Interview Natasha Zlobinsky

Natasha Zlobinsky recently joined Aruba User Experience Insight as a device software engineer, and is a PhD student at the University of Cape Town’s Computer Science department, in ICT4D. Previously, she worked as a research engineer at the CSIR Meraka Institute in Networks and Media, and an Electrical Engineer in Telecontrol Technology at the power utility Eskom. She holds a Bsc in Electrical Engineering and an MSc in Electrical Engineering (Telecommunications) from the University of the Witwatersrand. She is also engaged in the development of Community Networks in Africa and collaborates with different tech groups around the globe. We had the opportunity to meet her during the last Battlemesh12, in Paris, where she gave us the following interview.

Could you tell us a bit of your trajectory and how did you get interested in technology?

I grew up in Johannesburg and now I’m living in Cape Town. I guess my journey with technology started because I was very interested in science and maths and those are kind of my strong subjects and that naturally took me to engineering and so… that’s why I studied engineering. And then I got more into telecommunications because I was working for an electrical utility, the main one in South Africa. I was working in the para-statal company in telecontrol and so that’s how I got more into communications in general. After that, I moved my masters into this sort of area a bit more and then from there everything moved more towards communications and eventually, wireless communications. I started gaining more knowledge and getting more into mesh networking. When I started working for different research institutes, they were looking into different wireless technologies specifically for low income areas, using TV White Spaces. That’s why I’m currently looking at mesh using TVWS based on frequencies alongside Wi-Fi. That’s where I am.

What are the main achievements and challenges you’d like to highlight in your collaboration with Community Networks?

A team of people from UCT collaborate on a project and network called iNethi and it is a set of nodes in the southern peninsula of Cape Town. One of those communities that are connected through iNethi is an informal settlement, so low income people and informal housing. And the other one is a little bit away from that community and slightly higher income but not much. And these are then connected to a higher income area, which is sort of the third cluster in the mesh and all of that is currently connected to the Internet through the university.

Currently we have quite a lot of content that is now being created by the community and uploaded onto the file sharing app, which is part of the community network. And that’s quite nice to see people getting very engaged and not just consuming content but finding a platform to create content, specifically music. A lot of people and musicians, and they upload quite a lot of their music and that helps them to get it out there, get exposure. So that’s quite nice to see. It’s also nice to see it being used in schools, especially that kids like using it a lot and it helps a lot. For sticking sort of more stable internet than they would normally have. And so I think part of the difficulties is how do we expand. Also how do we keep it stable and maintain when it’s a small group of technically skilled people. And the challenge is really how do we get the community to take ownership and be able to do more on it, be able to do the fixing and the maintenance and the expansion and everything that is required. And what would then be in business model to make it sustainable. Those are the big challenges going forward.

How did you learn about the Battlemesh and what do you think about the event?

I got to know about Battlemesh through Nico Pace from Libremesh, well Altermundi and Rhizomatica… I think he’s involved in many things. And I’ve been working with him because some of my PhD work is relevant to what he would like to do in Libremesh, so he told me this is a great place to come and to meet people who know a lot about mesh, who could give some guidance and input to the work and just networking with people. And also a space to kind of in a short space of time focus my energy on this particular thing and maybe make some progress in the short space of time whereas the rest of the time I’m working doing other stuff. And so I was very excited to meet the people here and just learn a lot…

How do you see the participation of women in technology?

I think unfortunately, when I started studying I felt a lot more kind of accepted and didn’t really think that there was any kind of difference between men and women as I went into the university. And when I started off I didn’t think there was any such divide and I didn’t even really talk about it because I thought it would just increase the divide. Over the last ten years I’ve been proven wrong. I think there definitely are many kind of challenges and differences. And I feel that maybe also because I’m young but I do feel that for young women in technology the assumption is also initially that you don’t know anything. You don’t really know what you’re doing, why are you even here? — until you prove yourself. So you always have to prove yourself, whereas even younger men never need to prove themselves, the initial assumption is always “if you’re doing it, you’re smart guy, you’re fine”. So that is still definitely the case. And even in places that are generally very inclusive and try to have initiatives to involve more women. I mean, there still will always be the person who will come in and try to take over what you’re doing and impose his ideas and assume that you don’t know and you need to be told what to do. And that just has not disappeared. Even in places that are supposed to be inclusive and where maybe the majority of people are quite like open minded and inclusive. But I think until the numbers are equal, it’s always going to be a different opinion and approach to women. It’s kind of sad. I think I’ve become more jaded over time rather than more optimistic. Even though I do see definitely there are more women at events, it is improving the numbers at least, but I don’t think certain opinions are changing as much as the numbers.

What is the future of the Internet and the Community Networks?

A lot of more community networks will start building up and connecting to each other and create sort of a separate independent Internet, which may eventually be appropriated before the while, it’ll be independent and “free”. I don’t think, unless there’s some big intervention, in Africa, at least it’s going to be different because what happens is Google comes in, Facebook comes in, and they are the ones providing connectivity to the unconnected. And so that will be, really, the Internet provided that the most Africans I suppose who were previously unconnected. Well then… No. And then it will be a new way of just exploiting and taking from Africa to the First World. Unless we really push for communities to be trained up and to understand about community networks, to understand about networking, get some training and get involved. And unless there is a massive push for that, outside forces are going to take over. And maybe not just American forces… I mean, Chinese influence in Africa is huge. So there’s that as well. Something quite drastic will be required to prevent the next wave of just exploiting Africa.