• Marlon Parker
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New social media aggregator JamiiX, which was developed in the Western Cape’s impoverished Cape Flats, is set for a global launch in June 2010.
JamiiX works by bringing social media and instant messaging functionality into a single application, allowing users to manage many accounts, and carry on several conversations at the same time, using a computer or mobile phone.
JamiiX developer and CEO Marlon Parker describes himself as a social entrepreneur. An avid blogger and tweeter, he holds a masters degree in Information Technology (IT) and is working on with his PhD at the Cape Peninsula University of Technology, where he has lectured in IT since 2000.
Parker’s thesis, due for completion in 2010, focuses on the use of technology to facilitate change in communities.
The new media specialist and his team have worked for almost three years to develop JamiiX, and their efforts come to fruition on 8 June when the site goes live.
The tool gets its name from the Swahili word “jamii”, which means “social” or “community”. The x represents an exchange between users.
“[We hope that JamiiX] will prove to be more than just an average aggregator for social networks and instant messengers,” wrote Parker on his blog, “but will come with a little dash of colourfulness that will certainly change communication channels using Web 2.0.”
The JamiiX team identified a desperate need in their community for affordable and accessible communications, especially in terms of social services. Many people need support but can’t afford to run up big bills on a landline, likewise small organisations and service providers also have to keep an eye on the phone budget ‒ they turn instead to the cheaper alternatives of social media sites, text messages, and instant messaging.
At the same time, the team was aware that mobile phones are the most commonly used piece of technology in communities. Building on this realisation, they designed an application that provides a single interface for all these services.
The application is aimed at individuals and organisations alike, and has been tested by NGOs such as the National Aids Helpline and the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.
Developing organisations especially, that provide support services such as counselling, information and education, marketing, and call centre operations, will benefit as they need dedicate just one adviser to handle multiple conversations.
JamiiX has partnered with South African success story MXit to make its interface available through a special gateway on the popular instant messaging application.
The project received funding from the South African Finland Partnership, and consequently has been able to set up operations in the UK, Finland and Malaysia.
Passion for community development
Parker is deeply committed to community development and upliftment through the innovative use of technology – this gives direction to his research.
Two years ago he pioneered a MXit drug counselling service known as the Advice Support Network. This innovative mobile platform enables South Africans to receive online counselling on substance abuse, domestic violence and HIV/Aids. In April 2010 it surpassed the 50 000-conversation mark.
He founded RLabs, or Reconstructed Living Labs, in the Cape Flats community of Athlone with the aim of “reconstructing communities through innovation”. Focusing on the areas of health and social care, the team’s mission is to empower the community through education and training.
A living lab is an open innovation environment that is led by a community of users, and development takes place in real-life settings.
The RLabs initiative is the first Western Cape-based project, out of 10 around the country. Partners in the venture include the Cape Peninsula’s technology university, the Athlone-based Bridgetown Civic organisation, and faith-based community organisation Impact Direct Ministries, also based in Athlone.
Among RLabs’ numerous activities are the Reconstructed project, which rehabilitates former gangsters and drug-users through mentoring and training; Mom 2.0, which teaches women from the community how to use a computer and social tools such as Gmail and Facebook; and the Seniors Mobile Session, which teaches the elderly how to use their mobile phones efficiently.
Parker’s PhD thesis is titled Using ICT as a change agent to empower citizens in a community in tension, and one of the initiatives that has arisen out of it is the Advice Support Network.
Area of tension
Described by Parker in a 2008 technical report as a “community in tension” because of factors such as social inequality and lack of education and economic development, Athlone struggles with numerous social issues, including drugs and gangsterism.
The area is situated on the Cape Flats close to Cape Town International Airport and is known for its football stadium, home to the Ajax Cape Town and Santos football clubs, and recently upgraded for its role as the city’s main training venue for 2010 Fifa World Cup teams. Its other distinguishing feature is the two cooling towers of the decommissioned Athlone power station, which loom over the N2 freeway.