Last week, the World Bank brought Silicon Valley entrepreneurs together with young Jamaican techie's in what was called Digital Jam 2.0, honouring an earlier effort in 1994 led by Jamaican Hugo Daley.
The most exciting competition of the two-day event was the "Mobile Apps" competition, won by Joel Dean with their Pothole Positioning System, designed to assist drivers in identifying potholes on their journey and logging a hands free report on it through their mobile phone. Other applications created by young Jamaican's included a JUTC routes application, designed to update passengers on arrival and departure times through a customer's phone, a mobile ticket selling application from Team EZ Ticket and a couple of Olympics related applications designed to allow one to follow one's favourite Olympic athletes in a more personalised way.
The applications were judged by a panel of technology entrepreneurs. David Mclure of angel investor and start up accelerator 500 Startups advised the contestants that the applications "had to solve a real problem", and that they don't have to first to market, there being many examples of the number two player becoming the market leader, but it is crucial for the customer to "know" you have a better quality product.
A key theme of the conference was pushing the concept of microwork, meaning any small task that a person can do with a computer and an internet connection. One of the presentations was by social entrepreneur Leila Janah, who started the original microwork company Samasource with a plan of giving work to those four billion of the world's citizens at the bottom of the pyramid when she discovered that unemployed youths in Kenya were being paid a dollar a day to riot. Rather than what she called the wrong kind of thinking "that poor people are fundamentally needy, that they can't escape poverty without some sort of handout", she notes poor people are working, but "just in jobs that didn't pay living wages".
World Bank representative Gorgio Valentini agrees, arguing that promoting ICT in Jamaica is critical as an economic sector and driver of skills creation.(see related story on Page 15)
He argues for the establishment of microwork aggregator hubs to provide the training, infrastructure and support for young Jamaicans to gain employment in the virtual economy and provide opportunities for incubation of a sub-set of start-up companies emerging from the app competition and hackathon organized as part of Digital Jam 2.0.
Mobile Works is a recent start up now in 30 countries that emphasizes microwork tasks that don't require a computer, and can be completed using an internet -connected mobile phone. Its founder, Anand Kulkarni, who presented at the conference, is exploring a partnership with the government of Jamaica to deploy Mobile Works and affiliated training programs in Jamaica to create thousands of new jobs.
One of the most difficult issues for Jamaican entrepreneurs is marketing Internet businesses to the wider world. It is therefore encouraging that Kulkarni is interested in Marvey, a local microwork market research app developed by three young Jamaican developers for the Digital Jam 2.0 competition using Mobile Works software. It lets small businesses and individual entrepreneurs anywhere in the world run a survey on specific demographic groups. If a fashion designer in Kingston wants 100 opinions from 18-35 year old women in California and Jamaica about his latest design, Marvey lets him design a survey using MobileWorks, which will distribute it out to workers and get answers back to him. It is innovations such as these that will determine if Jamaica can become the Silicon Island of the Caribbean.