Brookings Blum meeting 2015

Next week we’re very honoured to be at the Brookings Blum Roundtable on Global Poverty for the third time. The meeting in Aspen is a great group of international development experts, and the discussion both around the table and around the campus afterwards is always excellent.

More importantly, this year the topic of discussion is digital economies and the role of international development. A timely topic as the World Bank WDR 2016 report will address this issue, and from our conversations with clients, donors and Governments there is a strong desire to have a nuanced conversation about the positives and the negatives of connecting the world’s population to the Internet.

We’re speaking on a session on the cultural impacts of Internet connectivity, which we’re seeing doesn’t always liberalise minds in the way we might like it to.

The week is Chatham House rules, but will be tweeted from Brooking’s account @brookingsglobal

Notes from the 2015 ICT4D Conference in Singapore

We were excited to be a part of the program at The Seventh International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development (ICTD2015) in Singapore. Jonathan Donner, Charlotte Smart, and David Taverner from Caribou Digital participated in four days of sessions, demos, papers, notes, and ideas exchange, as well as some wonderful gatherings and cultural events. Congratulations and thanks to Professor Chib and the Nanyang Technical University organizers.

Caribou Digital ran an open session on “Is the Hotspot the New Telecentre”; our debrief on that session is here. In the meantime, here are a few of our impressions from the rest of the conference.

The 22 plenary papers were a testament to the multidisciplinarity of the ICTD community, covering everything from mobile banking and m-agriculture to disability and citizen engagement. Though most are behind the ACM “paywall”, we find that it is worth searching online if one catches your eye – many authors post preliminary versions of the work on their own websites.

The notes were lively and diverse, offering, for example:

  • An overview of, a collection of over 28,000 community Wi-Fi nodes in Spain and around the world
  • The introduction of a social media platform that provides offline content for NGOs through mesh networks
  • The results of a small study of phones active on Endaga’s community cellular network in rural Indonesia. Although the region is very remote, the authors found smartphone adoption rates similar to that seen in the rest of Indonesia, highlighting an eagerness among some residents to adopt smartphones, even if just as media players.

As always, the open sessions were relaxed and in-depth opportunities for discussion. We stuck with the themes of rural and shared access. David attended a session on building community cellular networks, led by Kurtis Heimerl of Endaga. Charlotte attended a session focusing on the impact of shared-access telecentres; discussion there focused on how public access venues can enable female entrepreneurship, enhance digital literacy, and provide valuable spaces for socially excluded groups, even as adoption of mobile devices continues to rise.

Across both the sessions, and during our own, we were reminded again how local actors, from telecentre operators to community mesh network champions, will play an important role in extending access and enabling effective internet use beyond what could be accomplished with top-down, one-size-fits-all models of connectivity. It is an exciting time in ICTD, with a variety of local access models under active exploration.

Facebook “levelling” the playing field?

(This post is by Bryan Pon – who is leading Caribou Digital’s research into the power structures in global app stores and platforms.)

The recent move by Facebook to open the service to “any developers” has stirred a new wave of debate and criticism about the initiative. This new move is largely a response to the growing backlash from net neutrality supporters, especially in India, where some content partners pulled out of participating in due to public outcry. Critics complained that not only was zero-rating fundamentally against net neutrality principles, but that Facebook would control which services were offered for free as part of the portfolio–a classic walled garden. Given the expected advantages of a service on vs. a competitor not on, Facebook would essentially be picking the winners and losers for these markets. 

By opening to all developers, Facebook is addressing this second criticism, and VP Chris Daniels stated clearly that its intent with is not to create another walled garden. If we leave aside the fundamental conflict between zero-rating and net neutrality, the underlying strategic intent and potential implications of this move are important to consider. Because while Facebook is only creating the rules for, if the platform becomes a significant part of the mobile internet landscape in emerging markets, the model that it establishes may become the de facto standard–just as Apple’s iTunes and App Store model set the standard for the first wave of the mobile app ecosystem, including the now-universal 30% margin that the platform owners take on apps. 

The platform will be open to any developer, but not any app, as there are three eligibility requirements all apps must meet: First, the app/service has to encourage users to “explore the broader internet” by limiting what is available for free through the app; in essence, Facebook is encouraging a freemium model. Second, the service has to be efficient with data, and work well on more basic phones, which means more text and fewer images. Third, the service has to comply with a set of technical requirements, including *not* encrypting traffic via HTTPS, or using JavaScript, Flash, or SSL. The lack of encryption has generated criticism of how Facebook is handling privacy, especially given that all traffic will be served through Facebook’s proxy servers. 

While on the surface Facebook seems to be creating another app store similar to Apple’s and Google’s, there are a few structural differences that are important to call out. First, this would be an app store based not on an operating system, but on a service, signalling the increasingly powerful role that services–especially those like Facebook that capture user data–are taking in the mobile industry. Traditionally it has been Apple, Google, and Microsoft who have been able to establish power through their respective platform ecosystems and app stores, all of which are based on an operating system. Yet this power structure has started to shift: As Android gets appropriated by firms such as Xiaomi, Amazon, and Cyanogen; and abundant processing power helps cross-OS interoperability become standard, the operating system is becoming commoditized while the critical control point, or bottleneck, is instead moving up the stack to services such as Facebook. Or put more simply, most people who are heavy users of Facebook, Gmail, Dropbox and so on would rather switch to a different operating system/device than switch to a competing service; we are locked-in by our personal data, and will follow it . 

Perhaps even more importantly, this new app store structure would re-frame internet and web access for its users. In the industrialized countries, mobile internet usage has been steadily shifting away from the web and mobile browser, and toward apps, mostly because they’re purpose-made for specific tasks or entertainment functions, making them easier and faster to use. Compared to the open web, which is thought of as unrestricted and free-to-use, apps are more directly controlled (via the app store owner, who can determines access to the store) and monetized (via the app developer and the app store owner). 

This gets flipped on its head in the new platform, where the open and unrestricted web costs money, and it’s the directly controlled apps that are free-to-use. The question is, when open and restricted costs money, and the directly controlled apps are free and easy to use, how many new users are going to choose the open web? 

Of course, this restructuring of controlled apps vs. open web affects producers as well. New firms seeking to enter the space will have to abide by Facebook’s terms of service and eligibility requirements, limiting the scope of innovation. For one, all apps/services on the platform must agree to sharing user data with Facebook, who in turn will share it with mobile operators. More constraining is the “freemium” requirement, as explained by Facebook VP Chris Daniels, which encourages those services that “simplify features of their applications such that in order to access the entirety of their websites or their applications, one has to pay for it.” 

Would a new form of Wikipedia be able to meet this requirement? How about Facebook itself? Facebook enjoyed tremendous user growth as a standalone website on the open web, with no requirement to limit its functionality or force users to pay for key features (it mostly sold ads). And when users signed up, there was no 3rd-party entity above Facebook that was collecting data and sharing it with the user’s internet service provider.

So it’s with some irony that Facebook is now using its dominant market position to push free access to, and thereby directly weakening the role of the open web–the same innovative and unrestricted environment that helped it grow into a $200 billion company–in favor of a tightly managed ecosystem that it controls.

The Inequality of Global App Stores

Last week we were in Chicago at the annual AAG conference participating in an excellent session of talks on “Geographies of Production in Digital Economies of Low-Income Countries.” There were great presentations and conversations around the potential (and today’s empirical reality) of digital work in emerging markets, especially around micro work, mobile apps and internet, and innovation hubs.

We presented our preliminary results from studying the global app economy, which continues to grow in scale and economic value, with millions of app developers and estimated revenues of $87 billion in 2014. The fully digital nature of this new industry seems to offer potential economic opportunities for previously marginalized or excluded producers: because apps are built, distributed and consumed completely digitally, producers can be located almost anywhere and still sell to a vast global market. In addition, lower barriers to entry in terms of licensing costs, software development tools, and accessible knowledge resources for developers make it easier for low-resource developers to enter the market. Success stories such as Flappy Bird, a simple gaming app produced by an independent developer in Vietnam which became a global sensation (and reportedly earned $50,000/day in advertising revenue at its peak) serve as glamorous examples of what is possible.

Yet our research shows developer participation in the app economy is still highly skewed, with most of the value creation and value capture occurring in the industrialized countries. Using primary data on the location of 2,688 commercially successful app developers worldwide, we are mapping participation at the city and country level. While much of the unevenness simply reflects (and reinforces) the evolution of knowledge-intensive technology development and infrastructure, it is also the result of platform strategies by the two major platform firms—Apple and Google—whose governance policies shape participation and value capture.

Our analysis so far suggest three key ways in which these technologically space-less platforms are anchored in places and geographies. First, the location of successful developers shows that production is highly concentrated in the United States and East Asia, with signs of agglomeration in four major metropolitan areas. Second, the degree of participation is in some cases established at the country level, requiring agreement between nation-states and platform owners, and can result in de facto exclusion for those populations. And third, the nationalized structure of the app stores offers an advantage to local producers in smaller markets, but is insufficient to outweigh the winner-take-all dynamics and platform strategies that are increasingly favoring the larger and better-resourced developers.

You can find our paper from the conference here.

World Bank panel on Big Data – Video

Yesterday we spoke in Washington on a panel on Big Data as part of the World Bank Spring Meetings. The video of the panel is here.

Today, one red-eye flight later, I’m in Oxford to join the team at the launch of our Platform for Investment in Inclusive Digital Economies in Africa – come along and join us by signing up here or coming to the Oxford Union library at 3pm.

Busy, exciting times!


Investment Fund launch in Oxford April 16th

Goodwell Investments and Caribou Digital will on April 16th launch a new platform at Skoll World Forum to catalyze growth of inclusive digital businesses in Africa

Africa is becoming the “mobile continent”. Fuelled by better access to the Internet, more powerful devices, and cheaper data, data traffic is growing faster in Africa than in any other continent. This digital revolution will transform Africa and create opportunities for disruptive innovations targeting complex social, environmental and development challenges.

Already, Africa’s next generation of entrepreneurs are forming digital start up communities in places like Lagos, Cape Town and Nairobi, and creating exciting new business models that improve the lives and livelihoods of low-income communities. The potential for achieving scale and impact is huge; however, limited access to funding, insufficient business development support, gaps in the start up ecosystem and dispersed talent pools constrain growth.

Join us for an intimate reception and discussion on the opportunities and challenges that digital start ups face, and learn more about an exciting new platform that Goodwell Investments and Caribou Digital are developing that will channel funding and support to catalyze the growth of inclusive digital businesses, ecosystems of support, industry dynamism and the next generation of technology leaders in Africa.


April 16 Goodwell Investments/Caribou Digital Event in Oxford on African Digital Economies & our new Investment Platform

Join us next week – Thursday, April 16 at Skoll World Forum 2015 – for an intimate reception and discussion on the opportunities and challenges that digital start-ups face, and learn more about an exciting new platform that Goodwell Investments and Caribou Digital are developing that will channel funding and support to catalyze the growth of inclusive digital businesses, ecosystems of support, industry dynamism and the next generation of technology leaders in Africa.
RSVP and please feel free share the invite with friends and colleagues.
Thursday, April 16 (3:30-5:30pm)
The Oxford Union
St. Michael’s Street
Oxford, UK
Please RSVP by Monday, April 13, 2015
If you have any questions please email

Watch this space

For the best part of the last year we’ve worked with Inmarsat and Dalberg to develop a proposal for a new programme promoting satellite applications in emerging markets.  

We submitted a proposal at the end of last year with Inmarsat leading a consortium including Equity Bank in Kenya, MAMA in Nigeria, the Space Applications Catapult in the UK and BRCK. We were delighted to win and are a month into the project already. 

Caribou Digital is providing the overall project director in Tim Hayward, with Kishor Nagula and Marissa Drouillard researching on the Equity Bank Kenya part of the programme.  Chris Locke is providing governance as part of the steering committee.

We’ll be researching and experimenting with new business models for Internet access in a way that drives inclusive digital economies in Kenya and Nigeria. All our work will be published here, but also on a new open data site we’re developing with the Space Application Catapult.

So, quite literally, watch this space.

Speaking, and travelling, and speaking.

We’re still incredibly busy, and will talk about the projects we’re working on as soon as clients allow.  But we can talk about the upcoming speaking engagements we’re doing, where we will be giving sneaky peeks into the results of some of our work.  If you’re going to any of these events, come and see us and say hi!

World Bank Spring Meetings – April 17-19 2015, Washington DC

Chris Locke will be speaking on a panel about big data for development

Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting – April 21-15 2015, Chicago

Bryan Pon will be presenting our paper on a synthesis of five country studies on inclusive digital economies

ICT4D 2015 – May 15-18 2015, Singapore

Jonathan Donner will be running a workshop on the Shape of Emerging Market Digital Economies

BoP Global Network Summit 2014 – July 16-17 2015, Burlington, Vermont

Jonathan Donner and Chris Locke will run a panel on Digital Economies at the base of the pyramid in partnership with Vital Wave Consulting





New Projects, New Staff

It’s been an incredibly busy start to the year here, and it doesn’t look like it’s slowing down.  While we can’t talk about all the stuff we’re working on just yet, we will be sharing every piece of research and knowledge we glean as soon as we can, and will update here on the links to the work we’re doing.  We will also be launching a dedicated research site later in the summer to host the burgeoning amount of research we’ll be publishing.

We learn equally from our analysis, academic research and delivery in the field.  The three approaches are vital to us and complement each other well.  One of the new projects we started this year is a very innovative service we’re trialling with partners, and as we do more of this and as we grow as a team, we need to have excellent staff who can manage this and make sure that everything on the projects runs smoothly.

It’s with great pleasure we can announce that Tim Hayward has joined us as Senior Director, Operations at Caribou Digital.  He’s the leading programme director on one of our key delivery projects at the moment and will lead on all the delivery projects we have.  I’ve worked with him a lot over the past four years and it’s been great, so I’m very glad to have the chance to continue to work with him.