CXO

David Kobia: Ushahidi Co-founder. Humanitarian. Avid cyclist.

Ushahidi co-founder David Kobia talked to TechRepublic about working remotely, staying humble, and Ushahidi's quest to solve global problems.

He started with A.

David Kobia was looking for a college to attend in America. The Kenya native knew there were plenty of good computer science schools to choose from, but had no clue where to begin. So he looked at the alphabet, and started with the state at the top of the list: Alabama.

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Image: Ushahidi

The University of Alabama was the first school Kobia applied to, and he was quickly accepted.

Kobia laughed, remembering on his first trip to the US to start school, he read about Alabama's state history and became quite worried he made a terrible mistake. But he fell in love with the state, and American Southern culture, and hasn't left the South since.

After college, Kobia worked in software development. He thought about moving back to Kenya, but in 2008, the violence following the Kenyan elections kept him from returning — but it also sparked the idea for Ushahidi, an open source platform for democratizing information, particularly during crises.

"I think I can be very useful for Ushahidi in general being here," Kobia said. Most of his co-founders spend the majority of their time in Kenya, but the Ushahidi team is spread out all over the world: New Zealand, Africa, Europe, Asia, and America.

"In Africa in general, the growth is phenomenal. Between Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa, despite everything — the usual stuff that happens in most African countries, politically, economically or otherwise — the growth is just astounding," he said. "I still feel like there is something powerful on the continent, so many opportunities."

Ushahidi is a leader in the African tech space with its growing platform, services, and most recently, hardware. BRCK, is the crowdfunded rugged self-powered mobile WifFi device, made for use in Africa. Crowdmap is a hosted version of the Ushahidi platform that is used for quick mapping with social media or mobile devices. The nonprofit's data collection and curation tools continue to grow.

After team member's friends and family were directly affected by the Ushahidi Westgate mall attack in Kenya last year, Ushahidi released a service called Ping. Ping simply allows people to send a quick ping to check if their loved ones are okay.

"We initially wanted to keep up with families, but now people want to keep up with companies and citizens. It's simple but extremely powerful," Kobia said.

Another project Kobia is excited about is CrisisNET.The platform is a consolidated source of global crisis data such as violence reports from governments, citizens, and humanitarian organizations that is curated to make useful infographics, visualizations, and charts. It's consistent, simple, and meant for anyone — not just data scientists.

"I feel very fortunate to say I have the opportunity to do this. Not many people find something that they are so passionate about. They go through life looking for something, spending all [that] time and energy," Kobia said of his work.

Always extremely humble, Kobia credits much of his success to the rest of the Ushahidi team. It's a "motley crew" of people all over the world, he said, who could work at many big, fancy tech companies, but they chose to work for this cause. They're all self-starters — passionate and determined.

"We could be building fancy apps and creating the Buzzfeeds of the world. I think it's just having some kind of impact somewhere. That's what drives us."

Every few months, the team talks and resets, asking themselves what goals they are progressing toward, and why they wake up to do their jobs every day. Kobia said that because they work around the world, often alone, it's easy to get lost in the weeds, the code, the details. But the answer for him is always the same:

"There are so many global challenges and if we can have two cents in trying to fix some of these problems, that's enough of a reason to get up in the morning," he said.

Kobia lived in Alabama for 10 years before moving to Atlanta, where he met his wife. He loves the city, though he travels to Kenya as often as he can. The majority of the time, his Ushahidi work is remote. It's a challenge, as there are many cultural differences between the team members, volunteers, and users. Some things get lost in translation.

For instance, he said, laughing — Americans talk a lot, but Kenyans are passive and don't talk. In a remote working environment, a lot of voices don't get heard, and people can fall through the cracks. Kobia makes sure to hack away at the process to deal with cultural differences, and said they "have a formula that seems to be working so far."

Humility is a characteristic that Kobia speaks of quite often, and one he constantly expresses himself. He was a MIT fellow and named MIT's Humanitarian of the Year in 2010. Humility is why he's been so successful, and why Ushahidi functions the way it does.

"Just always take two steps back and listen. Look at who [is being impacted] by the work that you do and why you're doing it. I think the role of tech in solving problems tends to be overemphasized, especially in this day in age. It's an exciting time, [tech] is an equalizer. But I think that not everything needs technology. It takes stopping just a moment try to think of other ways to solve problems."

In his own words...

What are some of your hobbies?

"I actually just came from a bike ride. I was trying to get back, I was hoping I wouldn't be out of breath. I did 30 miles right before I walked in the house. I try to do it at least two, three times a month. When I can, I hit the trail. There's a really good biking trail in Atlanta, the best in the Southeast that extends all the way from Atlanta to somewhere in AL, 100 miles along of paved road. It's extremely beautiful and a lot of fun. The other thing I love to tinker with [is] all these prototyping platforms like Raspberry Pi...so if I can, I try to build something."

What do you like to read?

"I am very attracted to post-apocalyptic dystopian books. I especially love zombies. Slow Burn — I just finished that a few nights ago. It was extremely good actually."

What music do you like?

"With music, I think I am all over the place because I love hip hop, alternative...and I mean everyone loves Daft Punk, right? I love them."

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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