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How tech start-ups can boost rural communities

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SCOTT ZAMBONINI, Enterprise Development Manager for Seda Nelson Mandela Bay ICT Incubator (SNII), shares his view on how tech start-ups can improve healthcare and education in rural communities.

Approximately one third of South Africa’s population resides in rural areas where the realities of poverty, unemployment and the related social problems are faced on a daily basis.

Social entrepreneurs are those whose core business focus is to provide innovative solutions to social problems such as rural healthcare, welfare and employment with the ultimate outcome being the establishment of a virtuous cycle of prosperity.

In the cases of very poor communities, innovative technology coupled with the mass adoption of smart phones can play an extremely positive role in achieving a social entrepreneurial vision.

Today developments and innovations in several different areas are setting the pace for aspiring social-tech entrepreneurs and rural development agencies.

 Rural Internet Connectivity:

Since its large scale adoption, the Internet has become the urban world’s go-to for information, services and knowledge.

In most rural settings, however, this is not the case – largely due to the lack of internet service provision to rural areas. According to Statistics South Africa’s General Household Survey (GHS) 2014, almost half of South African households (48.7%) had at least one member who used the Internet.  Yet only 0.8% of the population living in rural areas in the Eastern Cape have an internet connection at home, while 21.6% used mobile devices. Another 6% used internet cafés and 1% had access to the internet at educational facilities.

Tech solutions in this realm can offer rural communities access to a world of information beyond their imagination, while enabling self-learning, development and access to things like healthcare and education.

Rural Healthcare:

Healthcare in urban centres is easy to access and something we take for granted every day. In rural settings however, individuals and communities struggle to obtain even a basic diagnosis or treatment for mild conditions, let alone life-threatening ones.

The remote locations of rural communities make access to clinics and doctors difficult, so tech innovations to help bridge the gap are in high demand.

One possibility to solve this would be the means to communicate diagnostic data collected in the rural area directly to an urban-based doctor via a portable medical device. This allows for real-time interaction between an urban based doctor and rural patient.

Another idea which stems from this would be the remote dispatching of the required medicinal supplies via a courier drone. The drone company, Zipline, is currently partnering with international aid organisations to use their drones to deliver food and medical supplies to rural Rwandan communities. There is no reason why South Africa cannot use the same idea.

Technology Based Education:

Access to education is a human right which has not been fully realised in rural communities. Book shortages, underqualified teachers, long commutes and poor facilities largely contribute to this dilemma, which often leaves youthful individuals in remote areas with little to no hope.

The recent advent of Massive Open Online Courses has allowed millions of individual’s access to free education from the likes of Harvard and MIT.

Social-techno entrepreneurs have the opportunity to enable   relevant teaching through innovative solutions such as the Samsung Solar Powered Internet School initiative. Here smart schools make use of technology through the use of mobile devices, e-boards and educational software in order to offer improved learning experiences to children and young adults. The units come completely self-contained with solar generators and wireless communication, providing unlimited access to technology, communication and information as long as there is sunlight to power the solar panels, digital cellular network or satellite connectivity.

Virtual Reality:

 Virtual Reality (VR) has long been a dream for the future and science fiction obsessed. VR can be defined as “a computer-simulated reality that replicates an environment which simulates a physical presence in places in the real/imaginary world, allowing the user to interact in that world through artificially created sensory experiences”.

This emerging technology can allow for rural community members to experience a reality outside of the hardships of their own. This type of escape, when used correctly, can provide mental stimulation and a means to cope with one’s current environment without being lured into the prevailing distractions of gang and crime-related activity. “VR for education” applications, which provide an educational experience, will be of high value and allow rural children to participate in virtual classroom activities from any location for personal and cognitive development.

The above mentioned are achievable technology concepts for sustainable socio-economic development that could ideally grow and develop rural areas, and ultimately offer outlying communities a better quality of life.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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