Is being a developer the same thing as being an innovator?

August 17, 2014 at 11:20 am  •  Posted in Tech by  •  0 Comments

For three days starting tomorrow morning, I’ll be one of five judges that will be looking for the next best student innovation as Orange Community Innovations Awards returns in its fourth year.

Orange Uganda this week launched five apps from last year’s Community Innovations Awards, now available for download on Android’s Play Store (but with plans of expanding to other platforms), highlighting reasonable success of the competition that’s tasked students to find innovative solutions to community problems.

The previous year’s challenge had birthed Brainshare, a social-education app that is connecting people across Uganda, and the world, through education. It is “an online classroom that helps people study while networking, and combines real-time collaboration, note sharing and tutoring across a number of platforms.”

The app has been reasonably successful. In under two years, they’ve been able to enroll numerous Ugandan schools – from Primary schools to Universities – and and secure a partnership with Microsoft’s 4Afrika project. In a way, they’ve lived up to the expectations we, as judges, had at the time of selecting them in the competition that was held at Makerere University’s Senate Building.

Even CNN featured them as one of 10 African startups to watch in this July 2013 article.

But this week’s announcement of the next round of apps from the competition led to debate, especially on ICTAU‘s online discussion forum about whether all the solutions were indeed “innovations”, or just mirror-copies of existing solutions.

“What the students have done is good. My only problem is calling them innovations, because all of these app are available and already in use,” wrote Florence Tushabe (PhD), Director at the Directorate of Engagement, Research and Innovation at Uganda Technology and Management University.

She added; “An innovation is something new. Either a completely new thing or a new aspect of something. …if it is new for me because I have just learnt [about] it or have just been exposed to it, then that is not an innovation and should not be referred to as one.”

“A new thing is global and not restricted to a region, country or any other subset of global or worldwide.”

That made me think about the process of selection of apps during such challenges. Some times local competitions don’t give judges sufficient time to do the necessary homework to identify real innovations. Worse still, some of the competitions don’t present any real innovations. How do you solve a problem like that?

Earlier this month, I attended Imagine Cup World finals, Microsoft’s largest and oldest technology competition that attracted 34 teams from allover the world, with solutions targeting to solve some of the world’s toughest challenges.

Comparatively, Imagine Cup is structured slightly differently. There’s a specific category called Innovation; and that’s significant. Because, crucially, not all dev projects are innovations.

“This is something you don’t know you’re looking for, but when you see it, you know you found it,” said Steve Guggenheimer, Microsoft’s corporate Vice President and chief evangelist while announcing the Innovation Category winners at the Washington State Convention Center. That drew a rousing applause from the fully parked conference center.

The other categories at this year’s edition were World Citizenship and Games, altogether aimed at “empowering students, at younger ages, with the technologies, skills and resources to build a lifelong passion for technology, helping to grow the next generation of innovators,” according to Guggenheimer.

Ultimately, the apps that have the best chances of making it to the very top have to be extremely innovative. And relevant.

Imagine Cup’s Innovation Category winner was an app called “Estimeet”, from New Zealand.Estimeet targets to prevent you from having to call and/or text your friends when they’re late for a meeting by showing you their actual distance and estimated time of arrival from the meeting location as well as whether they are on their way.

Yet the eventual Overall Winner came from another category, World Citizenship.

Developed by Australia Medicine students, Eyenaemia analyses the conjunctiva and calculates the risk of anaemia by simply scanning the (human) eye. In simple terms, the app utilizes your selfie to tell you your risk of anaemia.

I’ll let you decide which of these two is more innovative.

But what’s clear is that that’s the standard our innovators need to reach to be able to compete at the highest level. Uganda’s student team, without their absentee leader, Bonita Beatrice, weren’t so successful with their sickle cell testing lens-aided app, mDex, failing to make it to the top three of the World Citizenship category.

As Dr. Tushabe was arguing that apps such as AgroMarket Day, winner of Orange’s UGX. 10million reward for Community Innovations Awards 2013 weren’t as innovative as we need, you’d get a sense of urgency, as various local winners keep coming short at the world stage.

It’s a challenge to everyone involved: the developers, the mentors, the judges, the media and the general public. It can’t be overstated that such innovations do represent our future, so before we let outsiders create solutions to our problems, we need to exploit our own capacity to the limit.

But before we go that far, let’s sort out the grammar. Not all developers are innovators. BUT we shall look for those of them that are true innovators and both reward and celebrate them. Starting tomorrow.

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