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Yaw Anokwa, UW Ph.D. student in computer science (Photo: Annie Laurie Malarkey)

One of the goals of GeekWire’s “Geek of the Week” feature is to shine a light on extraordinary people in the Pacific Northwest technology community. Yaw Anokwa, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Washington, certainly fits that profile — from his Open Data Kit research project to his work as a co-founder of the group Change at the UW.

Continue reading for more details through his answers to our questionnaire — including some great advice for better efficiency in work and life, and a particularly interesting answer to the question of what he would do if someone gave him $1 million to launch a startup.

Name: Yaw Anokwa

Sites: Yaw Anokwa; Open Data Kit; Change.

Twitter@yanokwa ; @opendatakit; @uwchange

Job, hobby and/or other pursuit: I’m a Ph.D candidate in Computer Science at the University of Washington and my research focus is on technologies for low income regions. Much of the work I do is within Change, a group I co-founded at the UW to explore how technology can improve the lives of underserved populations in low-income regions.

Coolest thing about what you do: My current project is Open Data Kit (ODK), a free and open-source set of tools which helps organizations create mobile data collection solutions with smartphones and cloud infrastructure. In addition to socio-economic and health surveys with GPS locations and images, ODK is being used to create decision support for clinicians and for building multimedia-rich nature mapping tools.

All this is possible because the cellphone has become the ubiquitous computing device. In places where there is no running water or reliable power, you’ll often find a cellphone and Internet connectivity. ODK started as a research project to use that ubiquity to make data collection and information delivery more efficient.

For example, AMPATH in Kenya has been using ODK for their HIV home-based counseling and testing program. Their counselors go house to house with phones running ODK. The software walks them through a standardized counseling and testing protocol and the geo-tagged results are sent to their OpenMRS medical record system using WiFi or GPRS. AMPATH has reached some 65,000 individuals and has been able to rapidly and cost-effectively identify individuals at significant risk from HIV, saving lives.

Geekiest thing you’ve accomplished, built or worn: When I was a teen, I connected to the Internet using a very slow 14.4k modem and my dad refused to spend any money on upgrades. Fortunately for me, US Robotics ran a sweepstakes to win one of their new 56k modems. All I had to do was visit the fifty-six participating websites every day and give up my mailing address.

I was pretty new to programming, but through lots of trial and error, I hacked together an app that would do all the work. It would wake our family’s Mac at midnight, dial out to our ISP, enter my information into all the sites, and report the status to me in the morning.

I only had to run it for a few days before winning a modem. That day was pretty much the greatest day of my life.

Your best geek tip or trick for managing everyday work and life: Avoid context switching at all costs. The overhead of switching between meetings, research, code, and email is really high. Set up big chunks of time to focus on each of those tasks.

Mac, Windows or Linux? I spend a lot of time at a Linux command prompt, but I enjoy the aesthetic of Mac software. And by that I mean I’m a Mac fanboy for life.

Kirk, Picard, Janeway or Sisko? I grew up with Picard (and drink a lot of Earl Grey because of him), but Sisko’s Machiavellian approach has huge appeal to me.

Transporter, Time Machine or Cloak of Invisibility? Time Machine. Once you can go forward in time, you can easily acquire transporters and cloaks of all sorts.

If someone gave me $1 million to launch a startup, I would … Probably say no. I’m not excited about the startup model where you take some VC money and build something that has an empty (but profitable) exit. Wil Shipley wrote thoughtfully about this in his Farming vs. Mining piece. Like him, I’m interesting in building something great, not just the next big thing.

If the million dollar giver is interested in that kind of partnership, then the big idea I’ve been thinking about is how to best to create successful and sustainable technology companies all over sub-Saharan Africa. There are a handful of efforts already on-going in this space (Coded in Country, iHub Nairobi, Google Umbono) but it’s still in its very early days.

I once waited in line for … The Phantom Menace on opening night. What a bad life choice that was.

Your geek role models: Steve Jobs, for demonstrating that detail and design matter. I don’t know if he coined the phrase “delight the user,” but that’s the idea that guides how I build applications.

Hélène Martin, for creating the next generation of computer geeks. Hélène teaches computer science at Garfield High School and she’s been a driving force for better computer science education in the Seattle Public Schools. She also happens to be my girlfriend, but she shows excellent judgment otherwise.

Greatest Game In History: That’s hard to narrow down. Gorillas on MS-DOS 5 because it was my first, but Oregon Trail, Mario Brothers, and Quake III Arena are all pretty great.

Best Gadget Ever: iPhone 3GS.

First computer: Mac SE.

Favorite app: Desktop: Chrome, TextMate; Mobile: Instapaper, Twitter; Web: Gmail

Favorite hangout: Top Pot, Capitol Hill.

Favorite cause: Partners in Health, because they provide a preferential option for the poor in health care. I worked with PIH for six months in rural Rwanda and helped them roll out a medical record system. The experience is what sparked the work I do now.

Most important technology of 2011: HTML5. Especially as it relates to mobile browsers. It’s been really cool to see what companies like Google and Readability have been able to do within the browser. Add more device APIs and native code support and things could get really exciting.

Most important technology of 2015: The Social Graph. I think there are likely lots of ways to leverage the social graph that we haven’t figured out yet. Facebook does the obvious thing and encourages users to share their life’s moments with their friends, but I think there are potentially more subtle and powerful things we can do without that kind of explicit sharing. Amazon, Netflix and Groupon all use our ties to others (even people we don’t know) to build new businesses. Imagine what we can do as we continue to build out and expose this graph.

Words of advice for your fellow geeks: Whatever it is that you are doing, make sure you care. If you care, you’ll work hard, and if you work hard, good things will happen. Guaranteed.

Geek of the Week is a regular feature profiling the characters of the Pacific Northwest technology community. See the Geek of the Week archive for more. Do you or someone you know deserve this distinguished honor? Email us at

[Geek of the Week photography by Annie Laurie Malarkey]

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