iLab Liberia’s must-haves

Setting up a technology center requires more than computers, connectivity, and enthusiasm.  This is worth saying out loud because we at Ushahidi Liberia underestimated just how much more was needed to get iLab Liberia up and running.

Here are a few of the must-haves we discovered in setting up this tech lab – we’d love to hear yours!

Must-have #1: great signage

Did you know you need flashy signs that can be seen from far away?  In a place like Liberia where presentation is everything, this is key – and can take a bit of work considering that there are several people involved in the process.  For the metal street signs, first find a reliable and talented sign painter – who will often provide the scrap metal in addition to his artwork.  When the artist is finished, a welder will attach the sign to iron rods, and someone else (often friendly security guards) will insert the sign in the ground with concrete footing.  The artist then comes back, retouches the sign and, ta-da, you’ve made your mark.  For the large tarp banners, there is thankfully a very professional printer in town that created ours for a pretty penny.

Signage on the main road
iLab Liberia and Ushahidi Liberia's office

The lesser-known benefit of the handmade signs is the artist interpretation of the logo – note how there is a two-headed animal on Ushahidi’s signboard where there were originally two giraffes.

Ushahidi Liberia's two-headed mascot

Must-have #2: user guidelines

As our team talked about iLab’s target audience and the absence of another open tech space in Liberia, we realized we should set some ground rules.  These rules may seem obvious and potentially restrictive for users, but we’ve found that having them on the walls and reading through them with users before each training session or event (as well as having regular users sign a detailed MoU) has increased the professionalism of the space and the users’ respect for it.

iLab Liberia's top ten guidelines

Must-have #3: a clear mission

In developing our guidelines, we realized that, while iLab was modeled on the inspirational iHub, its mission and target audience sometimes diverged from iHub’s open space for “techpreneurs”. The iLab’s mission is to assist IT professionals, organizations and institutions in their efforts to more readily share information using ICT – specifically, with trainings in open source tools and systems because they promote interactive communities and shared ownership in a country where information and knowledge are often withheld or at least difficult to access.

Training at iLab

The keywords here are “training”, and “lab” vs. “hub” – the iLab is available for use by appointment and is a community workspace in so far as users may attend events and training sessions for free; it is not a space where, pending membership, users have their own workspace and are granted greater access based on innovation.

The tech community in Liberia is not yet robust enough, by our estimates, to make full use of an iHub; for now, introductions to open source and popular info sharing tools, along with contextually specific trainings based on local techies’ requests, provide structure for the iLab’s pilot phase.  More inline with iHub, we also want iLab to be a meet-up space for the young tech community and for workshops with a similar mission that have technical requirements.

Must-have #4: limited Internet access

Another must for our budding iLab is restricted Internet access.  This, like the guidelines, could come across as a distrustful policy.  Our reasoning: we would rather start out the reduced temptation for users to stray while simultaneously modeling a new policy (in Liberia) towards Internet usage in professional spaces.  This means no Facebook, Yahoo chat, YouTube (with some exception), and blocks on popular sports sites.

Must-have #5: online, not just on the ground

Any new tech lab needs an online presence – and not just a website, but also Twitter, blog, Facebook (and surely more).  Starting with the website, we wanted to walk the walk by using a free Google sites template (iLab intends to host Google site trainings) with content by Liberians for Liberians.  The blog will be a space for details about starting and maintaining a tech lab in Liberia, as well as recommendations from iLab’s staff about different applications and resources for local techies.

iLab's first workshop with the African Elections Project

Last week, iLab Liberia hosted its first Ushahidi training for a dozen West Africa Network for Peacebuilding in Liberia’s (WANEP) field reporters and regional representatives, following WANEP’s launch of a national early warning system. We also hosted PenPlusBytes, a Ghanian non-profit, for a two-day workshop at the iLab where 30 Liberian reporters and social workers received in-depth training in ICT journalism for the upcoming election.

Ushahidi training at African Elections project workshop
Carter Draper going over the iLab's guidelines with workshop participants

At the end of the training, which will be one in a series from PenPlusBytes known as the “African Elections Project”, the iLab was gifted an additional laptop to add to the lab’s 11 computers; now, local media have a dedicated computer in the iLab for reporting on the election process.  The events were a thrilling success, and the feedback was more than enough motivation for the iLab team to continue refining our approach and spreading the word about what iLab has to offer.

To learn more must-haves – along with more details about iLab’s environment – check out IT Director Kpetermeni Siakor’s recent iLab blog post.

7 Responses to “iLab Liberia’s must-haves”

  1. Thanks for sharing. It’s great to see so much progress … looking good!

  2. Patrick Meier

    Nicely done, Kate! Thanks for writing this up

  3. Wow guys I’m impress by the work you are doing in my country. Where exactly is your office located,i left liberia 8yrs ago and from the picture im guessing it isn’t downtown Monrovia.anyways thanks for all your hard work and may God continue to bless you in all of your endeavours

    Liberian living in Houston tx

  4. Rachel Kasumba

    Kate,

    I am thrilled with the progress that your team is making in Liberia!

    While it is commendable to have rules, user guide #2, 3, & 4 are patronizing because: for #2 – these are standard and basic rules even in the west (especially in public libraries) and for you to have to spend precious time spelling/reading them out for your users, most of whom may be well traveled or worldly, is a little bit off. As for #4, let people explore what they are passionate about instead of censoring what you would like them to read/hear – which may be construed as a subtle form of brain washing! This stifles creativity and openness which contradicts part of your mission statement in #3 that states in part: “open source tools and systems because they promote interactive communities and shared ownership in a country where information and knowledge are often withheld or at least difficult to access.”

    Otherwise, #5 is very commendable. Keep up the great work!

  5. Rachel,

    I work as a technical consultant for Ushahidi Liberia. I read your post and I disagree with your assertions that rules 2, 3, and 4 in the user guide are patronizing.

    First I’d like to give a little context. You make the assumption that most Liberians using the iLab are, “well traveled or worldly.” If this were the case there wouldn’t be a need for a center that offers the kind of cutting edge, high bandwidth professional computing environment that’s common in other parts of the world. iLab is founded on the opposite assumption that the majority of Liberians are not well traveled and worldly, and thus are lacking exposure to technology and information.

    To my knowledge there is only one public library in Liberia. The other libraries in the country belong to the major universities. If a Liberian doesn’t attend university and doesn’t live near the one public library, they won’t learn to be quiet in a library. Those of us who were privileged enough to grow up in a more information rich society know to be quiet when we’re in a library because someone took the time to tell us; we were not born with this knowledge.

    Finally, these rules are here to ensure the safety of our equipment and that we are able to provide a world class, consistent, and enjoyable user experience to all our users. Thus we ask our users respect each other and not create distractions. We have users sign in and out so we can have some way of knowing who might be responsible for damaging a piece of equipment. We want very much to ensure a consistent user experience across all our computers, and thus we ask that users not try to fix or modify a machine. If a user has an interest in PC repair or upgrading a program they are free to request a training or suggest we upgrade our systems.

    I have no doubt that similar guidelines and rules are found in other shared spaces, virtual or real, Western or African. The real difference is that we take the time to explain them to our users, while many spaces, especially in the West, hide their guidelines and rules in the fine print that we (including myself) skip over. I think taking the time to explain things show how seriously we treat iLab, and that we respect the individuality and context of our users.

  6. Rachel Kasumba

    John,

    Thanks so much for your clarifications!

    In your 2nd paragraph, are you asserting that if you were in a more developed country, there would be no need for you to offer cutting-edge, high bandwidth professional computing environment that’s common in other parts of the world? If so, why not?

    In the 3rd paragraph, I have to agree with your assertion that there may indeed be only one library in Liberia. That said, I was one of the lucky few (privileged) to experience being in a rich information society, but unfortunately I often encountered library patrons who nevertheless couldn’t “get it” – as far as silence is concerned.

    As for paragraphs 4 & 5, I agree – absolutely!

  7. thanks for the great work that you are carrying on in liberia. keep it up