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Wednesday, 03 June 2015 09:28

As connectivity in Myanmar improves, new groups of super smart tech gurus are teaming together to try to harness the power of communication and information for the good of the country. The vessel in which many of these groups meet, form and flourish is Phandeeyar.

 

Myanmar Innovation Lab, started in January last year out of a Code for Change meeting.  Phandeeyar director, David Madden, says 'The connectivity revolution has the potential to transform the country'.  This change had been driven by the incoming telecommunication companies Telenor and Ooredoo and in particular the wireless penetration commitments written into their licenses. Ooredoo plan to cover 80% of the population with wireless network by the end of 2015. The question Phandeeyar asks is - how can we harness this potential to improve lives? And specifically what tech product does Myanmar need to improve people's lives?

 

In March 2014 an embryonic Phandeeyar held Myanamr's first ever 48 hour hackathon in conjunction with code for change and internews.

 

The hackathon was designed to find solutions to two sets of questions. The first on social and political issues: the second on issues facing small to medium sized enterprises. The specific questions to be answered were given by NGOs and SMEs. The questions included how to alert farmers about pests and diseases? How to contact sex workers with outreach programs? How to create fair elections? The SME's also wanted; a booking application, an accounting application and a home delivery application. The hackathon also looked to see at what level the tech skills were at in Myanmar. And how many people were interested in tech as a whole.


Phandeeyar, which means creation space in Myanmar, was founded formally in the aftermath of the hackathon as a permanent home for this kind of work – as David explains 'a place that brings together social enterprises, independent media, NGO's and technology.' It is backed by Omidyar Network, Open Society Foundation, Schmidt Family Foundation (founded by Eric 'Google' Schmidt), Baydin (a Myanmar tech company in Silicon Valley) and Internews.

 

The hope is to build applications and content that can accelerate change. In the past such hubs have been very powerful in developing countries; for example the ihub (also backed by Omidyar Network) in Nairobi, and they hope to replicate this success in Myanmar.

 

Phandeeyar has 4 objectives


To expand the pool of tech talent in Myanmar (i.e. run coding workshops, development groups, design/thinking workshops)

 

Help civil society integrate tech into their work (social media privacy etc.)

 

Help independent media integrate

 

Bring these 3 together

 

Since kicking off these initiatives they have brought in experts from Silicon Valley to perform workshops - in particular experienced Myanmar tech experts who work there. They have also held a founders roundtable, creative's meet-ups,  maker's meet ups (cool virtual reality goggles were exhibited at this – and there are 2000 maker's meet up members), the New York Times have visited, they have opened a knowledge exchange with Civic Tech, started a Story Telling With Data programme, linked with the Myanmar Peace Exchange and much more. In terms of equipment HP have donated materials and are offering HP' entrepreneurship training.

 

For Phandeeyar, joining is currently free, however they plan to start charging 30USD per month a desk in future for new civic society groups and to charge people to use the space for commercial functions.


They have no branches in other cities, but do hold workshops and bar camp events in other Myanmar cities and do offer financial help to those traveling from outside Yangon. Their Yangon office is located in Mac Tower 11th Floor, 561 Merchant Road (Mahabandoola Park Road & 35th Street) the entrance is left of the notary office and the Myanmar  bookshop - 09 421 136 565

 

Phandeeyar hopes to be a hub for other groups, for example GeekGirls. GeekGirls is run by Sandi Thein, she got involved in Geek Girls whilst working in Ideabox (a tech hub) for Ooredoo. When GeekGirls Myanmar started in September 2014 it was originally backed by Ooredoo but at the moment it is supported by Phandeeyar. Sandi says 'Our aim is to encourage women in tech to be more engaged in tech activities in Myanmar and to foster them to be in front in a male dominated industry'. Currently GeekGirls are focusing on community development and to this end they hold regular monthly meet-ups at Phandeeyar. The meetings consist of themed talks on various topics, coding workshops & entrepreneurial training.

 

The benefits of joining the group are getting to know other GeekGirls from the community, personal network expansion, learning about new opportunities by meeting experienced people from Myanmar and overseas (this is especially true for students), and learning more about tech from the free training sessions and workshops. There is no joining fee.

 

Currently they are based only in Yangon however they do have members from Mandalay and other towns in Myanmar.

 

The formation of tech groups has inspired the formation of new tech companies. One such company is Bindez, which is a mobile information platform for Myanmar. Their story started in 2013 when Rahul Batra met Htet Wai Phyo at Project Hub Yangon. Project Hub Yangon is an incubation/fellowship programme that provided training, mentoring and knowledge sharing for people interested in tech and IT. The pair came up with a concept to build a platform that could bring information to people in Myanmar in their own language. After recruiting in Htet Wai Phyo's college friend Ye Win Ko, the product launched in April 2014 as a fully functional mobile information platform for Myanmar. Since the original concept the scope has broadened to reflect the fact information is not always language specific i.e. it can be weather, data, currency rates etc. Bindez aims to be the missing link between readers and content in Myanmar. The mobile application is designed with the user's needs in mind and contains many useful features such as individual bank exchange rates and a save function whereby the user can store interesting articles to read later. Rahul Batra hopes the application can "help solve daily life issues" for people in Myanmar.

 

Another example of a new company to grow out of this new tech community is Rebbiz. Rebbiz created MyanmarCarsDB.com - the leading online automobile portal in Myanmar. The portal was launched in January 2012 and is funded by private investors. Since launching, close to 50,000 cars have been listed on their marketplace.

 

Their aim is to connect car buyers and sellers directly through an online platform, which can offer both parties an easier, faster, and more transparent process to buy/sell their cars. Using the platform saves the users much time and effort compared to the traditional way of visiting physical car marketplaces. The platform is free and anyone can start selling cars without any limitation unless they would like to use the premium car listing services. On a daily basis they develop cool new technology features and  maintain the existing product, support customer enquiries and solve any issues they may have, educate new customers on the importance of internet technologies as well as how to use the online car marketplace in their existing auto businesses.

 

As IT infrastructure in Myanmar improves these tech groups and the companies they inspire to form will help drive the connectivity revolution, and hopefully with it improve Myanmar people's quality of life.

 

Interestingly for the Bindez management team the relatively low consumption of online content in Myanmar is not just an issue of poor internet connectivity. Ye Win Ko explains "when I was back in my home town I was in a waiting room with 40 or so other people. They all had mobile phones which could access mobile data however no one was on their phone, as you might see in Singapore (people using data on their phones); they were all drawing or doing something else. The drive to use the internet is still not there, there is still something missing." However, the team does expect that to change and hopes that easy to use useful aps, like Bindez, can facilitate this change.


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