I am welcomed by the ambience of the office. Vincent Awino seems to be in a serious business call probably with a client and that leaves us communicating via nonverbal cues, and if I could get him right, he was trying to tell me that he would attend to me when he is through with the call. He signals to me to the office kitchen and surely I helped myself with a cup of tea.
Vincent Awino is a graduate from the University of Nairobi, department of Geospatial and Space Technology. As a Geospatial Engineer his bias was towards GIS development something he decided to pursue out of passion. The interview was all about the progress he has made in the same field, particularly the ‘Upesy App’ and some of the trending geospatial topics such as KNSDI particularly in Kenya.
Below is the record of the whole interview;
Kory: Gravity, the name itself holds some weight. Tell us more about it and how you started.
Vincent: Gravity started around one and half years ago and our main focus was to bring solutions to the existing loopholes in East Africa. We are three partners, Eric Meriithi who is the Managing Director and the Co-Founder, Edna Kendi, sales and Marketing Director, and I, the Technical Director and also the Co-Founder. We have major thematic areas which include GIS analysis and development, Mobile and web application development where we create customized application for businesses and clients. We also deal with Bulk messaging and integrated business solutions like asset management.
We identify gaps and try bring integrated solutions using all those four aspects. For example, for a monitoring and evaluation of projects, people would want to know the locations of the projects and that is GIS while the communication bit is where bulk messaging comes in.
K: How many projects have you done so far?
V: We are still a young company and we have done a couple of projects. We have done one for County Government of Nairobi on incident reporting, and NEMA (National Environmental Management Authority) also on incident reporting. We created a web and mobile applications systems for the same where people report on environmental issues and such. There is also an ongoing project with Securex, a Security Company. We are adding value by providing more flexible ways in which the clients can access security services via a mobile application.
K: I understand that a startup is always tricky when taking off, so how do you market your solutions, do you approach companies or there are companies that approach you?
We identify a gap, look at the trends in the world, and look for a solution. In this case, clients needed alarm systems not only in their cars but also in their phones. What we always do is; come up with a solution, build a presentation on the same to try and sell it, if it makes sense to them, then you broker a deal. This does not always come easily as one has to really push for it. Since we are just starting up, we need to go to them, book a lot of appointments and try to convince them to adopt the solutions we are developing.
K: I understand that Upesy is an App and ‘Upesi’ is a Kiswahili word that means “Faster”, can you expound more on the app and why you settled on that name?
V: Actually it is Upesy that brought us together. Our main push was trying to create a platform where people can get viable help in a quick way. Most at times, when you call for help you want it to come almost immediately. For that matter, we thought it wise to create some sort of application where people can download and install, for raising an alert in case of an emergency. The application has been customized to raise an alarm in case of fire, road rescue, health or security. When you are driving then your car develops a mechanical problem that you cannot solve then you need to get help. Upesy app will be much useful in such a scenario. Maybe you are in the house and someone gets sick, you need an ambulance, how do you get help? Upesy will come in handy. Fire can start anywhere, how can you get “wazima moto”? For security purposes, how do you remain under surveillance under a reputable firm? Most middle class people in Kenya are not under surveillance. People who are under surveillance are the high end people who have to pay close to Kshs 50,000 monthly irrespective of whether an incident has occurred or not. This caliber of people are furnished with Very expensive alarms, guards and motion sensors that the middle class cannot access. How do you get that to the middle class so that they can enjoy almost similar services at a reduced price? Upesy app enables people subscribe to such packages. One can subscribe for a package to put their house under surveillance. If you raise an alert via a mobile phone, there will be an emergency response. There are different packages for fire. Medical response and road rescue. So the procedure is simple, you subscribe to companies who own the platform, you pay premiums which are considerably low and as the numbers are rising the prices go down.
K: I went through the application and I came across a place where you can add your close friends to help in your surveillance, how is that done, and do you need to have subscribed to a premium package?
V: There are two levels; the basic and the premium levels on the same application. You populate the app with your trusted friends. If you raise an alert your friends will receive a text message with a URL which creates a link to the App. When they open it, they will be able to track your location. On the premium level, people not only want friends and family to know but also a reputable firm like G4S which can come to your rescue to track your whereabouts in such a scenario. People subscribe and pay depending on the package. Currently we are not at the point of subscribing but we are still working on the technicalities so that we can add the firms to the app. We are still thinking of geocoding as a future release to cater for those who do not have internet connection at the moment of incident. The only problem is the character space but we are looking at a way by which we can integrate both and limit the character to 160.
K: Now let us go to the industry, they is an outcry in the geospatial fraternity about the limitations of ISK(Institution of Surveyors of Kenya) and feel that another professional body, with a proposed name, Geospatial Society of Kenya (GeoSK) be formed. Is it a welcome idea?
V: GeoSK should come as a complement to ISK’s Geospatial Chapter so that the two do not conflict. Geospatial chapter caters for us in terms of standards and helps in weeding off the quacks in the profession. As a complement it should be able to tackle other things that the Geospatial Chapter in ISK has not dealt with thoroughly, like what you are doing. We need to simplify geospatial science and take it to everybody. These are some of the things that that proposed umbrella body can do. With regards to the contribution of the GIS chapter in ISK, there are a lot of things that have been done in maintaining the standards in GIS. There was a proposal to outline the standards in a policy document and some other things. For me, I think ISK is very expensive for graduate members and if this umbrella body can come up with ways to sort that out then it would be better. Therefore GeoSK and ISK’s Geospatial Chapter should complement each other but they should both agree on issues like the standards of GIS.
Q: Prof Mulaku has been among the respected Geospatial Professionals who have always been in the frontline trying to initiate development of a Kenyan National Spatial Data Infrastructure (KNSDI), however the same has not come to fruition. What do you think has been the problem and what do you think should be done?
V: Policy! Policy! It starts with ISK and other stakeholders like the ICT and Ministry of Lands. In terms of sharing of data, Government institutions should not charge the public. After all the datasets are collected by the taxpayer’s money. In the US, data is free. If one wants data with the said standards they will get it in vector form. Here in Kenya everything is bureaucratic, from the institutions themselves to the ministry of lands.
All stakeholders from ICT, ministry of lands, private firms and universities should come together and set the standards. Even without doing that, there are existing standards from other parts of the world that we can adopt from and develop ours, we do not need to start from scratch.
Once the standards have been set, a system should be created with the key players being from the private sector and the universities. The challenge with that is the lack of political goodwill to do it. There is a lot of mistrust between the key players like ISK, ICT. The Interdepartmental politics are the ones that are proving deterrent to the realization of KNSDI. If that can be solved, it will allow for setting of standards and a system put in place for people to adopt standards from. The last thing to do will be to market to the people and inform the general public of the one stop shop where they can access whichever kind of spatial and non spatial data that they need.
K: Do you think Universities are up to task in innovation, research and development?
V: Research in the universities are underfunded. I remember being given Kshs 3000 for my 5th year project. That was not enough considering the fact that I had to go to the field to collect data and such. To add on that, the lectures are not giving their all. Students have also lost focus and universities have become more of a business that is why you see them advertising on TVs
The universities should create Platforms that allow professionals from the industry come to teach and train the students. There should also be lecturers within the faculty who actually practice what they are teaching. It brings practicability to the industry since they know people and businesses want, they know the trends, what is new, what is not helping anymore, and this will help them align the students to what is actually marketable and needed in the industry. Universities should therefore invest more on research and push more for funding. There is no growth without research from universities. China used to send students to Europe but they made sure that they come back and right now they are not sending anyone because they are self-sustainable. Africa should also adopt the same rationale. With the right kind of guidance, Upesy would have been a realization long before I completed campus. We are always told about Facebook, Google and all the major things in the Silicon Valley and how most of them just started in the university. This is because these countries actually invest a lot in the universities’ research programs. Some of them do not finish campus after focusing on the opportunities they saw. Here in Kenya, projects done in the universities are just meant for formality. If the system would have provided avenues that would make students see what they have as a business opportunity and help people or solve a problem then many innovations would have been realized.
K: Briefly comment on the future of geospatial.
V: Geospatial needs to start from high school. I knew about Geospatial Sciences when I was about to leave high school thanks to some of my teachers who knew something about the same. By the time they get to university they will have already known what Geospatial Sciences are. Then the universities should invest more on research and hands on training, since geospatial research is a hands on discipline. GIS was alien to me until I started working in ESRI was when GIS made sense. These initiatives will help the mwananchi understand GIS and know exactly when to use it. These can be done through outreach programs, teaching them GIS, what it can do, getting into universities and engage them thoroughly is when it will make sense. With that, the future is bright. As at the moment, it is still low but growing progressively thanks to the like of Eric Nyadimo whose contribution has had a positive impact to the University of Nairobi Geospatial Engineering Department, Technical University of Kenya are adopting very nice syllabuses in GeoInformatics, JKUAT are doing the same. Give it five years, you will have very sharp guys coming from the university.
Training students on how to build systems is inevitable. I once called a guy from the geospatial Engineering department, UoN, called Steve Firsake and he did a very good job. This is a very clear indication that there is progress. People from the geospatial engineering need to learn information systems. GIS alone cannot stand in its own. It needs to be integrated with other systems. When carry out an analysis in ERDAS Imagine, the Managing Director will not understand, he/she will need to see it in PDF or Excel or on Google Earth because that is what they can decipher. The system should equip the students with the necessary skills and knowledge to integrate GIS, Remote Sensing, Survey and photogrammetry so that when you are tasked with collection of data on ODK and showing it on ArcGIS you can do it.
K: Parting shot.
V: I should have done Upesy in campus but luckily we are on it presently. Currently at Gravity, our major focus, although we have other things we are doing to pay our bills, is Upesy. We have seen Upesy as a disruptive technology in the security industry. My partners and I, share the same vision and this is what brought us together. So our mission is to make the world a safer place. Upesy is not just for the local market but for the whole world. It is a scalable solution, and we only need partners who can be from outside Kenya. “Making the world a safer place”.
Interview by Kory Korir
You can contact Vincent Awino on the same via,
Tel: +254 721 425 662