Just eight months after launch, IS Labs can claim success in its mission to make the Internet a better place for South Africans.
IS Labs launched in July 2008 with the mandate to "Make the South African Internet better". In eight short months the project has received a wealth of
ideas on the islabs.co.za web site as well as a number of ideas submitted privately.
Run on a social media platform similar to digg.com, the site was built with the social media crowd in mind, in the belief that Internet innovators spend their time online and are willing to engage with Web 2.0 technologies.
"However, we've learnt some important and unexpected lessons," says Jeff Fletcher, project leader for IS Labs. "To our surprise, we found that most of the core innovators are not chatting on IM, blogging, spending time on Twitter and Facebook or reading blogs – they are innovating."
Even though the core group of innovators were not reached via social media channels, the social media audience brought great value in unexpected ways.
Fletcher explains: "The social media players are the early adopters and passionately debate new developments on the web. It's a great crowd to get feedback and different views from, and in this way they have brought tremendous value to IS Labs.
"Many of the social media players we targeted initially are now part of the IS Labs blogroll and blog about new projects and developments at IS Labs. The awareness created in the online space has spilled over into the real world and greatly assisted us in reaching the core innovators."
Ideas have come from a diverse group of people with backgrounds in engineering, IT, marketing – even one person with a PhD in French literature.
According to Fletcher, it's usually a coupling of an ideas person and an implementer submitting ideas. "One holds the vision and is good at elucidating the idea, while the other is good at developing and implementing it."
As a secondary mandate, IS Labs aimed to stimulate innovation within parent company IS, to reinvigorate the innovation that IS lead in the early days of the Internet.
"The launch of the IS Labs site was an innovative move for IS in itself. Ideas submitted by IS employees have increased significantly in the last few months, which is a very encouraging sign. The IS Gaming project has shown IS employees that they also form part of the group of innovators IS Labs is aiming to reach. We believe there are many great innovators within IS and, through IS Labs, we are now beginning to unlock the potential held internally," says Fletcher.
IS Labs can already celebrate the launch of two projects that are making the South African Internet better: IS Gaming, an idea submitted by IS employee Davin Hansen; and dabba Telecoms, a commercial venture with ties to the Village Telco project.
IS Gaming was launched in October and dabba Telecoms in November after venture capital funding was secured from Hasso Plattner Ventures.
The next project in IS Labs' pipeline is Obami, a social networking site for South African schools that helps parents, teachers and pupils keep up to date with everything that is happening at their school from a single place. A single pilot project is currently being run at St Mary's School for Girls, but Obami expects to have between 50 and 100 schools using the service by mid-2009.
IS Labs is also in talks with various universities across the country for the launch of a competition around cloud computing. This project is still in its early stages and more information will only be available next year, once discussions with the universities have been wrapped up.
Fletcher concludes: "As we move into the new year we will take the lessons we've learnt so far and apply them to reach more innovators and get more ideas. The IS Labs site will remain as it is, but we will also focus on reaching innovators offline. One of the standout lessons is the need to reach both online and offline audiences to make IS Labs a success and improve the Internet for all South Africans."