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Going places, and putting Nairobi on the global map

By | July 22nd 2010

By Fredrick Obura

At 27 years of age, Jessica Colaco is riding high on the wave of technology that is all the rage and craze.

Three years ago, when mobile phone technology started gaining ground, Colaco, who manages the Nairobi Hub Innovation built an application using mobile phones to map out the entire Nairobi Central Business District.

The intention of the wireless mapping service was to help residents and first-time visitors locate Nairobi buildings, streets and key areas within the CBD without attracting criminals.

Bright future: Colaco says prospects appear good in the field of technology in East Africa as mobile phone use gets more widespread. [PHOTO: FREDRICK OBURA/STANDARD]

The wireless system allows mobile phone users to view detailed street maps of Nairobi and access a user-generated point-of-interest database.

When Colaco pitched the application later for possible adoption by organisations at a students’ exhibition forum in Nairobi, Google was on a similar mission, but on a wider scale – mapping the whole of Kenya for use on its Google Maps.

Strathmore University

In mid-2008 Colaco joined Strathmore University as a lead researcher, where students would approach her for advice.

From mentoring them and assessing the commercial viability of their ideas, Colaco realised that there was a need not just for consultancy, but also to open up institutions for cross fertilisation of technology ideas. Thus, Mobile Bootcamp was born.

"The first Mobile Bootcamp, in November 2008, was an eye opening experience for the mobile-generation," Colaco says. "Over 100 people came. It was a way of getting entrepreneurs and technology students together," she says.

"Moreover," Colaco adds, "It encourages students to develop a research culture and reading for more than just passing exams."

The 2007 wireless map service innovation opened several doors for her, including organising forums for the ICT community to learn about mobile phone infrastructure, development platforms and technical support. It is estimated that presently, there are more than 400 million mobile phone users in Africa. Lack of infrastructure means that the mobile phone, networked and portable, is the only computing device people can use.

Aqustic Devices

As a result, it is used for an astonishing range of custom-built applications, from accessing the Internet to making mobile payments and turning handsets into acoustic devices fishermen can use to find shoals of fish.

Colaco a TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) fellow and University of Nairobi graduate says her drive to push for more content generation on the mobile phone is driven by her recognition of mobile telephony’s immense potential.

"If you’ve spent time around technology scene in East Africa over the last few years, chances are you’ve recognised that there is something special happening," she says.

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