Taarifa Hacks Series

8 May

We’d like to invite you to come hack on data, software (front and back end), hardware, and all the bits between in Cambridge at MIT’s Little Devices on May 7th and 8th (bit.ly/taarifabos), in London May 24th and 25th (bit.ly/taarifalondon), and in Dar es Salaam (bit.ly/taarifadar) May 31st and June 1st.

The Challenge

There’s not much in the way of access to clean water in Tanzania. In the informal settlements, there are a bunch of water points, but many of them are broken. Rather than a continual process of putting in new ones, the local water engineers want to fix the existing ones – but they don’t know where the broken points are. This also prevents large-scale response organizations from accurately deploying resources (and seeing what initiatives are already working).

Our Approach

Through a combination of participatory mapping across a few groups, and water sensors, we think this situation can be bettered. The incoming information would not only feed into the repair cycle and communal awareness, but also into larger governance decisions.



The Software

Taarifa is an open source web application for information collection, visualization and interactive mapping. It allows people to collect and share their own stories using various mediums such as SMS, Web Forms, Email or Twitter, and then the stories are placed as reports into a workflow. At the event, we will be building out its capabilities and localizing it to Dar es Salaam.

Things we might work on with the software:

  • documentation (tutorial, installation walkthrough, waterpoint demo)
  • general testing (unit, integration, ..)
  • modern UI / dashboard design and development (UX, d3, ..)
  • dummy data generator
  • pretty report generator
  • SMS reporting
  • demo phone reporting app
  • access control & user management (what is needed? how to best implement?)
  • explore relevant standards (e.g., open311) and decide what is useful to support
  • auction model for work/support contracts
  • how to subscribe and notify people of changes to ‘their’ report (Twilio useful?)
  • how to integrate sensor readings? data model?
  • how to deal with report attachments (images, videos, …) currently not supported
  • nice continuous integration setup & auto deploy to heroku when pushing to master
  • exploit linked data for reports, locations, people, and resources where possible

Would also be useful if we had a second use case (besides waterpoints) to double check assumptions and architectures and test the dev experience. Promise tracker?

The Hardware

We’ll be playing with the Riffle (Remote, Independent, and Friendly Field Logger Electronics), a low-cost, open source hardware device that will measure some of the most common water quality parameters, using a design that makes it possible for anyone to build, modify, and deploy water quality sensors in their own neighborhood.

Why This is Different

I tend to be wary of social good hackathons. At Geeks Without Bounds, we run 1 to 5 internationally every month. Many of the projects are a learning experimentation for the people who attend – which is awesome and worthwhile. Few social good hackathons are for production, however. This one is. Taarifa is already deployed in Ghana and Uganda, and we have a place to deploy in Tanzania. People will use this tool: the few people with feature phones and connectivity, the water engineers and camp staff, and aid organizations.

Where you Come in

We need your skills, questions, and energy. The project is clearly defined, as are the times to work on it. We want you to join us at an event if possible, remotely if you can’t make it in person, and to continue to be a part of the community even after this round of open-source hacking.

We’ll have a call-in this Sunday at 19:00 EAT (worldtimebuddy for conversion). Bring your questions about the project, what you need to prepare for the hack weekends, or just out of general curiosity. Register for the hangout here.

Taarifa featured as a Random Hacks of Kindness project at Google Zeitgeist 13

21 May

Dirk, Simon and Florian spent a very interesting and inspiring two days at Google Zeitgeist 13, representing Random Hacks of Kindness (RHoK) and Taarifa. We had been invited to show delegates and speakers from all over the world what these projects are about, what they can do for the world and what motivates us to invest our spare time to develop applications for social and humanitarian good.

Dirk demonstrating Taarifa to a delegate

Dirk demonstrating Taarifa to a delegate

We really got to experience Zeitgeist, listen to the talks broadcast in the demo area, try out Google glass and meet the other sandbox projects MaKey MaKey, 3Doodler and LifeWatch.

Florian exchanging his glasses for Google glass

Florian exchanging his glasses for Google glass

Scott Harrison gave a very stirring review of the story behind charity: water and the struggle to bring clean, safe drinking water to people in developing countries. It would be great to learn from their raving success and discuss potential applications of Taarifa for water mapping.

Silicon Valley Inspiration Tour with IDEO.org

25 Apr
The Sanitation App Challenge winners in front of the Zynga headquarters

The Sanitation App Challenge winners in front of the Zynga headquarters

We spent an exciting and inspirational week in the Bay Area with Molly and Matteo and our hosts IDEO.org, the non-profit branch of the global human centered design consultancy. They had a dense program of workshops and company visits lined up for us. We got insight into Zynga, who told us about measuring player engagement in online games, Google, who toured us around their Mountain View campus, The Hub Bay Area, who gave us their take on collaboration and how it’s a core value for the global Hub movement, Airbnb, who discussed different notions of trust, Indiegogo, who advised us on launching successful crowdfunding campaigns, and Facebook, who discussed how to reach . Airbnb have a large crowd of photographers they send into people’s homes to get high quality, standardized and certified photos for their listings, which makes them more trustworthy and more likely to be rented. This inspired us to reach out to photographers and ask them to take photographs of infrastructure – or the lack thereof – in the communities where we would like to deploy Taarifa in order to get higher visibility and a better feel for the status quo. Wednesday evening we met a number of San Francisco based development organizations at a happy hour at the offices of FSG, a non-profit consultancy, who were asking how they might use Taarifa in some of their future development projects.

Fayaz and Dimas interviewing WholeFoods as part of the human-centered design workshop

Fayaz and Dimas interviewing WholeFoods as part of the human-centered design workshop

The highlight of the inspiration tour were the workshops IDEO folks led at their offices in San Francisco and Palo Alto. On Tuesday we got an introduction to Human Centered Design and applied it straight away with conducting interviews and prototyping and application to reduce food waste at IDEO and other companies. This made us realize the importance of getting concrete and first hand feedback from users before starting to write any code. We hope we can apply this methodology when redesigning Taarifa to better serve the people in the communities. In another workshop on Thursday on branding we had another opportunity to reflect more on Taarifa’s core mission and values and worked out concrete milestones and areas on which to focus next in the further development of the platform.

Molly Norris from IDEO.org giving us very detailed feedback on our app at the last day of the inspiration tour

Taarifa announced as “Grand Prize Winner” of the Sanitation Hackathon

20 Apr

Taarifa was one of over 70 projects to enter the Sanitation HackatHome App Challenge following the Sanitation Hackathon in December 2012. Judges seemed impressed and we were shortlisted among the ten finalists. On April 19th the World Bank announced the three Grand Prize Winners and Taarifa is one of them!

Fayaz and Florian receiving the “Grand Prize Winner” certificate on behalf of Taarifa

The prize was awarded at a “A Matter of Life: Investing in Sanitation – a Conversation with Jan Eliasson, Tony Lake, & Global Decision-Makers” as part of the World Bank spring meetings at their Washington D.C. headquarters. Florian and Fayaz travelled to Washington from London, UK and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania to receive the price on behalf of the global Taarifa team. Following the panel discussion with panelists Jan Eliasson, Deputy Secretary General, United Nations, Anthony Lake, Executive Director, UNICEF, Rachel Kyte, Vice President of Sustainable Development, World Bank Group and Jim McHale, Vice President, American Standard, we had the opportunity to showcase our apps to attendees.

Fayaz demonstrating Taarifa

Later we set off to the OpenGov Hub for the ICT4Drinks: Sanitation Hackathon Edition happy hour. The evening kicked off with introductions by  Chris Vein, Chief Innovation Officer at the World Bank and former White House Deputy CTO, Jae So, Manager of the Bank’s Water and Sanitation Program, and John Kluge, co-founder of Eirene and Toilet Hackers, followed by a short presentation of our apps by each time and Q&A. Afterwards there was time for casual conversations and engaging discussions with the attendees, many from the D.C. developer scene.

Sanitation Hackathon Grand Prize Winners with Chris Vein and Jae So


26 Oct

CC-By-SA 2.0 by Flickr user 'tstadler'

We did it. Last Sunday, the 22nd of October the Taarifa project celebrated its one year anniversary. After starting small with an idea, we grew as a community and as a technology. We’ve found problems and resolved them both technically and how we operate. We’ve had many successes and our community has grown. With our mission of providing the next generation of infrastructure for nations we hope to have many anniversaries to come.

Taarifa: The Organisation

15 Sep

Infrastructure of Nations

On Friday 14th of September at approximately 1952 the Taarifa organisation was started using OneClickOrg. Our constitution is here: taarifa.oneclickorgs.com. Our aim is to support the development and use of the Taarifa platform. We’ve had deployments in Africa (Uganda and Zimbabwe) and in the UK, however we need to grow to support the usage of Taarifa worldwide. Our Knight Foundation application was one part of this strategy. Our software platform is growing, aided by the Taarifa community. Herein lies the power of the Taarifa project.

A Taarifa organisation serves not just for its coders, hackers and members which develop its tools but should serve those which use and deploy them. From this we now need to consider good documentation and support in addition to good code. In doing so working on new funding avenues, which can sustain Taarifa deployments will be key. These may be in the form of grants but could be in the form of  managed deployments, or other funding models.

Are you interested in getting involved in Taarifa? Join the mailing list and say hi, we’d love for you to get in touch!

Southampton Hackathon: Djangorifa

11 Sep

The Southampton Art House proved an apt venue for hacking on our return to Southampton. Building on the work at the previous hackathon we had a new toy to play with: Djangorifa – The new python version of the Taarifa platform. It’s currently in its very earliest stages of development, but where we’re going is clear, rebuilding from the ground up. The interface focuses purely on the data and reporting on it. If you’re interested in helping us develop it further, join us and check out our github for instructions to get started!

While hackathons on the Taarifa platform are a very good thing indeed, giving a view into how we develop our tools is as important as the hacking itself. With this shedding light on the problem statements, then design process, finally with incorporating lessons learned from deployments is important, and now fully incorporated in how we do things. Part of this is through videos and audio as well as code. Development in this area will get progressively more important as we grow. Our Knight Foundation grant has been submitted but more on this in a later post.

Sensor data for Taarifa, completion of feature requests and blue sky thinking at the Rhok in Southampton

5 Jun

The Rhok Southampton, organised by Dirk, Taarifian of the first hour, brought together a bunch of motivated developers to tackle global problems. A set of problems ranging from satellite image recongnition for drought detection to a charity project visualisation javascript library joined Taarifa in their quest for hacking awesome software.

The local government in uganda asked the Taarifa community for a feature which enables them to store reports on their phone when without internet connection for later upload. As the Taarifa platform is using an mobile optimised version of their website for reporting on the go this feature request got implemented using html5’s local storage and offline cache abilities. David, a freelancer traveling to Southampton from Freiburg Germany, happily hacked away on this problem and presented a working solution on time.

While improving the current platform is a priority for Taarifa, the hackathon in Southampton enabled us to engage with fascinating persons and to brainstorm possible new features. Sam, who is working on building affordable smart-phone compatible sensors using Arduino, joined the team for the weekend. Together with Mark and Martin we build a prototype to attach sensor data to a Taarifa report and visualise it on the Taarifa web page. Sensors of this type can be used to gather environmental data about air quality, humidity and possible water quality. Taarifa can act as a platform to collect this data and the technology used could potentially be priced well below 20 pounds per sensor unit. It is up to Taarifa community to collect information of the potential use of these sensor building on the Taarifa platform.

The Taarifa RhokSoton Team Presentation

Final Presentations at RhokSoton

Project description page of the Taarifa work at RhokSoton

Taarifa goes big in the June 2012 Hackathon

1 Jun

It’s happening again…. another big global hackathon, hosted online by Random Hacks of Kindness.  The event is being held in cities all over the world this June 2nd-3rd, and Taarifarians are taking part in a big way!

Leading the pack is Dirk Gorissen who took on the task of organising the UK’s only event this round. Cheers Dirk! Joining him at the University of Southampton are Nico and David – and the more who can join, the merrier! Taarifa’s presence will be global with Mark Iliffe partaking in the Dar es Salaam event.
These guys will share a bit about Taarifa at their events, and aim to recruit some more hackers to help build the latest features.

But they’ll of course be lending their skills and joining forces with others working on a range of featured problems, submitted by Amnesty International, the National Council of La Raza, NASA, Alerted, and more.

Of course, a big Thank You to the sponsors of the Southampton Hackathon and Random Hacks of Kindness:

Taarifa Ploughs Ahead with New Features and Pilots

25 May

Creators of the London Water Hackathon’s winning prototype “Taarifa” (along with an expanded community) continue to develop the tool for deployment in some promising pilots. The tool is fundamentally a reporting platform. Originally designed for reporting water infrastructure failures, the tool enables users to report problems via mobile or web to a dashboard system that can manage the reports for service providers, and help providers respond to users with updates on the status of repairs. This post documents Taarifa’s development since the original hackathon, and lays out some plans for the near future.

Taarifa’s first debut beyond the original October Hackathon was in Uganda in February. Mark Iliffe, who continues to be a guiding force behind Taarifa’s development, travelled there with the World Bank’s WBI (research division) to demonstrate the tool to Uganda’s Ministry of Local Governments. The tool performed well, even in the remote area of Kumi. Those in the ministry were optimistic about the tool’s potential to improve communication between citizens and local government service providers- but not just for water services, rather for the range of public services provided by local governments.  This is an important update to Taarifa as it allows local governments to utilise just one tool that can support multiple sectors. You can see the addition of service categories for reporting on the tools webpage (http://www.uganda.taarifa.org), and it currently shows some of the test reporting from the Uganda demonstration.


Moving toward a full deployment with Uganda’s Ministry of Local Government, a few key features were identified as important improvements:

  • Offline functionality was recognised as something important to support rural communities where network coverage is limited, and the community of Taarifa technologists continues to develop this.
  • Report forms can be now be easily replicated, so that operators can create new menus for different sector reporting with minimal re-creating of basic fields.
  • The demonstration also highlighted the need to be able to back-up the existing reports when the system is changed so that they aren’t all lost.
  • Export functionality has been improved so that instead of downloading only to the Taarifa database, it can also be exported to commonly used formats such as .csv and .xls

Since Taarifa’s initial development, mobile applications have been developed for all smartphones, (not just android, as initially developed in October).

Yet, the community of developers continues to weigh the options for completely re-coding Taarifa. There is a desire to eventually move to using HTML5 and JavaScript to its fullest potential (it is currently scripted in PHP, using the Kohana Framework), which would enable even wider flexibility and use by those with non-smart phones, though there is some uncertainty as to when this takes place.

There is also some debate around the pros and cons of keeping the underlying coding from Ushahidi, or moving to an alternative. Currently, one of the members is re-coding Taarifa in Django and Python as part of her undergraduate dissertation, which will certainly be of value to exploring these options.

The team has also been working to improve documentation- both of the code, and the supporting documents for using Taarifa, and this is all now centralized here: site.taarifa.org/. However, one remaining documentation need, to have paper manuals for rural contexts such as those in Uganda, still remains.

As of April 2012, Taarifa has been deployed in a Zimbabwe pilot, and may possibly be piloted in Tanzania in the coming months. Another recent boost in Taarifa’s growth and development took place through WhereCampEU in Amsterdam, a geography-themed hackathon. Two team members presented Taarifa and its objectives, and in return, several technologists engaged to provide new ideas for building Taarifa. Through this growing community there are sure to be improvements to Taarifa, and exciting new opportunities for deployment- stay tuned!