ibrahim Boakye had a knack for understanding how things worked. There were things he could just do that no other kids– let alone adults– could understand. By the time he was five-years-old everyone had stopped questioning it, and neighbors were calling on him to fix their broken toasters, irons, or anything that was the least bit mechanical.
By his early teens, he was getting things out of the dump and fixing them for fun. Soon after that, he was teaching himself to code. He’s made an outsized living no one in his family could have anticipated by outsmarting other people on computers ever since. It’s never been about money or even in those early days about doing good deeds around the neighborhood. He gets an intoxicating rush from solving the hardest technical problem he can find and from knowing that he’s the best.
As I sat in a hotel lobby in Lagos listening to his story, I couldn’t help being reminded of Max Levchin of PayPal and Slide fame. Levchin grew up in Soviet Russia and had the same knack, that same innate ability to understand how machines worked. He learned to code on whatever he could find– calculators, pen and paper, old Soviet microcomputers. When his family moved to America, he rebuilt things he found in dumpsters too. Watching the nightly news on a old black-and-white TV helped teach him English.
For Levchin, it was also about the thrill. He once got in trouble with the FBI for cracking video game codes for a Chicago crime boss. He didn’t really think about the fact that he was doing something illegal, he just loved the challenge. And like Boakye, he’s made an outsized living no one in his family could have anticipated by outsmarting other people on computers ever since. His rush also comes from solving the hardest technical problem he can find, and from knowing that he is the best.
But there’s a big difference between the two. Levchin immigrated to the US at 16, went to University of Illinois and was inspired by the example of Marc Andreessen. He moved to Silicon Valley at the best possible time for an aggressive, insanely-competitive coder to move to Silicon Valley. A company as complex and lasting as PayPal was hardly all luck and timing, but Levchin took advantage of being in the right place at the right time and meeting the right people, most notably PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel.
By contrast, Boakye grew up in a poor section of Lagos. In a way, his timing was also serendipitous: The Internet’s emergence in Nigeria breathed new life into an old national scam: The 419 letter. And a new generation was making hay out of the naiveté of millions of new Internet users. For Nigeria’s massive unemployed population– some fifty million people today– this was every bit the gold rush that Silicon Valley was in the 1990s. And the “entrepreneurs” concocting these schemes late night after the doors were locked in Nigeria’s Internet cafes needed a brilliant coder who was more motivated the bigger the challenge. Boakye was one of the best in the country.
Like Levchin, he took advantage of being in the right place at the right time and having the right skills. Only most would say he met the wrong kind of people. At his peak he was making as much as $50,000 per day as a freelancer hacking into bank systems, stealing social security numbers and credit cards, and exposing the Web’s deepest vulnerabilities for Nigeria’s “Yahoo boys,” called that because they were known for using Yahoo email addresses.
Boakye has since left the life of crime, he says. We met my last day in Lagos; one of nearly a dozen interviews I did with current and reformed Yahoo boys in Nigeria. I won’t detail how I got the meetings, because of the elaborate personal assurances of safety. I’ve taken pains to disguise any details about the man whose name is obviously not really Ibrahim Boakye. Appropriately, I got that name off the most recent 419 email I found in my spam folder. Some of the juiciest parts of the accounts I won’t detail here, lest it put the people who personally vouched for me at risk.
Finding Yahoo boys to talk to me was near-impossible; a big change from a few years ago. The 419 scammers used to be the rockstars of Nigeria’s underground world. “Girls wanted to date us because we were smart,” one told me. “We could get money out of white men using only our brains and a computer.” There was also the justification that this was some how a revenge for colonialism; when white men took Africa’s natural resources without consent. And– as is the case with every black market– there was the lure of all that cash. Skills were flaunted in cafes, whole organizations were built out, and even rap songs were written glorifying 419.
It’s much harder to make money today. That’s mostly because Internet companies have made it harder, through restricting mass emails and educating people not to purchase any goods from Nigeria. Most ecommerce sites block Nigerian ISPs. And consumers have gotten smarter, too, the Yahoo boys say. The Nigerian government has also made greater efforts to crack down, under International pressure and pressure from the country’s legitimate tech entrepreneurs who are furious at the Yahoo boys for globally sullying the country’s reputation. The people still doing it have been driven underground, forced to keep a low profile. They don’t talk about what they do even with friends. They can’t trust anyone. One current scammer told me he couldn’t invite friends over because of the noticeable stench in his bedroom from all the stacks of money stashed under his bed.
For most of the day, I sat transfixed listening to their stories. Of course it was impossible to know whether they were telling the truth about everything. But so many of the individual stories corresponded to one another, and the complex systems of scamming were too elaborate to have been made up on the spot. Each boy would start telling his stories shyly, but once he got going he couldn’t help but boast about his methods. Sometimes the hardest thing about committing the perfect crime can be keeping your genius to yourself.
Boakye’s sheer hacker genius was the most astounding. It’s not just technical ability– he tries to figure out how the person who set up the security system he’s trying to break thinks, and outsmart him at his own game. If he can’t crack the software, he studies the hardware and learns its vulnerabilities.
The way he described the chess match with this unknown nemesis reminded me of another entrepreneur in the Valley: Dennis Fong. Fong spent his teens as a professional gamer, better known by the name “Thresh.” He rarely lost thanks to an uncanny ability to anticipate opponents’ moves. Opponents called it “Thresh ESP,” and it earned him six-figure computing endorsement deals. The way Boakye explained how he breaks into multi-national banks was identical to Thresh’s approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s hacked into at least one of my accounts by now just out of curiosity. I asked him not to do anything malicious, and he promised he wouldn’t. But we were both pretty convinced he could.
As a person, I found these meeting more terrifying than my run in with Bones and his machete men in Alaba. As a business reporter, I couldn’t stop the broad smile from spreading across my face as we spoke, even breaking out in laughter once or twice. It’s the same Cheshire cat grin I get when I meet any amazing entrepreneur, anywhere in the world. You know them after five minutes of conversation. And several of these guys just had it. Born into a different circumstance, they could be on the cover of any magazine, ringing the opening bell at the Nasdaq.
This is the darkside of what we know in Silicon Valley: That great entrepreneurs can come from anywhere in the world. Sometimes some of the best technical minds fall into a life of crime. And just like corporate giants can’t keep a hot startup from disrupting them; law enforcement can’t keep people like Boakye from accessing your information.
There weren’t just stunning personality comparisons between someone like Boakye and Fong or Levchin, there were stunning industry comparisons. Like entrepreneurs in the Valley, the industry has evolved to the point where few of them need to be hard-core techies. Today, the Nigerians focus on user experience– put a less euphemistic way, their job is to find the mark and rope him or her in. Any hardcore hacking work is outsourced to Vietnam, India or elsewhere– particularly now that Boakye has retired from crime. One Yahoo boy told me he met his Vietnamese partner online when he tried to scam him. The man wrote back, “I’m not going to fall for this, but I know what you are doing and I can help you.” The world is flat for criminals too.
Don’t let the clunky syntax on these emails fool you. The Yahoo boys I met are masters of human manipulation. The latest scam revolves around online dating. Yahoo boys find a lonely man– sometimes a single man who wants a mail-order bride; sometimes a married one with kids who wants an escape on the side. They key with 419 scams is always finding someone who wants a easy shortcut in money or love. An elaborate relationship over IM begins. One boy I met excelled at these. He says he just closes his eyes and pretends it’s a woman on the other end he’s seducing. He uses carefully constructed porn clips for video chats; other scammers hire actresses to portray the fictional girls.
This Yahoo boy carries on five to seven relationships at once, playing the dutiful girlfriend to each– down to helping them pick out their clothes for work everyday. When one suitor lost a job, he used the Web to help find him an interview and pumped up his confidence to apply. He gave him several months to get back on his feet before asking for more cash. One time, he even sent the mark cash, to show how much he — or “she”– cared. “I take care of them,” he says. “They are the people who feed me.”
He helps build them up; he listens to their problems. He makes them feel loved. He calls each an innocuous pet name, lest he accidentally type the wrong message into the wrong chat window. He asks for a little bit of money here and there, until men are sending him steady amounts from each paycheck. He says it takes exactly one month for a man to fall in love with him, and once he has a man’s heart, no woman can take it.
This isn’t a short con, this is a long term game of constant maintenance. He creates fictional Web pages to back up the fictional girl’s story, so if the man Google’s her, he finds seemingly legitimate confirmation. When he goes to church, he tells them “she’s” going to church. When he makes dinner he tells them “she’s” making dinner. He’s less a 419 scammer, and more a long-distance emotional prostitute, providing a service men appear to be happy to pay for. Like any great entrepreneur, this Yahoo boy knows his customer. “if you get their heart, you have control,” he says. “You white people have very flexible hearts. We’ve seen it. That’s why there can be no true love in Nigeria. Your closest friends rip you off here.” He continued, “I wish I could stop. I’m not into the black man power like some people. I don’t want to make someone sell their house; I don’t want to take everything. I just can’t find a job. If I had a junior brother I wouldn’t teach him. You get addicted to it.”
Just like you have people in the Valley looking to flip products and those in it for the long haul; in the 419 world you have kids who try it out for easy money, and those who commit to it. To be successful today you have to work as many hours as a Valley Internet entrepreneur and have just as long term of a focus. There’s just as much creative problem solving involved; this is something you can’t really teach. A lot of these Yahoo boys told me they’ve tried to take on apprentices, but few of them last. It’s not the glamorous, quick-money world it used to be. Today being a scammer takes smarts and stamina.
Nigeria is undoubtably one of the juiciest markets in the emerging world, and by many accounts the juiciest in all of Africa. And legitimate tech entrepreneurs will be understandably upset about Western reporters fixating on the 419 world. But if they want to stay in Nigeria, they’ll have to get used to it. These kids, the circumstances that created them, and the lasting impact of the damage they’ve done to people aren’t issues the country can shrug off no matter how much it would like to. “We use our brains to get what we want. For us it’s the only way to live and survive,” one boy said. “As long as technology keeps advancing, there is no way to stop us.”
It’s Nigeria’s central issue that it will have to face, own up to, and tackle if the country is going to play a greater role in the global economy. Ignoring it is like ignoring China’s lack of political freedom; India’s deep poverty and infrastructure problems; or the civil war going on in Brazil’s favelas between drug lords and the frequently corrupt policemen cracking down on them. The reason Westerners tend to fixate on these issues isn’t because we’re opting for easy stereotypes. It’s because they are each huge problems without easy solutions. Problems that have to be faced. And you face them by talking to the real people behind them, not by sweeping them under a rug, assuming they’re all two-dimensional villains or dismissing them as a made up stereotype.
One of the active scammers I spoke with is supporting his whole family, including several siblings he is putting through university, so they have a chance at a better life. But one of them has been out of school for years, and still can’t find a job. It’s not a ringing endorsement to go legit. This guy doesn’t feel great about what he does, but he says he has no other option. He goes to church several times a week, where he wrestles with it. He tells himself he is on God’s path, and he has faith it ends with him leaving this life behind.
He’s describing the hope of anyone who is touched by the genius and the opportunity in Nigeria, as I was during my trip. That this stunning raw talent can find a way to stop relying on bilking Westerners out of cash and start using their wily genius to create local jobs.