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Mar. 23, 2015

CSU professors build app, unveil Kenya's history

By Jordan Smith

African History professor Michael Owino and 20th century U. S. History professor Mark Souther look to bring historical and cultural artifacts to the mobile web with an app designed to highlight Kenya’s historical points of interest.

The project is being funded to the tune of $60,000 from a start-up grant on behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities. This grant typically only funds about 15 percent of proposals.

“We were not at all sure we’d get the green light,” Souther said. “Thankfully we did.”

Their partners in the app, which is designed to showcase historical and cultural sites in Kisumu, Kenya and the surrounding area are, from Maseno University in Kenya. The project’s title is Curating Kisumu: Adapting Mobile Humanities Interpretation in East Africa.

Though they are building the project now, Souther stated that the initial app won’t be released publicly until 2016 at the earliest.

Souther calls the venture a “transformative undertaking.”

In January, Souther and Owino traveled to Kisumu to meet with their project team.

“It was my first time going anywhere in Africa, so it was a remarkable experience,” Souther said. “I got an entirely different understanding of that part of the world than I possessed from all the reading I had done before going.”

Nearby, Maseno University and Cleveland State University will create and provide the content that the web is lacking. The content will be created by students at Maseno University and Cleveland State through team-taught courses. Maseno University is located about 25 miles outside of Kisumu.

The app is built on the Curatescape mobile framework developed by Cleveland State’s Center for Public History and Digital Humanities.

“The mobile publishing framework [was] developed by the center for Public History and Digital Humanities in the Department of History in 2012,” Souther said. “[It] has been widely adopted by universities, museums and cultural organizations across the United States and now Australia and Great Britain.”

Professor Owino talks with the owners of a farm on Kenya

It will allow both residents and visitors to tap into well-illustrated readings on historical sites across Kisumu County that display integral themes in African history including colonialism, racial discrimination and political movements.

“Kenya and East Africa more broadly are rapidly developing technologically,” Souther said. “Well over 80 percent of Kenyans now own mobile devices, and last year, for the first time, more than half of new mobile phone sales were smartphones.”

According to Souther, the goal of the app is to build Maseno University into a resource for broad dissemination of humanities knowledge in its region.

“One of our biggest challenges is to adapt Curatescape in ways that make sense in East Africa,” Souther said. “That will mean streamlining the administrative or input end of the project to make it very user-friendly.”

Over their 10-day span spent in Kisumu, the two professors conducted wireless speed tests at various locations, conducted workshops and met with officials before signing a memorandum of understanding with Maseno University’s Vice Chancellor Dominic Makawiti.

What struck Owino the most was the passion and camaraderie of their Maseno University colleagues. He said the enthusiastic reception that he and Souther received upon their arrival made them realize that the project has reached beyond their research objectives.

Owino, a native of western Kenya, was well-informed of the benefits and cautions of studying in Kenya. After deciding that western Kenya was less-likely to see security disruptions, it became a matter of finding the right fit.

“We wanted a university with a strong humanities focus and IT capacity,” Souther said. “Maseno University is such a place, and it has the added plus of a personal connection.”

Owino earned his degree from Kenyatta University in Nairobi with their project partner Gordon Obote Magagna, who now serves as the Chair of the Department of History and Archaeology at Maseno.

They named the project MaCleKi. “Ma” for Maseno University, “Cle” for Cleveland State, and “Ki” for Kisumu, Kenya.