Mobile Code and The Department of Sharing


The web initially took off thanks to the DIY efforts of many millions of self-taught web developers. Many people (including myself!) learned to build websites thanks to the ability to ‘view source’ in browsers. We learned by studying (and cutting and pasting) the HTML source code of the websites we admired.

The same openness and learnability is not there for mobile apps – unless their source code is released, that is. Even then very few users know how to go to look for it. My project Creative Code is inspired by a sense that we should also be able to “View Source”, tinker with and customise our mobile apps, thus driving interest in and knowledge of mobile coding on the most accessible platforms available. Through the series of customisable open source youth culture apps that we are building and testing for Creative Code we want to spark a DIY ‘appmaker’ DIY spirit among young people. While there are many comprehensive online resources available for this, they are somewhat inaccessible to the majority. Young people are fascinated by technology but they have shockingly limited opportunities to learn to code on computers – fewer than 1% of South African Grade 12s have the opportunity to study Information Technology at school level. After-school programmes like Creative Code are limited by young people’s very restricted access to computers. While people in urban areas generally have a level of internet access via mobile phones, they certainly do not want to spend all their airtime downloading Khan academy videos. Furthermore the web-based live-coding environments do not work on mobile browsers.

Until recently mobile coding seemed pretty far away – apart from some simple tutorials and visual tools teaching very young children the principles of programming. Recently this has changed with Mozilla’s Appmaker and Microsoft Research’s TouchDevelop, which, like APDE, allows on-device coding. We have elected to use APDE because it allows on-device coding in Processing, my favourite language (Java-based but designed around the needs of artists and other interesting people) and moreover it’s a mobile IDE which is not cloud-based. This may seem somewhat old-fashioned but it does means it can be used under our usual circumstances of limited or intermittent connectivity.

After four months of preparation, Creative Code is all set now to launch mobile coding lessons that can easily be edited and adapted on Android phones. We will try out these lessons during a series of three workshops that centre around developing animated, playable stories,  made with our new app, The Department of Sharing.

The idea of making interactive, sharable stories was inspired by discussions I had with two young writers, Anathi Nyadu and Vhuthu Muavha. I met them in January 2015 at a networking meeting for South African organisations working in the mobile literacies space (hosted by the Goethe-Institut Johannesburg). Anathi and Vhuthu were as engaged by games and instant messaging as they were by reading stories on their phones. They were at the meeting because their love of reading had led them to write their own stories, and publish them through the Fundza Fanz programme.

A global movement to develop mobile reading has taken off since the m4Lit project launched in South Africa in 2009. See, for example, the recent UNESCO study Reading in the Mobile Era surveyed users of Worldreader/Binu and presented new quantitative data around the prevalance and implications of reading on mobile devices in developing countries.

As a result, a wide range of organisations provide reading materials designed to be read on cellphones.

Anathi and Vhuthu brainstormed with me about how text-based mobile stories would be more attractive if they could be given more gamelike features such as interactions, branching and animations. This was where I first developed the idea for the Department of Sharing. It is a Processing app for making and sharing animated, playable stories.

Collocated sharing or ‘side-loading’ (copying stories to a friend’s phone via Bluetooth or cable) is a very important feature of the app. For example, when we were doing the research for m4Lit,  readers complained that they could not download mobile stories to read them later and share them with their friends. Similarly Daily Sun users post their phone numbers so that other readers can send them the videos published by the Daily Sun on Youtube via Whatsapp. (This way they keep their own copy on their phone and can watch it and share it without using their airtime). The Department of Sharing creates cc licensed stories which belong to anyone who might be interested in reading them and which promote creative commons licenses.

Department of Sharing runs in the Processing mobile IDE, APDE, which allows on-phone editing and vastly simplifies the process of exporting from .pde to .apk files  (a Herculean task  for beginners). The first sharable story was completed using artwork and a game story from Khazatown Blues, a Mario mod designed in 2014 by five Grade 12 students.

Khazatown Blues was based on a Mario mod created by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana.

When published on Android phones, Department of Sharing stories are playable with written stories and simple interactive visuals. Since Android is popular but still not ubiquitous, it is really important to be able to give stories to people who are using simple feature phones rather than smartphones (running Android, Windows or iOS).  For this reason, stories created by the Department of Sharing can be exported in more basic formats – e.g. images or gif animations, such as the one below.

Created by the Department of Sharing
Created by the Department of Sharing. Visuals and story from Khazatown Blues by Talita Maliti, Ndilisa May, Vuyani Vorslag, Ludwe Zigwebile and Lwazi Fanana

The idea here is simple – there are plenty of cloud-based mobile reading libraries, including Yoza, Fundza, Worldreader, and the African Storybook Project. Yet it is surprisingly difficult for people to create their own mobile stories and share them with those around them without needing to use their airtime to access a website or join a cloud-based service such as Facebook or Binu.

Here’s Lungile Madela at work configuring our Convergence Lab for the next series of story-making workshops with The Department of Sharing. The Convergence Lab includes a smart TV, a charging trolley and a pair of large cupboards  stocked with smartphones and tablets.

There is still a long journey ahead on the road to mobile coding, but I am very grateful indeed to UCT Strategic Equipment Fund and the Shuttleworth Foundation – without their support these big steps towards a mobile coding curriculum wouldn’t have been possible.

Incomes based education and digital literacies

Did you benefit from unequal education? If you’re a South African and you can access this website, there’s a good chance you did – either because of apartheid education, or because of the ‘incomes-based education’ which followed it. All the more reason to use your digital skills to sign a memorandum to the Minister of Basic Education from  NGO Equal Education. You can add your name to the memorandum by emailing and make sure you join the March on 17 June.

The Equal Education campaign has rightly focused on bringing our attention to the inadequate educational infrastructure in many schools, where teachers and young people must cope without electricity, or water, and unhygienic forms of sanitation.

A few months ago, a group of colleagues and myself also sent a submission to the Department of Basic Education to put our support behind the campaign and draw attention to what seems to be some back-pedalling around minimum norms and standards for Internet access and electricity in schools. A couple of years ago the department seemed set on a course to make electricity and internet part of a school’s basic infrastructure, and set ambitious goals regarding the development of digital literacy. Now the draft norms and standards only refer in general terms to ‘energy’ and any form of connectivity.


Equal Education cite some recent data from the South African National Education Infrastructure Management System (NEIMS) Reports in  May 2011. The figures in the graph above show how schools in the Eastern Cape and KZN provinces struggle most with lack of access to grid electricity. In total, 14% of schools have no electricity while 7% use solar, generator or other less reliable sources.  This is a (small) improvement on 2006, when 17 percent of SA schools had no electricity.


Other data from the NEIMS reports form a good background to my research which explores the consequences of the fact that many young people, even in urban areas, don’t have much access to computers or the web either at home or at school. In 2006, 68 percent of SA schools had no computers, and figures from the government’s e-education report in 2004 show that only about half the schools which had computers then actually used them for ‘teaching and learning’ (rather than purely for administration). There is a bit more detail about learner access in the 2011 data,  which shows that only 10% of South African state schools have stocked computer centres. Only 33% of schools of schools even have a space for a computer centre. More than half, or 57% of the  schools which have an allocated space for computers do not use it for a computer centre.  These 2011 figures show that teachers and young people in the richer provinces Gauteng and the Western Cape are indeed at a great advantage in relation to their access to computers, these provinces provide 43% and 34% of schools respectively with computers in stocked computer centres.

[Edit – There are some discrepancies between the above computer access figures and those cited by the Western Cape government, which claimed 100% access to computer labs  when announcing its plans to provide each child with a tablet over the next five years.  I’m  not totally sure how to explain these discrepancies. They may relate to the fact that this province installed labs in all 1464 schools under the Khanya project, but the labs were not all well managed or maintained. ]

The report does show that the Western Cape is the only province which has made much progress in making Internet access available more broadly.  It has connected 86% of schools, and 97% of schools in this province have a landline telephone. Outside Gauteng and  the Western Cape, South African schools rely on mobile connectivity, with 92% of schools using cellphone networks while only 46% have a landline.


From the 2011 census, we know that  64.8% of households in South Africa don’t have Internet access. Almost half of the 33.2% of households who do have some Internet access, get online via the most expensive (per bit) route – via mobile phone (16.3% ). Research with colleague Jonathan Donner showed how in Cape Town young people are learning to use computers at school and that there is huge demand for public access facilities such as cybercafes and public libraries for safe quiet spaces after school and for free or more affordable internet.

These figures suggest a definite failure to attain the policy goal of digital literacy set out in the 2004 e-Education white paper, which stated that, by 2013, all young people in South African schools would be “ICT Capable”:

Every South African learner in the general and further education and training bands will be ICT capable (that is, use ICTs confidently and creatively to help develop the skills and knowledge they need to achieve personal goals and to be full participants in the global community) by 2013.

Schools and libraries need to think urgently about how to address this state of inequality. On the one hand children have a right to equal facilities.On the other hand, educational resources are limited and strategies need to focus on providing them with appropriate and available technologies, devices, training, media and skills, without deepening existing inequalities.

A 2007 study of 290 grade 7 learners from four different schools in the Cape which all had computer labs found significant differences between the level of skills students developed at various schools, depending on how much access students actually had to computers, their prior knowledge of ICTs, technical support provided to teachers, and home use of computers (Gudmundsdottir, 2010). Guaranteeing access at school can indeed even the playing field in some respects, but it also introduces new inequalities. To get a clear sense of how teachers need a great deal more than just basic infrastructure from the Department of Basic Education, see this interview by Kobus van Wyk with HoD Penny Vinjevold ,conducted at the time the Western Cape’s Khanya project was concluded. Kobus’s blog post became a space for teachers to express how they felt when suddenly faced with the prospect of reduced technical support as they struggled to make eLearning part of their daily practice. Make sure you read the comments!

It is also definitely worth reconsidering the role of cellphones in schools. Unlike computers, cellphones are available in almost all schools, and in many homes as well, which brings huge advantages. Phone charging stations may play an important role for children whose families only have intermittent access to electricity. Landline Internet access combined with wifi or other free or cheap networking technologies such as Bluetooth or MXit and mobile devices can allow schools to make educational media on the web more accessible, particularly media especially designed for phones. More importantly, strategies and curricula should utilise the available mobile devices and free or cheap networking which teachers and young people already use and understand.

While it may be sensible to ban cellphones from some types of school classes and from some areas of the library, many such bans prohibit learning as well. Blanket bans mean that neither teachers nor young people are able to use the educational capacities of their phones  or to develop the  digital literacies that emerge this way.

[Edit: Thanks to Kobus van Wyk and Mark Carolissen for helping me check the lab access figures.]

‘Dissatisfied with service delivery’

What do protestors say during South African ‘service delivery’ protests? Burning tires and violent actions make the news, but protesters’ perspectives are seldom heard in the media.  After the crowd has dispersed, what happens to the protesters and their demands? Unlike in other countries, where social media can be used to mobilise and bring issues to the attention of a wider public, in South Africa, social media are expensive and inaccessible to many. Police records describe the protests as ‘crowd control incidents’, they note whether the crowd was peaceful and lump a wide range of issues, grievances and campaigns together, categorising them as ‘Dissatisfied with service delivery’.

Police crowd control data - Map of protests in South Africa 01/01/2009-30/11/2012
Police crowd control data – Map of protests in South Africa 01/01/2009-30/11/2012

This visualisation project uses police data to represent the number of service delivery protest incidents in South Africa, during 2009-2012.

This visualisation shows how many protests are recorded in the police crowd control data for the period 01/01/2009-30/11/2012, The red circles indicate which areas have experienced more protests than others. We’ve also included links so that you can check Google to see which incidents received attention from South Africa’s media.

The project is work in progress by Marion Walton and UCT’s Interactive Media class. The class is taking their first steps in data journalism, and are learning about JSON data and the Google Maps API. We are currently cleaning the data and exploring visual techniques to show the frequency of protests and the nature and distribution of media coverage.

Code  adapted from Gabriel Svennerberg.

Internet and electricity are also basic needs for South African schools

Basic infrastructure for every school.
Basic infrastructure for every school.

South Africa is one of the most unequal countries in the world, and these inequalities are particularly apparent in educational infrastructure. While some children don’t have toilets, brick classrooms or electricity, others go to schools with broadband, computer labs, laptops or tablets, which they start using before they even go to school. Such technologies are often flaunted as markers of superior education, and used to differentiate expensive private or semi-private schools from the cheap or free government schools.

According to our constitution, everyone has the right to equality, and to a ‘basic’ education. In addition, the state needs to take reasonable measures to progressively make it possible for more citizens to access further education. Should internet access and electrical infrastructure be considered part of this ‘basic’ package that must be made available to all South African children? If schools introduce children to internet use, isn’t that a  ‘reasonable’ way to facilitate their access to further education later in their lives?  I would argue that it is.

Much of my own research focuses on the problems of technological solutionism. In other words, it’s a serious and often expensive mistake to believe that you can ‘solve’ difficult social problems such as education with technology. Technology projects are often poorly conceived forms of conspicuous consumption. Actual educational adoption is slow and tends to amplify existing pedagogic practices – what teachers already do. Nonetheless, it stands to reason that,  if infrastructure is not in place in some places, and is made accessible elsewhere, (particularly a highly enabling infrastructure such as the internet) you are effectively guaranteeing that the system perpetuates and magnifies existing inequalities.

Equal education have shown us how desperately some South African schools need sanitation and classrooms – children don’t have a hygienic toilet to use and principals struggle to access and maintain simple educational technologies such as desks and textbooks.  So it seems very Marie Antoinette to say ‘give them internet’. At the same time equal education increasingly does require connectivity, electricity, and creative, well-trained teachers and support staff who can make the most of available infrastructure. This means understanding local circumstances and practices in order to help teachers and young people to access and create online resources and networks via appropriate technologies and in local languages.  See for example, what the Shuttleworth Foundation managed to achieve a couple of years ago with basic feature phones and publishing mobile novels in isiXhosa on MXit, and more recently there’s this popular user-generated digital library which records local knowledge in isiZulu. For resilient local connectivity, there’s  this promising looking Kenyan-designed BRCK or ‘backup generator to the Internet’, which could work well with mobile devices.

South Africa’s Minister of Basic Education, Minister Angie Motshekga  has invited the public to comment on the Draft Minimum Norms & Standards for School Infrastructure.My colleagues and I prepared some comments in response to the invitation and in support of the campaign by local NGO Equal Education for basic norms and standards:

We are a group of researchers from the University of Cape Town. Our projects focus specifically on digital and mobile communication in young people’s access to education and participation in youth culture. This work makes us painfully aware of the challenges faced by educators and learners in the South African education system, the barriers to young people’s participation in higher education, and the ongoing role of infrastructural inequalities originating in apartheid education. For example, in 2006, 17 percent of schools had no electricity, 12 percent had no reliable water source on site, 68 percent had no computers, 80 percent had no libraries, and 24 percent had grossly overcrowded classrooms, housing 45 learners or more (South Africa, 2008). Inequalities in adoption of computers and the Internet in this context has been documented relatively extensively in the academic literature, including our own research (see for example, Haupt, 2008; Kreutzer, 2009; Deumert, 2009; Walton, 2010; Pallitt, 2008; Prinsloo & Rowsell, 2012; Prinsloo & Walton, 2008; Schoon, 2012; Venter, 2012; Walton & and Kreutzer, 2009; Walton & Donner, 2012; Walton, Marsden, Hassreiter, & Allen, 2012; Brown & Czerniewicz, 2010). Given the findings of this research we support Equal Education’s call for equalisation of the available infrastructure in South African schools, and their campaign for Minimum Norms and Standards for school infrastructure. In particular our comments on the draft norms and standards highlight areas within our expertise, notably the need to make electricity, Internet access and crucial educational spaces such as libraries, computer labs and media centres available to all learners in South Africa.

 Here is the document with our comments: Comments on norms and standards (pdf).

In my case, the comment was informed by recent research that I conducted with Jonathan Donner on a study of young people and internet use in public libraries and cybercafes in Cape Town. As a result of the study I became even more aware of the extent to which public library infrastructure for young people is grossly inadequate and overextended in Cape Town. To a large extent this can be attributed to the way people turn to public access facilities such as libraries and cybercafes to compensate for the inadequacies of school infrastructure and availability, and the excessively expensive cost of airtime and out-of-bundle mobile data in South Africa.

‘The doors of learning and culture shall be opened’ – realizing this goal of the Freedom Charter involves more than providing a desk and a toilet or plugging a device into an electrical socket and connecting it to the internet. But I fear that if we don’t provide these basic infrastructures, the dream of equal education will continue receding  further and further out of our reach.

Dramatic uptake of mobile internet in SA – latest stats

Fascinating mobile stats from +Arthur Goldstuck and World Wide Worx reflect dramatic increases in extent and intensity of mobile internet use in South African cities and towns (in an URBAN >16 sample) with data spend increasing by half to 12% of airtime budget.

According to their findings, 41% are browsing the web now, Facebook use has almost doubled to 38%, instant messaging app for smartphones Watsapp is now used by 25%, Blackberry grew fourfold to 18%.

Now that the internet adoption curve for South Africa is well into the early majority stage things should get very interesting indeed.

Read the article on Times Live


How many Internet users in SA?

People often ask me about levels of Internet access in South Africa. I must confess that I watch these stats like other people watch football scores. It’s fascinating to lift the lid off the studies and see how the researchers have arrived at their deceptively simple numbers.

Anyhow, (and because some of you have asked!) here are some starting points for understanding internet access and usage in South Africa:

Mobile subscribers and internet adoption in SA: 1996-2009
Mobile subscribers and internet adoption in SA: 1996-2009 : ITU

A good source for annual cross-country comparisons of desktop internet access (and mobile subscription data ) is the ITU( International Telecommunication Union).  They currently put SA at  12.3%  fixed line internet access (2010) . Although access is growing, it’s shown nothing like the massive expansion of mobile subscriptions which the ITU’s data also reveals. (CAVEAT – the impressive S-shaped curve in the graph reveals growth in the number of SIM cards rather than users).

For more specifics about access in South Africa there’s AMPS (All Media Products Survey) conducted by the South African Audience Research Foundation. This survey provides overwhelming levels of detail about media use (15+), particularly about that of higher income groups (or higher ‘living standards’, to use their parlance). It comes out twice annually. Largely informed by the preoccupations of market researchers, it is thus not the best source for understanding use in lower income brackets. Although it’s expensive to subscribe to the full AMPS database you can get quite a bit of info from the free queries they allow to registered users via their eighty20 online interface.

At the moment, according to the  AMPS 2011 Individual survey (Jul’10 – Jun ’11),  these are their numbers:

  • 18%  (accessed internet in last 4 weeks)
  • 20% (accessed internet in last year)

Other surveys (notably ResearchICTAfrica) aim to provide information about internet access and usage, and to identify those who are currently excluded. These surveys are more informative about the challenges of access to internet and phones for South Africans in lower income brackets and in rural areas. The ResearchICT Africa survey allows comparisons with other African countries, but is conducted less frequently, and so unfortunately the numbers are quickly out of date.

AMPS now allows us to piece together a great deal of info about mobile internet. It tells us, for example, that although 22.88% of South Africans use mobile instant messengers such as MXit daily (which shows how many people are using data/internet on their phones), only 7,4%  said that their primary means of internet access was a cellphone and only 6.03% said they accessed the web or internet daily from their phones. AMPS

This discrepancy shows the importance of mobile messaging rather than web-style information access, but also raises questions about how mobile internet access is defined. These questions were originally raised in Tino Kreutzer’s research, which I’ve mentioned in a previous post. Many people have phones which are data-enabled, but they are not all internet users. It’s also likely that many people who do use the internet aren’t telling interviewers that they use the internet, when in fact they do. If we include all use of the TCP/IP protocol as ‘internet’, then use of MXit and other mobile apps should be counted along with desktop-style ‘web’ use (http protocol) as mobile internet use.
The diversity of mobile internet use makes things particularly tricky. In  Arthur Goldstuck’s terms, we should be thinking about the different ‘tiers’ of the mobile internet: (i) WAP, (ii) mobile apps such as MXit and (iii) web browsing.  I think survey questions are better when they ask specifically about particular online brands – Google, MXit, Facebook etc  – people don’t know the term ‘instant messaging’  but they do know whether they use MXit.

More nuanced figures are available from Goldstuck’s 2011 World Wide Worx study, which details Facebook and MXit use, and shows the gap between rural and urban areas. This captures some of the dramatic growth happening at the moment. World Wide Worx put the figures for mobile internet at urban (39%) and rural (27%). According to a large potential client, MXit currently reports 11 million active users (which is a good match for the AMPS figures cited above). A large live activity map photographed on 1 April 2012 shows how MXit use is spread around the country, but concentrated in urban areas (as is the population!):

Activity map of MXit use - posted by Arthur Goldstuck @art2gee

The latest World Wide Worx study shows Facebook growing rapidly and starting to trump MXit in urban areas. Twitter is also on the rise, no doubt driven by its popularity with journalists, celebs and the mass media. MXit is likely to hold onto its early advantage,  particularly among low income users because of the high cost/bit in South Africa and Facebook Zero is not available on the SA networks. In some new research, Jonathan Donner and I have also found that many people pay more than they should for data because very few buy data bundles. Also, many people don’t like to buy more than R5 or R10 airtime at a time, but I’m sure Facebook in particular will get a boost from some of the cheaper current data offerings by MTN and Cell C.   Again it’s important to consider these numbers in relation to the fact that the World Wide Worx survey doesn’t include informal settlements or ‘deep’ (less accessible) rural areas. There’s also a big gap in relation to under 16s, who are big early adopters but are not included in any of the big surveys. As the landscape changes so fast it’s also worth trying to ask about forms of communication which are growing in popularity. My own research suggests that mobile internet is rarely used in the same way as desktop internet, and that we should rather conceptualise mobile internet as configuring a range of socio-technical contexts.

To illustrate some of the difficulties in answering the question ‘how many Internet users in SA’, here are some survey questions from past surveys:

Survey A: Research Internet Africa

1.      Do you know what the internet is?

a.       Yes

b.      No

2.      Do you ever use the internet?

a.       Yes

b.      No

Survey B: All Media Products Survey

D2. Have you PERSONALLY accessed the Internet/World Wide Web in the PAST 12 MONTHS?

Record one answer:



If  the participant answers ‘Yes’ in question D2, continue with question D3, otherwise skip to question D10

The key difference between Survey A (RIA) and Survey B (AMPS) is the use of the skip question in Survey B – this means that anyone who doesn’t understand the words Internet or World Wide Web will not be given the opportunity to answer any of the subsequent questions (about email use for example) and so the structure will likely generate false negatives. This problem is compounded by the fact that, unlike Survey A, Survey B makes no attempt to identify the respondent’s existing awareness of the Internet.

In both surveys the closed structure  inevitably disguises a lot of variation. For example, respondents who want to answer ‘I don’t know what the internet is’ or ‘I’m Not sure if MXit/Facebook/gmail counts’ ‘my friend helped me, does that count?’ or ‘I don’t remember’ might all answer ‘No’ in Survey B. Also notice that the question requires recall (‘ever’ in survey A and 12 months in survey B).

There are thus serious issues of validity for both surveys – you can use the internet without knowing that you are doing so. The question strategy in both surveys requires the participant to understand the word ‘internet’, which is pretty jargonistic. On the one hand there’s a lack of popular understanding of the term ‘internet’ (only 50.8% of SA respondents in the Research Internet Africa survey said that they knew what the word meant). On the other hand those who do know the term may associate it with computers rather than phones or other devices. Not only participants but fieldworkers who administer the survey may also have this association .