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Blockchain At The Polls?

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Blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world, and could provide the answer to making voting more transparent in Africa.

Kenyan elections are notoriously tricky affairs, usually with disputed results and occasionally with accompanying violence.Other African elections often descend into chaos, as most recently seen in Zimbabwe, but in blockchain, the open, distributed ledger most commonly associated with bitcoin, a solution may have been found.

Earlier this year, presidential elections took place in Sierra Leone. During the vote, Swiss foundation Agora used blockchain to record votes in more than 300 polling centers. As blockchain records transactions in a verifiable and permanent way, it is almost impossible to alter. Therefore, by recording votes on it, elections in theory become more transparent.

This greater transparency could be pivotal to ensuring more effective democracy and calmer elections across Africa, where disputes over votes are common. Kenya looks set to become the next country to test the benefits, with the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission (IEBC) Chairman Wafula Chebukati saying it would utilize blockchain in the next elections.

READ MORE: Building Blockchain Tech With The World As Their Official Address

What impact could it have? Michael Kimani is Chairman of the Blockchain Association of Kenya, and he says that will depend on how it is used.

“From my experience, any deployment of distributed ledger technology could be at one of three points in the electoral system – the main server where voter registration data is held, the national tallying center where all information from across the country is collated, and the tallying centers where group representatives take part in a tallying process,” he says.

Wherever and however the IEBC chooses to employ blockchain, electoral laws would have to be changed to accommodate it. Kimani also says it’s worth keeping in mind that the technology itself is still nascent.

“Beyond cryptocurrency, there hasn’t been any deployment at scale,” he says.
Nevertheless, Kimani believes the IEBC statement is a positive starting point, and that using blockchain could have a significant impact on reducing fraud.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“The concept of a distributed ledger for processes that were previously limited to a single entity would provide significant improvements for the whole process,” he says.

“I am less concerned about the technology itself. It really boils down to man-made specifications that can be implemented. I see potential problems in setting up the necessary governance structures required to make it a reality. There are some things the technology can do, but the rest of it is really up to humans – the laws we set up, the institutions we set up, the audit processes we set up to check on the technology where it fails, and the dispute resolution structures we set up.”

Challenges remain. Yet, blockchain is being adapted for election usage elsewhere in the world. It has been piloted in elections by the state of West Virginia in the United States, while tech firm Kaspersky Lab has built a platform that utilizes it for voting.

Alexey Malanov, a malware expert at Kaspersky Lab, says it is the next logical step on from online voting, which has been used in countries such as Estonia in northern Europe.

“Online voting can be highly beneficial for modern society – it has the potential to make voting easier, cheaper and more convenient. In the modern, efficiency-driven, mobile world, various limitations of offline voting have become apparent: it’s expensive, time-consuming and often inaccessible – or at least challenging for people who aren’t physically present to cast a vote,” he says.

Alexey Malanov

“Online voting can help overcome these challenges, but this brings several uncertainties of its own: how to properly secure the process and how to make sure that the votes aren’t changed or altered by an external or internal party.”

Usage of blockchain technology for general elections, however, is not reasonable at the moment, he says.

“It’s quite a slow technology. A public blockchain processes 10 transactions per second, [which] is not enough to ensure voting for millions of citizens within one day,” Malanov says.

However, Kaspersky Lab is sure blockchain has vast potential yet to be uncovered, with its Business Incubator team exploring opportunities for secure implementation of blockchain for commercial use, and how its transparent, incorruptible and trusted characters could benefit areas beyond cryptocurrencies.

“We saw a great market opportunity and decided to support an experimental and promising project called Polys. It’s a secure online voting system based on blockchain technology and backed by transparent crypto-algorithms,” Malanov says.

“From the user’s perspective, it consists of a web service through which to organize voting and cast a vote, using a mobile phone or tablet. As in any vote, there are several key requirements that would make online voting trusted and secure – transparency of the process, anonymity of a voter and their confidence that their vote won’t be altered in favor of a candidate or option they didn’t choose.”

Blockchain-based programs like Polys provide all this, and it’s surely only a matter of time before we start seeing them used in African elections

– Tom Jackson

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How Google Is Using AI To Make Voice Recognition Work For People With Disabilities

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Want to schedule an appointment? Just ask your phone. Need to turn on your bedroom lights? Google Home has you covered.

Now a $49 billion market, voice-activated systems have gained popularity among consumers, thanks to their ability to automate and streamline mundane tasks. But for people with impaired speech,  technologies that rely on voice commands have proved to be far from perfect.

That’s the impetus for Google’s newly formed Project Euphonia, part of the company’s AI for Social Good program. The project team is exploring ways to improve speech recognition for people who are deaf or have neurological conditions such as ALS, stroke, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or traumatic brain injury.

Google has partnered with nonprofit organizations ALS Therapy Development Institute and ALS Residence Initiative (ALSRI) to collect recorded voice samples from people who have the neurodegenerative disease, one that often leads to severe speech and mobility difficulties.

For those with neurological conditions, voice-activated systems can play a key role in completing everyday tasks and conversing with loved ones, caregivers or colleagues. “You can turn on your lights, your music or communicate with someone. But this only works if the technology can actually recognize your voice and transcribe it,” says Julie Cattiau, a product manager at Google AI.

The company’s speech recognition technology utilizes machine learning algorithms that require extensive data training. “We have hundreds of thousands, or even millions, of sentences that people have read—and we use them as examples for the algorithms to learn how to recognize each,” says Cattiau. “But it’s not enough for people with disabilities.”

With Project Euphonia, the team will instead use voice samples from people who have impaired speech in the hope that the underlying system will be trained to understand inarticulate commands.

While the goal is to create technology that is more accessible for people with speech impediments, the end result is still unclear.

“It’s possible that we will have models that work for multiple people with ALS and other medical conditions,” says Cattiau. “It’s also possible that people, even just within ALS, sound too different to have such a machine learning model in place. And in that case, we may need to have a level of personalization so that each person has their own model.”

Google’s speech recognition technology can comprehend virtually any voice command for people without speech impairments, due to the large data set that has been available for training. But some uncertainty exists about how broadly speech technology will be able to understand and act on directives from those who have difficulty speaking. The Project Euphonia team has only a limited number  of voice samples from people with speech impediments, which allows it to focus only on specific-use words and phrases such as “read me a book” or “turn off the lights.”

Though Cattiau’s team has collected tens of thousands of recorded phrases, she says it needs hundreds of thousands more. That’s partly why Google CEO Sundar Pichai unveiled this project at the company’s annual developer conference in May.

“We are working hard to provide these voice-recognition models to the Google Assistant in the future,” he said, calling on people with slurred and impaired speech to submit their voice samples.

“Impaired speech is a very difficult data set to put together. It’s not as simple as asking people to record phrases, and there’s no data set just lying around,” Cattiau says. “We have to first put it together, and that’s a lot of work.”

Perhaps the most groundbreaking of Project Euphonia’s initiatives is its work on new interactive AI systems for people who are completely nonverbal. Also in its early stages, these systems are being trained to detect gestures, vocalizations and facial expressions, which can then trigger certain actions like sending or reading a text message.

“We want to cover the full spectrum of people—and not only those who can still speak,” says Cattiau. Although Project Euphonia is still in its infancy, it could eventually have a great impact on those with disabilities, giving them the freedom and flexibility to live independently.Follow me on Twitter.

-Ruth Umoh; Forbes Staff

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Nigeria Needs A More Effective Sanitation Strategy Here Are Some Ideas:

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In November last year, Nigeria declared that its water supply, sanitation and hygiene sector was in crisis. This was partly prompted by the fact that the country has struggled to make progress towards ending open defecation.

Almost one in four Nigerians – around 50 million people – defecates in open areas. They do so because access to proper sanitation, like private indoor toilets or outdoor communal toilets, has not improved in recent years.

In fact, it’s got worse: in 2000, 36.5% of Nigerians had access to sanitation facilities that hygienically separate human excreta from human contact. By 2015 the figure had dropped to 32.6%, likely driven by rapid population growth and a lack of sufficient private and public investment.

Open defecation comes with many risks. It can lead to waterborne diseases, cause preventable deaths, and hamper education and economic growth. It also infringes on people’s privacy and dignity.

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The government has tried several strategies to address this problem. In 2008 it adopted an intervention called “Community Led Total Sanitation”. This is a community-level intervention aimed at reducing open defecation and improving toilet coverage.

It draws in community leaders and ordinary residents so they can understand the risks associated with open defecation. By 2014 the intervention was deployed in all 36 Nigerian states, covering around 16% of the country’s 123,000 communities.

We wanted to know how effective the programme has been, if at all. So we conducted a study and found that community-led total sanitation programmes alone will not eradicate the practice of open defecation. But they could be part of the solution.

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We found that the programme currently works quite well in poor communities but is less effective in richer places – that is, places with higher average ownership rates of assets such as fridges, motorcycles, TVs, smartphones and power generators.

Poorer communities distinguish themselves from richer ones in other ways, too. They tend to have higher levels of trust among their citizens, lower initial levels of toilet coverage and lower wealth inequality. But none of these characteristics is, on its own, as strong a predictor of where the intervention works better than community wealth.

Low community wealth is a simple measure that encompasses all these different features, and is associated with greater programme effectiveness.

The intervention

Community-led total sanitation typically starts with mobilisation. This initially involves community leaders and then, through them, communities more broadly. Then, a community meeting is held at which residents typically start by marking their household’s location and toilet ownership status on a stylised map on the ground. They also identify and mark regular open defecation sites.

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Facilitators use the map to trace the community’s contamination paths of human faeces into water supplies and food. A number of other activities may follow, such as walks through the community that are often referred to as “walks of shame” during which visible faeces are pointed out, to evoke further disgust and shame.

Another common activity involves calculating medical expenses related to illnesses that are caused by open defecation practices.

The research

In 2015 we worked with the charity organisation WaterAid Nigeria and local government agencies in the states of Ekiti and Enugu to design a field experiment in areas with no recent experience of community led total sanitation, or similar interventions.

The community-led total sanitation programme was implemented in a random sample of 125 out of 247 clusters of rural communities.

To study the intervention’s effectiveness, we interviewed 20 randomly selected households before community-led total sanitation took place. We followed up with these households eight, 24 and 32 months after the intervention.

We found that the programme’s roll-out didn’t lead to any changes in sanitation practices in richer communities. But it worked in the poorest communities. The prevalence of open defecation declined by an average of nine percentage points in poorer communities when compared to other poor areas where the programme wasn’t implemented. This drop was accompanied by a similar increase in toilet ownership rates.

Impact depends on wealth

Our results are in line with observations by the designers of the programme. But we are the first to show quantitatively that community asset wealth is a good predictor of whether the intervention can be expected to be successful. Unfortunately, our data does not allow us to pin down why households in poorer communities are more susceptible to the programme. However, these results have important implications for more cost effective targeting of the programme.

Most countries, including Nigeria, have access to readily available datafrom household surveys that can be used to measure how asset-poor a community is. These data can be used to identify and target communities where community-led total sanitation is likely to have the biggest impact.

Eradicating open defecation is not just a Nigerian priority. Today, an estimated 4.5 billion people globally don’t have access to safe sanitation. So we also looked at data and research about this same intervention from other parts of the world.

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Community-led total sanitation intervention was first developed in Bangladesh in 1999. It has now been implemented in more than 25 Latin American, Asian and African countries.

We used information from evaluations of this intervention in Mali, India, Tanzania, Bangladesh and Indonesia. The studies found widely differing impacts. These ranged from a 30 percentage point increase in toilet ownership in Mali to no detectable impact on toilet ownership in Bangladesh.

Using a measure of wealth for these countries, we found that sanitation interventions have larger impacts in poorer areas, such as Tanzania, and low or no impact in relatively richer areas, such as Indonesia. This supports the idea that targeting poorer areas maximises the impact of community led total sanitation.

Conclusion

Our research shows that while community-led total sanitation is effective in Nigeria’s poorer areas, there are two main challenges.

First, community-led total sanitation had no perceivable impact in the wealthier half of our sample. There, open defecation remains widespread. And second, even in poor areas, a large number of households still engaged in open defecation after the intervention.

This suggests that while community-led total sanitation can be better targeted, it needs to be complemented with other policies – subsidies, micro-finance or programmes that promote private sector activity in this under-served market.

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African Music Platforms Soar As Spotify And Apple Snooze

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Creators and consumers of music seek African online music platforms even as global entities and record labels hesitate to fully commit on the continent.


Africa is a continent of over a billion people, with a young, increasingly tech-savvy population that has growing spending power and a desire to find new ways of accessing a wider range of content. And, at a sociocultural level, music plays a huge role in Africa.

A ripe environment for major global players in the music industry, you would think, but things have been rather quiet around digital music on the continent.

Spotify only launched in South Africa last year, and its only other African markets are Algeria, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. Apple Music is still only available in the same handful of African countries as at the time of its launch.

Where these companies have, so far, looked on, others have filled the gap. Chinese company Boomplay, founded in 2015, through a joint venture between phone manufacturer Transsion and consumer apps firm NetEase, now has 42 million users across multiple markets on the continent, and recently secured $20 million in funding to break into more countries.

Locally and regionally focused platforms are also seeing traction. Key among them is the Nairobi-based Mdundo, which has more than 3.5 million monthly active users in countries like Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique, Cameroon, Ghana and Nigeria.

The company works with 50,000 musicians across Africa and has signed a licensing deal with Warner Music Group.

The company’s CEO Martin Nielsen says the sector is seeing strong progress, with artists flooding to online platforms to distribute their music and labels paying more attention to the continent.

“We’re experiencing an increasing interest in Africa and the music industry, both from commercial partners, record labels, music distributors and global music services. This is a very positive development, Africa is next in line,” he says.

The growth of platforms like Mdundo, and the launch of new ones, has benefits for both creators and consumers of music on the continent. For artists, they provide new ways of getting their music out there.

Dumisani Kapanga is founder of the Malawi-based streaming platform Mvelani, which has almost 100,000 songs in its catalogue and claims to have at least 40,000 users each day. He says services like his have broken down barriers to entry for artists.

“It’s now easier than ever for musicians to put out music to their fans without relying on record labels to do so. Within minutes an artist can have their music on some of the biggest platforms out there. We are providing the means for artists to be heard easily, without the need for expensive middle men,” Kapanga says.

For consumers, it is ever easier to access music new and old, in a variety of different ways. Damola Taiwo, co-founder of Nigeria-based music downloads platform MyMusic.com.ng, says download platforms such as his own remain the most popular due to factors such as accessibility and affordability, but sees a future in Spotify-style streaming services in Africa.

“The download services seem to still be the preferred method, where individual tracks are downloaded on devices and permanently owned. This is probably due to the cost and quality of internet access on the continent,” he says.

“However, there are other more structured platforms that also exist where listeners consume music. Some of them are streaming services similar to Spotify and Apple Music while others are download services, or a mixture of both.”

What business model to pursue, and how to monetize, are key challenges faced by local music platforms, and the fact that there are, as yet, no clear answers might account for the wariness of the likes of Spotify and Apple Music to bet big on Africa. Taiwo says another key issue is the lack of major record labels on the continent.

“Most artists will fall under the ‘indie’ bracket, and even the ones that have record labels are more like a one-man business with a maximum of three artists. This makes licencing difficult as there are too many entities to talk to,” he says.

The diversity of what is loosely referred to as the “African consumer”, but is, in fact, a huge mass of people with differing tastes and preferences, also poses a problem for music platforms. Nielsen says there is a rapidly growing middle class that demands the same service that global music services offer, yet they are still very data-cost conscious.

“Plus many of the smart devices have limited storage, so we tailor-make our solution to their needs. In addition to that, we have a mass-market segment on our service with low-end smartphone devices that we see a huge potential in with simpler music offerings,” he says.

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