The visiting student from Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Mr Jacob Cole who was a facilitator at the telehackathon held here recently says that, by working together "we are going to make it so nobody has to suffer going at them alone; in fact we are going to knock them all out and solve them all."
He granted this interview to Our Staff Writer, JAFFAR MJASIRI. Excerpts...
QUESTION: Please make a short introduction here about Hackathon and your visit to Tanzania.
ANSWER: The mission: "We believe that there's no better way to learn something than hanging out with people who are doing it for fun and we think one of the Internet's untapped potentials is to include people everywhere in the world in social communities as wonderful as our own.
If we can develop a model workflow by which to run tele-hackathons, that is, programming get-togethers attended by people virtually across continents at the same time, between the USA and Tanzania, then we believe we can port the model to anywhere."
We gathered over 40 participants in Tanzania and 20 in the USA. The winning team won a trip to the largest hackathon in the USA.
Q: What is so exciting about this project?
A: I am a fourth year student at MIT in the USA and I am very excited by a number of things that I have observed about the potential of Internet in recent years, especially in relation to International Development and the transmission of cultures of inventing and learning.
My mother (who is very wonderful) is the United States Peace Corps in Tanzania. She has been here for a year and half and she has helped to enable me to realise a project I have been dreaming of for over a year. I think it started when I was at Greylock Hackfest, a major pr ogramming contest in San Francisco last July, which I had a chance to visit.
The event just pulled together such a big group of energetic, interesting people -- the atmosphere of the room where this meeting took place was so open and vibrant and people were so very skillful at making amazing things that it left me delighted. I thought to myself: "If everybody in the world had the experience that I am having right now it would make a huge difference in many people's lives."
I then thought "okay, we have, as of this year, good free telepresence technology. There are no geographical limits to collaborative creation. Why don't we start including people from all over the world in these events?" I had to start somewhere. Since my mom is in the Peace Corps here, I realised I had unique opportunity to contribute in Tanzania.
I talked to people here in Tanzania and they were interested and I contacted my programmer friends in the USA and they were very interested as well and we joined up and worked together to stage the event.
Thus I started the Tanzania- MIT hackathon, which made it not necessarily that people go to Boston or San Francisco to be included in a wonderful social circle like mine.
Q: What is telepresence and hangout?
A: Telepresence and Google hangout are very simple. Google hangout is a programme, like Skype, which lets you go and do video chat with other people. You can see video of the other person and you can hear audio. It is like they are sitting right there in your computer.
Unlike Skype (until recently), you can have conferences with multiple people. Moreover, in addition to video chat, Google hangout allows you to, with the other persons' permission, control their computer so you can work together.
Telepresence is the more general term a process of being working in real time with people who are far away from you. Finally, we also used a new video chat platform, EagerPanda. com, specifically designed for teaching online. It allows users to create rooms that can be joined and also features a variety of tools specifically for use in cases like collaborative coding.
Q: What does it allow you to do?
A: Well, telepresence allows you to work with other people without regards to geographical barriers. Previously if people want to join hackathon -- Like four years ago if people wanted to join hackathon in San Francisco or Massachusetts or Tanzania they had no way to do this.
But now because there is really good telepresence technology that's free and because Internet is fast enough in these places we can all work as a team seamlessly over a distance. Both sides need to have an Internet connection which is fast.
Q: What struck you most when you arrived in the country?
A: Oh my goodness. It's so great. I remember when I first got here what struck me, was how people look at you with very caring, genuine expressions. They were not distracted, they were very interested to hear what I had to say. They were willing to bend over backwards to make the event happen.
They did a really good job of it. That was surprising to me a little bit, a phenomenon that sometimes I encounter among the same demographic in the US is that people are often too busy and always distracted by their smartphones. Something that I noticed all the time.
Here it was like "Karibu, welcome we think your ideas will make things happen. Let me take phenomenal care of you and do everything I can to realise them."
Q: Are our students as enthusiastic in learning as US students?
A: The people who are into it are into it! In many ways the communities are completely the same; its just like we are all one continuous community that gets excited about the same thing. I feel that one thing in Tanzania is particularly good though.
The problem in the US that I have observed, especially working with university students, is that of apathy -- not caring about things. I come here there is no apathy about anything.
Everyone is excited and cares about what they're doing with all of their heart, about their projects, maybe this is the culture deficit that I am facing in the USA. To some extent at least, I think collaboration between the two communities could be a cure to apathy in the USA.
We can transform our culture through events like hackathons. People here in Tanzania's way of being can teach a lot to the world!
Q: How can you eliminate geographical barriers?
A: Well one thing that is striking about programming development, something which I did not realise the full significance of initially, is that it is something finally you can do without geographical barriers. If you can programme well you can make a name for yourself no matter what.
You can show what you have done online. The amazing thing about programming to me, sitting in front of my computer, I can build anything that the most skilled programmer has made over in the world.
That is very empowering and liberating me so what I see, that the elimination of geographic barriers is something that is inevitable, natural and whether I did it or not it was going to happen.
Because people are talking to people in other countries and when there are no barriers to transmission of a skill that skill is going to diffuse to the others, when we remove these barriers. I hope that this event is a catalyst to removing these barriers.
Q: How do you get people to share ideas?
A: A very powerful and interesting concept, that is most relevant to the entire event, lies in the way you get people to want to share their ideas; that is, you help them realise that it is in their own self interest.
At first, I was concerned because, afraid of losing a competitive advantage, participants did not want to share their ideas. This was not going to work. But when all the participants realised that everyone, no matter what group they were in, were part of a larger team trying to represent the talent of their whole country to the world, they suddenly understood that it was in their own best interest to help each other and share ideas.
They saw how their social group benefits it brings everyone up. Suddenly, they were more open and helpful to one another than I've ever seen American teams! It was so inspiring and taught the participants in the USA how to work together!
Q: What is the advantage of team work in programming?
A: When we are together we can say here are the problems. They are real. They are vast. But we are a team and by working together we are going to go make it so nobody has to suffer going at them alone; in fact we are going to knock them all out and solve them all.
This is fundamentally all about the Karibu spirit. I have never seen a US hackathon that has been very collaborative like this one, when we finally explained everything.
Q: How do you define this hackathon?
A: Well firstly this hackathon was just a system check. Just see if it is possible to hold an event with students in the USA collaborating with those in a developing country. The answer? Oh yeah, it is possible. Going deeper, my friends and I are going to work on programming projects anyway.
And we all wish that there are people who want to work on the programming projects with us. Kids here all want to work on projects. And they have more people ready to work with. And if you remove geographical barriers and enhance collaboration you will find more people to work with.
That is the force that is going to make it happen.
Q: What is your advice to the ICT students? A: My advice to the students is whatever you do, if you are ever feeling not inspired, don't despair. What I believe is whenever someone is feeling not inspired, it is time they can spend time more efficiently.
The reason people end up feeling uninspired are mostly because they are facing structural problems preventing them from going and doing what they love. It put very high activation barrier for creativity.
What I want people here to know is that my friends and I are always available for them, provided you can get into the Internet world. We can chat, we are always there and we are always excited to help you realise your creativity.
The only thing that you should not do is be worried that it is going to be difficult to achieve whatever your idea. You have the entire might of the world on your side and trying to work with you! You are connected.
I want people to know that your voices will be heard and your ideas and creativity are very interesting to us, more important to us in the USA. I want people here to know that because their circumstances are so different that they are sitting on gold.
You may not know it, but you are sitting on a gold mine of inspiration to people in America who just want to learn about your culture, problems that you are facing and looking what to do themselves.
So if you can really communicate the problems you are looking at, if you can communicate your concerns to us, put them onto a centralised place on the Internet like the Tanzania-MIT Hackathon on the internet, they will be heard and stay there until someone resolves them.
I'm also working on another project at Outlinr.tk anybody can use to do this. Add your comments to the "Tanzania" suggestion box (scroll down)!
Q: How simple is getting involved in programming?
A: What I know is that using just a simple windows XP computer, which people seem to run on here, one can have a ton of fun learning and getting into really web programming and artificial intelligence. That's what I learned on. I have a set of tutorials on my homepage, jacobsstuff.com. I also highly recommend w3schools. com and robowiki.net.
Q: Do you have any advice to the educational system in Tanzania?
A: Because I lack classroom experience in Tanzania, I cannot know it all. But from what I have heard this is something that will be very helpful. Before going off doing rote classwork, I would be very happy if students and teachers really paused together and asked "what are the cool projects in this field of science that we are studying that we want to do?"
I think that if you map out all the cool projects that the class or teachers want to do, it can really lead to free, inspired thinking. People can say: "I want to build a tool that will let me photograph my computer screen and read the text on it." or "I want to build a programme that can tell me what chords are being played on the piano."
Then people can joyfully work to achieve their visions. I know. I did the latter project in 10th grade and the learning was all fun, it was not hard at all. For everyone, but especially those who want to attend college in America, I also suggest checking out admitsphere.org, which is a collaborative database of top students' advice on the subject.
Q: You look very energetic when conducting this training, what is the secret behind it?
A: Honestly I would say that one of my special sources of inspiration comes from the fact that I have never dropped a project that I care about. Somewhere deep inside me, I always have that in mind that this thing I have started I gonna come back and finish it. So I'm never bored when idle.
Also, some of the energy comes from practising a good amount of yoga and the Chinese Martial art tai chi every morning. My wish is that everybody in the world every morning will be able to do something that is as fulfilling and energising as these are to me. (In this spirit, my mother led a yoga class half way through the hackthon...).