fbpx

Tech

Why We Need More Women in Engineering

Posted on 3 min read

For a long time in history, Engineering was considered to be a man’s field where a woman would occasionally show up. The image of an engineer was that of a muscular person wearing a helmet and covered with grease or some form of dirt, depending on the field where they were working. That seemed repulsive to the image of what the world wanted an ideal woman to look like. It was supposed to be a man’s world, and it was.

Today, the image of an engineer is quite different. Engineering cuts across many areas of life and it is not just about steam engines and coal power plants. The image of an engineer has changed. However, something still remains the same in most of the developing world. 

A Man’s World

As the world celebrates the International Women in Engineering Day on 23rd June, one thing that is evident is that Engineering still remains to be largely a man’s world, and this has a cost. This is because in meeting scietal and consumer needs, we cannot depend on the views of one gender and expect to come up with solutions that will perfectly solve the problems we are facing. That never works.

It might be the reason why we are so concerned about connecting all schools to the electrical grid before we can think of connecting all of them to water systems. I appreciate the place of electricity (and I am an electrical engineer), but it is a warped thinking to assume that the health and hygiene needs of children are not as critical to the learning of students.

In my engineering class (ten years ago), women constituted less than 10%. I do not think that has changed much, although great strides are being made. However, I would want to add to the case for having more women in engineering, for those who think that it does not matter.

We need Diverse Teams

Diversity is key when it comes to innovation, and this applies also to gender diversity. From design, to manufacturing, to the business side, diverse teams always win.

To effectively build solutions that solve the challenges in the world today, we need both men and women in order to understand those problems, as well as figure out solutions that can work. We also need diversity in terms of backgrounds and if we are solving problems that involve water scarcity in Turkana, we need to have people in Turkana involved. That is how it works.

We cannot build a world where half of the people are not involved. It will not work. 

In my team at Truehost Cloud, which is a technology company, we have a team that has at any point been always 50% women on average, and this has been one key to success. We have a team that deeply understands customer needs because it is diverse. This has been one pillar of our success.

Women are Competent

The skills needed in engineering are not reserved for one gender. We have many women who have excelled in engineering, and the few ladies who were in my class not only continue to excel where they are today, but in many cases, outshine their male colleagues.

Throughout history, we have many examples of women who made remarkable contributions to the world through engineering. Unfortunately, a girl living in rural Kitui may not know much about them to spur enough motivation to be an engineer. This is why we need these stories to be told so that we can spur the next generation of women in engineering, because they are competent.

It is not about adding pretty faces to the engineering world. It is about making the world sustainable and finding solutions that best fit the world today.

Happy Women in Engineering Day.

Share

The Power of an Opportune Tweet in Marketing

Posted on 2 min read

What is the power of a Tweet?

On a normal day, Stephen Odhiambo works to build furniture along Ngong road. He is good at what he does, based on the video that has been circulating online. But being good is not good enough for business. You need to make a sale. That is what matters.

It is for this reason that Stephen Odhiambo displays his furniture along Ngong road in Nairobi. Like many others of his colleagues, Ngong Road is an established furniture heaven in Nairobi and most do not even formal stalls. It is simply a roadside display of furniture. Willing buyers will see furniture that they like and will stop to buy. That is how it works.

Furniture on Sale along Ngong Road

But is there more to the roadside display? Can these people make more money from other locations outside Ngong Road? It turns out yes, and the tool needed to achieve this is in their hands.

Stephen Odhiambo took a video of his foldable table/seat and shared with potential buyers on WhatsApp. One would expect the clip to circulate in various groups and a few inquiries. But something bigger happened.

The Tweet

The clip got into the hands of one Mohammed Hersi who shared it on Twitter.

The Tweet that Made the Sales

Results

Stephen Odhiambo has received more than 800 orders. In short, orders worth KShs 20 million in just a week! How did that happen?

The person who shared the clip in the Tweet is a well-known figure in the Tourism industry. He also has almost 300 thousand followers on Twitter. These would be people very likely to buy his product. The power of a single Tweet was manifested here.

Lesson

Stephen Odhiambo will need help to fulfill all those orders because it takes him four days to make one piece. He will need a team, and collaboration with other people if he is to meet the demand. This is one of the hardest parts in business. Building a team that can deliver is not easy. I hope he can pull this.

But it is even worth noting that he is not the first to make such a table/bench. There are many videos of it on YouTube. Most likely, he found one online and decided to make it. It is good if you can come up with a new idea, but you are not doomed if you cannot.

You do not need to be the inventor of something to benefit from it. You can implement many ideas that exist because the world is big enough and there will still be a market.

I am sure today almost every other furniture maker is busy trying to replicate what Stephen Odhiambo did, and soon the supply will be flooding. May the best win.

Share

Is Juja a Global Cybercrime Hotspot?

Posted on 2 min read

Where did the story of Juja being a global cybercrime hotspot come from?

The answer lies in a satirical news website called PostaMate. The stories presented there are fictional, but unfortunately, many people believe that what you read on the internet is always true. PostaMate has clearly stated that what they post is fictional and majorly for entertainment purpose. It aims at making fun of the society in a humorous way.

The story that was published on PostaMate.Com claimed that Juja had been named as a global cybercrime hotspot. Reading the story, one would easily tell that it is a piece of satire because that is clearly indicated on the page where it is posted. The twitter account that shared the story has also made it clear that this is all about satire.

However, confirmation bias – the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information that confirms or support one’s prior personal beliefs or values – comes into play. There is always a feeling that Kenyan University students and graduates are smart enough to run the world but idle because the country has not given them opportunities. Many people in Kenya have also been victims of cyber crime, or know someone who has, and therefore would want the story to be true.

How did the satirical story become news?

The story from PostaMate quickly made its way around WhatsApp group inform of screenshot images, without the disclaimer that it was just a piece of satire. The story was then amplified and most people who read it did not know that it was just a piece of satire. To make matters worse, a few days before, the DCI had arrested some students and a bank employee in Juja who were suspected of running a cybercrime syndicate. The story confirmed what had been in people’s minds.

But then, a major news outlet fanned the story. NTV picked up the story and therefore confirmed the rumor. The story had been changed, and now confirmed by a ‘trusted’ news source. A new truth was made.

That is how a story meant to entertain is turned into news.  

The moral of this story is that not everything you read online is true.

Share

Cascading Power Failures Explained

Posted on 4 min read

Early on Saturday morning, a power transmission cable snapped somewhere near Nairobi city. The resulting effect was a nationwide blackout in Kenya and Uganda. How did one cable send two countries into darkness?

It is something complicated if you do not understand the power distribution, but we can make it simple for you via an analogy.

Analogy

Let’s assume that on average, one person can lift 40 kg of weight. Some can do 70 while other only can manage 10kg, but the average always comes to 40 kg.

You need to move your house from one point of your farm to another, and you need to hire some people to do it. You estimate that the house weighs 1000kg, and this translates to 25 people if each of them is to carry 40kg. Remember you are moving the whole house as one unit (it happens).

In some parts of the world, we can always move with our houses

Since you know that something could go wrong during the lifting, you will need to have more than 25 people to do the work as failure of one man could cripple the whole operation. However, getting too many extra people will cost you more than is necessary, so you opt to go with 27 people. One person will always be free to help lift any side when people are overwhelmed while 26 will always be working.

When it is time to move the house, everything goes on as planned. At one point one man stumbles and the standby guy moves in quickly. Everything is going on according to the plan.

At another point one guy hurts his leg and you are left with 26 people doing the lifting. This is still safe since you only need 25 people for the work.

But then, something unusual happens. One man who is very strong slips. He was carrying about 70 kg of the weight, and when he stops doing the work, every person around him feels the extra burden. To rescue him, his neighbor stops lifting and helps him move out of the way before he is ran over. The others near him stop moving and try to get everybody else to stop moving so that there is no accident. In the confusion that follows, there is an imbalance and the only safe thing to do is to put the house down so that everyone can recollect themselves.

This stops the whole operation for 10 minutes as everyone realigns themselves and work resumes.

How can such a scenario be prevented? Majorly by having more people so that there can be more tolerance to imbalances. However, this increases the cost and it will not help you when all the people holding one side encounter a unexpected obstacle. They will still have to put the house down.

The other option is to divide the house into equal pieces and let every person carry a 40 kg piece. This is would work, but remember some people can only lift 10 kg while others 70 kg. You will spend a lot of time either cutting unequal pieces and marching them to each person’s capacity, or alternatively you might need to pair up the people with less capacity, thus increasing the number of people you need.

What Happened

The electricity distribution system is called a grid, and involves several electricity generators being connected together into one network so as to serve people all over the country. In Kenya, we have different sources of electricity such as hydroelectric power plants, geothermal, wind, solar and other sources of power, including imports from Uganda.

This interconnection helps keep the load stable even if one source of power fails. It also helps maintain optimum supply such that if demand is low, some sources such as the expensive thermal (diesel) powered plants can be switched off.

Part of the failed cable
Kenya Power engineers at work

The grid has various high voltage lines evacuating power from where it is generated to where it is needed, with Nairobi being the main consumer of power while most generation takes place in remote places such Olkaria and Seven Forks.

In the even that one major power lines fails or a generator is knocked offline, the system adjusts to both to compensate for the changes and to protect the system. However, beyond a certain threshold, the whole system can be overwhelmed, and this time it did.

The line that failed was carrying a significant share of the total system loading, and it affected the whole system which had to shut down.  Getting everything back to work is not as easy as a switch flip. It takes time, and in this case some repairs.

Share

The Death of Privacy

Posted on 4 min read

Day after day, our lives are increasingly becoming reliant on internet and technology more than ever. We use computers in form of PCs, tablets, phones, and wearable devices, and every traditional gadget from alarm clock to the refrigerator is becoming smart. We use Google and other engines to navigate the internet, and we depend on the internet to store information and retrieve it on demand. I have recently found myself hopelessly lost in a city while trying to remember directions without using digital maps, and I always check for prices online before shopping offline. Our lives are highly dependent on the internet.

All-Seeing Eye

Carrying a phone with me means that Google knows where I am every day.  They know where I work, because that’s is where my phone is during the day, they know where I live because I spend the night there, and they know the entertainment joint that I frequent on Saturdays. They know that the place that I go and spend some time every Sunday morning must be where I go to church, and they know the people I met since they see the devices meeting together. I trust a browser to help me remember my passwords, with the hope that those passwords I store there are a secret between only me and the browser. I give Apps on my phone permission to read my messages, assuming that they will read only if necessary, only to realize that some of them spend time analysing the SMS that I have received.

T&C, Cookies

Navigating the online space is simple on the surface, but a complicated exercise when we dig deeper. Take the example of the ‘Terms and conditions’ segments that we encounter on many website, applications, software and many other digital tools we use. Do we read that text? No. Do the writers of these T&C expect us to read them? No. In fact, the documents are usually unnecessarily long, written in the smallest font possible, and using complicated terms which a lay person would likely not understand. We have little option other than checking the ‘Accept’ box. Even when browsing any website, we encounter the notorious pop-up ‘This site uses cookies… click here to accept,’ and we always accept without a second thought, not knowing what cookies are.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence devices are making matters more complex. Amazon’s Alexa is a device that is always listening to all that you are saying, while Google has a similar feature on Android phones which can be activated by saying ‘Ok Google.’ When you imagine that someone is listening to everything you say, knows all your passwords, knows every web page you visit, knows where you are at any moment, knows all the people you chat with, and the content of those chats; you only hope that person is God alone. But unfortunately, there are many ‘gods’ doing that.

Why Collect Data?

What do tech firms do with all the data that they have? Governments have always used the data they have to do government work. They spy over the bad guys (sometimes the good guys) and do intelligence. Tech firms are only interested in using the data to make money primarily through sharing the data with third parties. And thus, Facebook will see you chat with someone on WhatsApp, then they recommend that you add them as friends on Facebook. Google will see you searching for pregnancy test kit, and know that they can now start showing you maternity dresses ads. Mobile lending apps read your M-PESA messages and use that to determine how much money they can loan you. Information is a powerful tool, and he who has it, rules the day.

New Order

What are the new realities that we should wake up to? We are seeing more people get concerned about the data being held by tech firms, and new laws and legislation governing use of collected data. Tech firms and users need to guard all the Personally Identifiable Information (PII) that they collect, as well as the metadata that can be used to identify a person through their behaviors. There is also a need to ensure that data is encrypted appropriately, both when the data is in transit and when it is seated somewhere in a server.

But an important part is also to ensure that data is used only for the intended purposes. Another good practice is to ensure people who collect data for whatever purpose collect the least amount of data possible, and do not hold it longer than necessary.

Even with regulations and best practices, the concept of privacy is way much different from what it used to be. It is a new world.

Share

The Problem of Fake News

Posted on 4 min read

Was the world ready for the age where everybody would be a media outlet?

Technology has made it easy for anybody to reach a mass audience. A single social media or website post from an obscure source can go viral and influence the world in large scale. Consequently, everybody is always receiving information from multiple sources, and is always faced with the task of sifting through myriads of posts to separate truth from falsehood.

Tech companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and others are now working to solve this problem of disinformation, but as someone recently observed, fake news is not a tech problem, but an information problem. Dealing with it will thus involve more than simply adding a piece of code in today’s tech, and could require a lot of societal transformation.

The Fear of Giving Everyone a Voice

It is not the first-time disinformation is threatening civilizations. Christianity faced the same crisis when the Bible was translated from Latin to other languages which any person could read and understand. The church had resisted the move in the fear that giving everybody a Bible would result to skewed interpretations and rise of cults that would crop up everywhere.

That is exactly what happened. Today, cults after cult seem to spread all over the world with the educated being equally prone to the disinformation as the non educated. It is like half of Christianity today is fake news.

This is not a new problem. Disinformation has always existed, only that it does not go by the name fake news. Many times, we call it lies, falsehood, or even deception.

The Influential Teacher

Even in day to day conversations, a certain level of disinformation exists. Earlier in the year I had a chance to meet a teacher in a rural Kenyan set up and discuss various issue such as politics, locust invasion and education.

One thing you need to understand about teachers is that they are one of the most influential people in the society. Educated, with a captive audience, and evenly distributed throughout the country, it is said that one only needs to win teachers in order to win an election. They will do the campaign for you.

But it was the discussion with the teacher that opened my eyes to know that fake news is not a modern-day tech problem, but something that has been with human beings for ages. I disagreed with many thigs things he said about politics and locust invasion because they were outright lies. Yet, he was confident of what he was saying.

What this influential teacher needed was access to a platform and he would have the media to reach more people with information, and we would all be talking about fake news.

Communities Prone to Disinformation

Why does it appear that fake news is winning compared to truth? In Kenya, it could be a cultural problem.

There are some societies where telling the truth is expected. I grew up in one. It is not really about truth, but a general acceptance that it is very evil to tell lies that hurts someone else. Generally, you would not expect to find normal people openly spreading false information.

Unfortunately, this naïve habit is reflected in people’s expectations when both online and offline. It is the reason why politicians are able to deceive many people with very obvious lies. Very few people are able to pick up such lies.

It could also be the reason why we have a big number of people who believe that everything they read on the internet is true. All the news sources are treated equal, and the most sensational ones receive the highest traffic. Even when content is labelled satire or is served by questionable tabloids, people still end up believing the stories they want to believe. Check the reaction that www.postamate.com gets on social media.

Fueling the Fake Fire

Human beings have a great love for solving mysteries, new information, and being the ones to break news. Perhaps, it is why conspiracies theories always find an audience.

We also like the information that confirms what we believe, whether it is true or false. This is why we quickly share news that are aligned with what we want to be true, irrespective of whether the information is factual or not. If you do not like person X, you will believe anything negative about X, and question anything positive about X.

The problem with fake news or false information is that it receives a lifeline from the audience and goes viral. Friends know it is false. Enemies want it to be the true. Others will share maybe because it is funny. Where it is also shared matters.

WhatsApp groups form a perfect echo chamber where information is shared among like minded people, further amplifying the effect of fake news. The more fake information is shared, the more it is believed.

Fake news is not short term problem.

Share