Open space for technologists, investors, tech companies and hackers in Nairobi.

iHub By Jessica Colaço / May 23, 2012

The iHub UX Lab and Supercomputer Cluster


Crossposted from white african

When I look at the tech scene in Africa, there is a single question that consistently runs through my mind.

What foundational parts of the technology ecosystem do we own, and what are we reliant on others for?

What I’m talking about here are the items deeper down the stack, the core components that allow a country to own its own technological future. Here are some examples:

  • Do we build our own software, or are we importing it?
  • Can we prototype and build our own hardware, even if not at the scale of China?
  • Are we investing in our own startups, or is that being done by foreigners?
  • Do we have our own researchers, or are we okay with people parachuting in from abroad to do that for us?

It’s quite difficult for me to do much about any of this beyond Kenya, so I focus on what I can do here and hope that it works and the model can transfer elsewhere. The iHub, m:lab, iHub Research and Savannah Fund are examples of this, where our efforts are focused on local software, startups and funding.

The newest additions are the iHub’s UX Lab and a new high performance computer cluster, both filling a void not just in Kenya but in the continent as a whole. Both of which will come online this Summer. Beyond that, we’re looking at hardware, thinking about what it would look like to have our own hackerspace and TechShop, in a model suited for Kenya.

The iHub UX Lab and Supercomputer Cluster

We are fortunate to have excellent corporate partners at the iHub, one of which is Google, who provided some funding to get two initiatives off the ground.

Creating a UX Culture in Kenya
In the software space design is one of our weakest points. This isn’t just web or mobile design, this is product design and it’s rooted in a lack of understanding or desire to provide a better user experience. Core to providing better products is doing research on what users are looking for and how they are using technology in the first place.

Shikoh Gitau has worked closely with the iHub Research team for the past year, in fact the core ideas that presented the challenge for that space to come into existence was from a paper she wrote, where she showed how little of the technology research done in Africa was by African researchers. Shikoh works with the user experience teams at Google, and started talking to us about the UX Labs that they run around the world.

I had also had the chance to do a workshop with Andy Budd at Tech4Africa, and then chat again in the UK later on. First hand, I got to know Gabriel Whitethrough some work he did for Ushahidi. Both of them helped me get to a better understanding of the value of UX research in the product design process.

All of this led to us deciding that the iHub should create a UX Lab, a resource that would serve the region. A place where companies and startups learn about and begin thinking about user experience as they develop new products. We’ll do this through masterclass training on skills, partnering with the top UX experts in the world, and by providing the resources for this to happen.

Mark Kamau has joined the team to lead this initiative.

The iHub Cluster

At the end of 2011 I was approached by one of the iHub Green Members, Idd Salim, about an idea of building our own supercomputer. Why?

Outside of South Africa, there is little to no capacity for cloud computing on the continent. This means that few of the programmers in this region have the skill sets necessary to work and build out this infrastructure. We have a severely limited foundation on which to build future services in an increasingly cloud-based computing world.

Some of the use cases where we see the need for this:

  • Research and training opportunities for super computer enthusiasts and university students
  • Training people capable of being SREs (Service Reliability Engineers)
  • Power-Computing service for local content
  • A host for parallel and resource-hungry applications such as weather prediction, draught prediction and real-time information dispatch.

The initial funding for a small HPC deployment has been funded by Google Africa Inc. Intel have further added to the project a Intel MultiFlex® Server for use as the “master” component of the HPC cluster.

Bob Aman works at Google here in Kenya, and has become a staple at the iHub where he runs his office hours twice per week. He, along with Idd Salim and Jimmy Gitonga are building the first 4 nodes of what we hope to be a 24 node cluster. The most I had done before this was build my own gaming rig, so I’ll be honest in saying that I’m the noob in this group, where most of the conversations are beyond me.

As with the UX Lab, the iHub Cluster will be for people to learn what goes on under the hood of HPC’s by building it, and to learn how to use the power in it to solve big data problems. It will also be made available to the animation and ad agencies in town for rendering services.

In Summary

The UX Lab and iHub Cluster will come online this summer. Both projects have the leadership in place to run them and the resources to build them out. They’ll both be located in the same building with the iHub, and both are being built with the greater Kenyan tech community in mind. Like all of the iHub initiatives, they only work when people from the community are a part of them.

If you would like to get involved in either, reach out to the respective leads: Mark Kamau for the UX Lab, and Jimmy Gitonga or Idd Salim for the Cluster.

Author : Jessica Colaço

Jessica Colaço is currently the Director of Partnerships at iHub. She was the Founding Manager between 2010 and 2011 at iHub and Research Director between 2011 and 2013 at iHub Research. She is passionate about Innovation, Research, Mobile and Robotics Technology, Mentorship and Entrepreneurship in Kenya as she uses her position at iHub to court local, regional and international stakeholders to adopt Kenyan-made and African-made solutions. As an upcoming angel investor, she courts local and international investors to invest in great tech ideas and companies at idea and concept stage. She is also a Mobile and Robotics Tech Evangelist, Co-Founder of WMIAfrica and AkiraChix, ISOC-Kenya Chapter, Treasurer, ACM-W Nairobi Chapter Chair, TED Global Fellow 2009 and upcoming Guitarist. She was named one of the top 40 women under 40 years in Kenya's business scene by Business Daily on 2009, 2011 and 2012. Her endeavour is to put Kenya and Africa on the map for technology achievements and spur innovation within the country and continent! She blogs at:

  • Africa developing its first supercomputer outside South Africa | Ars Technica at 21:42:25PM Thursday, May 24, 2012

    [...] of South Africa, there is little to no capacity for cloud computing on the continent," wrote Erik Hersman on his blog, White African. "This means that few of the programmers in this region [...]

  • Africa developing its first supercomputer outside South Africa at 00:25:51AM Saturday, May 26, 2012

    [...] of South Africa, there is little to no capacity for cloud computing on the continent,” wrote Erik Hersman on his blog, White African. “This means that few of the programmers in this [...]

  • Africa producing its first supercomputer outdoors South Africa | Samsung Galaxy S3 2012 at 12:51:37PM Saturday, May 26, 2012

    [...] house of South Africa, there is tiny to no potential for cloud computing on the continent,” wrote Erik Hersman on his weblog, White African. “This signifies that few of the programmers in [...]

  • Tech Smack – Africa developing its first supercomputer outside South Africa at 21:38:17PM Saturday, May 26, 2012

    [...] of South Africa, there is little to no capacity for cloud computing on the continent,” wrote Erik Hersman on his blog, White African. “This means that few of the programmers in this [...]

  • Joseph Owuondo at 06:44:31AM Monday, May 28, 2012

    Simeon, thanks for the updates of what is going on at iHub. I did get in touch with iHub less than a year ago under its link with FrontlinrSMS and i was challenged on how young Kenyans were so talented and experienced in creating and building technologies which i still believe (should) can solve many problems and challanges we are faced with in Kenya and Africa today. In your article you have identified some critical examples on areas where we would need and apply the technologies we are investing on.
    Interesting to note is that, it was after the eperience at the iHub that i decided to come to the US to undertake a Cyber Security and Forensics Courses to fill the void i feel exists within our areas of interests and operations.
    Onwards Techs !!

  • George at 09:30:50AM Monday, May 28, 2012

    This is a brilliant article…I recommend all to read.

  • hilary at 13:33:43PM Monday, May 28, 2012

    this greate hop to join

  • Hier Blomkvist at 16:46:09PM Monday, May 28, 2012

    Cluster in Nairobi? I’m totally for it! Where do I queue to get involved? How do I contribute?

  • Kariku at 16:33:25PM Tuesday, May 29, 2012

    We have to think big! Thumbs up

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  • Applications for Green Memberships for 2013 Open Now! | *iHub_ at 00:15:21AM Monday, November 26, 2012

    [...] the pace with some much-needed tech research on Africa; and we’ve added iHub Consulting, iHub UX Lab and iHub Cluster to the iHub family in a bid to not just give space to tech entrepreneurs, but to build an entire [...]

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