Published on 02-Aug-2010
Validated on 06 Mar 2013
"If we had been using any system other than Lotus Domino with its rapid application development capabilities, we couldn’t have done this so quickly and for such reasonable cost. That is what made the program possible. " - Alex Kassabov, VP of Collaboration, PSC Group, LLC
Zain Africa Challenge
IBM Business Partner:
PSC Group, LLC
Using a collaboration network based on IBM® Lotus Notes® and Lotus® Domino® software for messaging and workflows, with IBM Lotus Sametime® for real-time communications, the producers of the Zain Africa Challenge streamlined work that spanned the continent, improving productivity and allowing for better localization
Create a communication infrastructure for bringing together bright young minds from across the African continent in a unique academic competition called the Zain Africa Challenge, culminating in a televised event
A network for email, instant messaging and workflows with Lotus® replication accommodating Africa’s intermittent Internet connectivity supports efficient collaboration among African and U.S. teammates
·Streamlined international collaboration enables launch of ground-breaking event in less than a month · Solution delivers a more productive way of working to this part of the world · Staff can work closely with international authors and editors to provide better localization of content · Easy collaboration fosters closer relationships and increased respect across borders
Where people must struggle daily against imposing odds to meet basic human needs, hope for the future can be in short supply. Such is the case over vast expanses of the African continent. But there are those who can envision a better future for this part of the world and have invested in it by creating an inspiring event called the Zain Africa Challenge (ZAC).
ZAC is a televised academic competition sponsored by Zain, Africa's most successful pan-African mobile network, in partnership with Africa Challenge Productions, Ltd. (ACPL).1 This annual event is part of an overarching vision for bringing the African continent into the 21st century, which will require education, cultural change, and creation of an infrastructure for moving information. To give people hope, it is necessary to demonstrate positive routes to a better future, accompanied by modern methods of communication that enable people joined by shared purpose to interact easily across borders.
More than a quiz show, ZAC is a perfect means of advancing this vision. It is an opportunity for the future leaders of Africa to intermix with peers from neighboring countries, experiencing the value of networking, education and collaboration in ways never possible before, while showcasing to a large audience the academic achievement of African university students with bright prospects for future careers. It also engages all concerned—from the project organizers to contest participants and viewers—in wider, modern channels of communication and information exchange.
The Zain Africa Challenge is born
Growing out of the experience of the producers of College Bowl, the leading source for academic competitions worldwide for the past 35 years, an African competition was first mounted in 2006 involving students from universities in Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda. In 2007, Malawi and Zambia were added. By the third season of the competition, universities in Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone joined the others, enlarging the field of contenders to students in over 100 eligible African universities. Each country held its own national qualifying tournaments, with the top 32 teams competing in the International Championships and Festival in Kampala, Uganda in February 2009 and January 2010. Prizes of US$1 million in institutional, individual and travel grants were awarded, and the culminating games were televised as the Zain Africa Challenge (ZAC).
Tight deadlines demand efficient communication
A major challenge to the organizers of ZAC was coordinating the efforts of hundreds of widely dispersed contributors in executing this large, complicated project. The end-to-end project involved a series of university-based Student Tryout Tests and then National Qualifying Tournaments leading up to the International Championships and Festival, and capped by the contest among finalists broadcast live on television. The project team consisted of a local staff based in Kenya that needed to work with production and editorial staff spread out over several locations in the United States as well as with authors and editors across several continents.
Staff had to process the student competitors from universities in all the participating countries and then orchestrate the complex logistics of accommodations, catering, television coverage and other production issues. Along with the authors and editors, they also had to compile, review and prepare the many thousands of “challenge” questions for use in all phases of the competition—a monumental task.
Constrained by tight deadlines and confronted with the need to manage these complex interactions over long distances, the ZAC project team needed a simple but reliable way to collaborate internationally. Based on its past work on College Bowl, PSC Group (PSC),2 an IBM Business Partner, was engaged to design and implement a communication and collaboration system that could support the most efficient processes possible during all steps of the show's creation. Of course, this solution also had to accommodate the particular challenges of the African communications environment.
PSC creates an infrastructure suited to the African environment
As John D. Head, director of enterprise collaboration for PSC Group observes, “In Africa, the task of coordinating such an event was daunting because nothing can be taken for granted.” Having a reliable Internet connection of any speed is problematic and very expensive in Africa. For instance, until late 2009, access to the Internet was exclusively through satellite. With that service, users get emails indicating when connectivity via the satellite won't work because of the position of the sun that will block it. Therefore, users have to plan their work schedules around the times that satellite transmission is actually available. A low-bandwidth connection costs almost US$1,000 a month. New fiber optic links are being installed in Africa, but they are not yet reliable and are 10 times the cost in developed countries.
The most dependable, affordable communication channel is mobile phone service, which is why phone texting using SMS is popular. But this option alone was not sufficient to meet the needs of the ZAC project team. In the absence of an adequate infrastructure, one had to be created.
Leveraging its 10 years of experience doing work on both College Bowl and the Honda Campus All-Star Challenge, PSC created a new collaboration infrastructure using IBM Lotus Notes® and Domino® for email and workflows, IBM Lotus Sametime® for real-time communications, and several Lotus Domino applications. The replication feature of Lotus Notes and Domino, which permits working offline until Internet connectivity is available to send communications out, was critical in the African environment. A second instance of this solution was created for the collaborators in the United States.
Though building everything from scratch, development was very fast. “We basically went from the phone call asking us to build something for this new program to having a usable application in two weeks,” says Head. “And then we had the workflow, approval mechanism, the organization, exports to the system and all of the reporting done in less than six weeks. If we had been using any system other than Lotus Domino, with its rapid application development capabilities, we couldn’t have done this. Being able to build this so quickly and for a very small amount of money is what made the program possible.”
Automated workflow streamlines question generation
The staff in Kenya had laptops in their offices, with servers running Lotus Notes and Domino that provided users with local access to email and instant messaging. To facilitate global collaboration, all that was required was for the Domino server in Kenya to talk to the Domino server in the United States, passing the data back and forth.
Email and instant messaging enabled international teammates to collaborate closely despite the distances and time zones separating them, and to be more responsive to everyone's needs. The ease of communication especially helped the question-generation process. With the several tiers of competition at local and national levels leading up to the televised finals, tens of thousands of questions relevant to the African audience were needed for the games.
Question topics ranged from science, math, literature, geography and history to current events and popular culture. The questions were to be developed by authors and editors across Africa working together with staff in Kenya, Nigeria and the United States. All the questions had to be developed, checked for errors, edited, approved, categorized, assembled and logged—a time-consuming process.
An automated workflow was used to support this elaborate question-generation process, which facilitated maximum efficiency and content accuracy. Staff could work closely with international authors and editors in formulating the questions, which accelerated the creation process, increased content accuracy, and facilitated better localization of content—an important facet in supporting the country-based team selection testing and national competitions leading to the final televised event.
The special value of replication in developing countries
When traveling to different countries and universities for the events and interacting with people to set up logistics, staff from Kenya used laptops with the Lotus Notes and Sametime clients installed on them as well as all of their data. Due to the replication capabilities of Lotus Notes, they could then communicate back to staff in the office whenever they could get a modem-speed connection. Replication was also essential more generally for accommodating intermittent Internet connectivity.
Head emphasizes the importance of this feature for the African environment. “Without Lotus Notes replication and the way that works, a communication infrastructure like what we were able to create would not have been possible. People laugh about that particular capability of Lotus Notes being a 20-year-old technology, but because of what replication offers we can still take advantage of old communication pathways remaining in many parts of the world.”
Lotus Sametime reduces costs and confusion
Lotus Sametime offered an important option for real-time communications, especially for traveling staff. Head explains, “Though for real-time communications they had the option of phoning or phone texting, making phone calls across distances is expensive and you never know what kind of quality you're going to get.” Plus instant messaging with its inherent need for typing everything out “actually made the communication process easier because it lowered the barriers of different accents and dialects, reducing miscommunication and making things easier for everyone involved.” For these reasons, Lotus Sametime instant messaging became almost the primary communication vehicle for immediate interactions across Africa, as well as with the United States.
One further very valuable benefit of the Lotus software from a costs perspective is that it can exchange data with other desktop applications (such as Microsoft® Access, Excel and Word) for use in operations. This was and remains particularly powerful for the ZAC TV productions where the rich-formatted text can be exported for use in the studio to generate on-screen text, saving tens of thousands of dollars over alternative solutions employing character generators.
International collaboration delivers ground-breaking event
By enabling seamless communication and collaboration across borders, the Lotus collaboration environment accelerated all phases of the project. Overall process efficiencies were such that 30 percent of staff was able to refocus their efforts from administrative work to more strategic tasks. The streamlined international collaboration and workflows enabled launch and flawless execution of the ground-breaking ZAC event in less than a month to meet program deadlines, showcasing students from more than 100 African universities to approximately 150 million viewers.
There were ancillary benefits as well for both staff and the student competitors. Collaborating online across borders via email, instant messaging and automated workflows introduced staff to a more collaborative and productive way of working that was new in this part of the world. Easy collaboration fostered collegial relationships and increased respect among people from neighboring countries with histories of poor relations. Students interacting with peers from other countries and feeling the value of knowledge and academic prowess gained from the widened horizons these experiences gave them.
ZAC influence expands with public participation
A nice addition to the competition in the third season was a live quiz countries could broadcast that enabled the public to participate via cell phones. Content prepared in advance generated scripts read to the listening audience, accompanied by an SMS to text for the dial-in competitors. Created to build awareness for ZAC, this promotion both generated a great deal of enthusiasm among the public participants and boosted viewership of the televised event.
This entire ZAC program including the SMS component was conducted entirely in English and was called “Anglophone.” Because of the success of the Anglophone program, future programs are being considered in other languages including French, and for expansion to other locations.
For more information about IBM Lotus, please contact your IBM sales representative or IBM Business Partner, or visit: ibm.com/lotus
For more information on Zain Africa Challenge, visit: www.zainafricachallenge.com
Products and services used
Footnotes and legal information
1 Africa Challenge Productions S.A. (ACSA) works with the long-time producer of College Bowl, the leading source for academic competitions worldwide for the past 35 years and the recipient or many awards for its contributions to education including an Emmy, a Peabody, a Congressional Citation and several Presidential Citations.
2 PSC Group, LLC, an IBM Business Partner, is an information-technology and professional services consulting firm that specializes in business process architecture and back-end integration. PSC Group, LLC was selected in 2008 as the winner of the Best Philanthropy category for the Sixteenth Annual IBM Lotus Awards based on its support of ASCA in the creation of ZAC.
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