Archive for April 2009

Catching up

streetmapI’ve not posted much up to the blog over the last couple of weeks as I’ve been ill. Started to get a fever and other flu-like symptoms which weren’t going away after over a week. Was treated for various things, including malaria, but nothing seemed to make any difference. Eventually ended up at the doctors at the British Embassy in Addis and was told I had a ‘self limiting illness’. I guess meaning that it wasn’t anything bad (that they could find) and that it would go away after a little while. Anyway, feeling much better now and back at work catching up with emails!

I’ve had a comment from someone running the OpenStreetMap project here in Ethiopia (see: http://openstreetmap.org.et). Addis appears quite well covered, but then as you move further north to Mekelle, you’ll find it’s very sparse. So I’ll have to get my hands on a GPS so I can start uploading a map of Mekelle – if anyone can recommend a system for a complete beginner in these things then please let me know 🙂

Community Service

img_4160(No, I don’t mean Community Service in the punishment sense!)

Part of the remit for research teams at the University is to take part in community service projects, usually working with local schools or other educational organisations. During our research team meeting the other week we decided that our teams contribution towards this aspect of the University’s work was to work with a local youth club to help train them in using computers, the internet etc.

Kindie, one of the teachers here, set up a meeting for us both to go and visit the Bright Africa Youth Association (BAYA) in the town centre. All seemed to go very well, the centre has lots of different clubs running, from dancing & music through to anti-AIDS, but they don’t yet have a computer club, mainly because they only have 2 PCs which are used in the office and a computer club with no computers would be a little odd!

We’re hoping that we can help BAYA to bid for some funds to purchase some computer equipment, the University could then provide the skills and training necessary to get the computers installed and running as well as ongoing training.

We’re looking at a few different options as to what to bid for. For example, do we concentrate on basic computer and office skills and buy a few basic (maybe second hand) computers, or do we look at buying one fairly high spec PC with the software and hardware (microphones, cameras etc) for the (e.g.) music club to be able to record and produce their own CDs/DVDs?

Any pointers to organisation which has funds available for these types of projects would be much appreciated (we already have a couple of pots of money to bid for). Alternatively, if anyone has contact with a youth group in the UK, who would like to link up and help out with some fundraising?

Cheap(er) SIM cards

Over the last few weeks Ethiopian Telecoms Co (ETC) have been releasing thousands of new mobile SIM cards causing chaotic queues for several days outside their offices in town.

Last Friday (3rd April), again, there were huge queues, but this time with a twist – ETC have eventually decided to halve the cost of a mobile SIM card, bringing the cost down to around USD 16.

I’ve not seen much evidence yet of any improvements to service, since the new cards began to be released, the service has got steadily worse. So hopefully the improvements will come soon.

From WaltaInfo:

Addis Ababa, April4 (WIC) – The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation (ETC) announced that it has made price discounts on mobile SIM card costs.

The corporation is also undertaking 5.6 million mobile network expansion works.

ETC Corporate Communication Manager, Abdurahim Ahmed told WIC that the discount on mobile SIM card coast became effective as of April 2, 2009.

Accordingly, the previous 368.10 birr cost for the prepaid mobile phone SIM card was reduced to 169.10 birr, the manager said, adding the charge for replacement of lost or damaged SIM card was also lowered to 15 birr from 25 previously.

It has also reduced the postpaid mobile SIM card price to a uniform price of 414.40 birr.

The move was aimed at benefiting the public from the ever expanding telecom services in the country, Abdurahim said, adding ETC is undertaking the expansion of 5.6 million mobile networks in 766 towns. Currently, there are over three million mobile phone subscribers and ETC is hugely engaged in network expansion activities so that it can enhance the quality of mobile network services, he indicated.

Video-conferencing – another white elephant?

As I mentioned last week, there is now a generator for our building and I’m sure that you’ve all been waiting to see a photo! So here’s the little hut which houses our shiny new generator:

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In our server room there’s some shiny new equipment too, to help control the new generator:

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All of this new equipment was installed by Chinese contractors (on behalf of ETC – the Ethiopian Telecoms Co) a couple of weeks ago and includes a network connection upgrade (to 2.5Gbps so I’m told) for the link between the two main University campuses.

The tall rack on the right is for managing the switch over from grid power to generator power, plus it contains a stack of UPSs. The server rack on the left is currently empty, but will soon contain (if you’d not already guessed by the posting title)… a video-conferencing system server.

So… why the does the university need a video-conferencing system? I really have no idea and I’ve not heard any good reasoning as to why it’s needed. I’m sure the money could be better spent on other ICT facilities for staff and students. But there does seem to be a slight obsession (maybe too strong) in Ethiopia with video-conferencing, for example the Woreda-Net project which links up all the Ethiopian woredas via video conferencing over VSAT.

I also found from my recent survey that over 10% of students felt that video-conferencing would be in the top 3 online activities that would help improve their studies. I’m not sure what these (all campus based) students think they will gain from video-conferencing.

I’m quite happy to be proved wrong about all this, but in my experience in the UK video-conferencing is not commonly used or required, so I have little belief that here will be any different. If anyone has any good arguments or reasoning as to why it would be a great benefit here then please let me know.

Open Source Lecture

On Saturday morning I did a guest lecture for the third year students and any interested staff. After a bit of messing around as the room I was going to use was double booked, and there wasn’t a power lead for the projector, we finally got started only about half an hour late.

Out of the 90 or so third year students, about 25 showed up, which I was very pleased with, mainly as it was on a Saturday morning, was completely optional and won’t count at all towards their final grade.

Since the students haven’t got much experience or knowledge about open source software, I thought it would be a good idea to give them a bit of an overview, especially since I hope to have Ubuntu installed on some of the lab machines soon. I’ve also got some plans for other extra lectures I could give, for example on Ajax, web 2.0 and social software. Not that I feel like great expert on these areas, but think I should know enough to give something useful to students in a hours lecture. I didn’t want to start planning any others until I’d found out the attendance rate at the first one.

Quality Assured?

I’ve been hearing stories from university staff (not necessarily Mekelle Uni), where teachers have been told that all the students must pass, with the standard of the students being almost irrelevant. I’m trying to work out the reasoning behind this, but I can’t see any obvious rationale apart from not wanting to let students down and harm their future job prospects. There are also plans that Ethiopian universities will be offering 10,000 masters and 500 doctorates, so I’m hoping that the same ‘standards’ aren’t applied here just to be able to make up numbers.

I’ve also had comments made to me by university lecturers, where they say that whenever they write a reference for a student, the student will always have come in at least the top 10% of their class (no matter what their actual grade). I’m not saying this is common practice across all lecturers – I simply don’t know if it is or not, but it does seem to fit with the general culture here, where ‘no’ isn’t a word heard very often, even if hearing it would be in your best interests. An excellent example is when a few of us went out for a meal, the waitress took our drinks order, but rather than admit they’d run out of bottled beer, she took the order, but then just didn’t bring the beer!

I find all this rather worrying, if I were an employer or in a university admissions department, how could I make an informed decision given a set of references where everyone was in the top 10% of their class. References here seem to carry more weight in the recruitment process than they would do in the UK. It also belittles the efforts of those students who do put the work in and actually are in the top of their class.

P.s. no, this isn’t an April Fools joke!