Mad science in Nyanza?

A voting machine built by Maxwell Collins.
A voting machine built by Maxwell Collins.

The picture at the left is a prototype voting machine built by Maxwell Collins, a guy in a small town in Western Kenya. He graduated some months ago from secondary school, but didn’t score high enough on the Kenyan national exam (KCSE) to qualify for government assistance in covering post-secondary costs. He’s an excellent example of the kind of talent that slips through the cracks of Kenya’s education system.

To convince you a bit of this, let’s have a look at the machine. It’s been built entirely out of recycled parts, taken from dead televisions, cars, and whatever else could be found. As far as I can tell, Maxwell learned electronics entirely on his own. You can’t see it in the picture, but the machine has an electronic locking system – powered by a nine-volt battery – which reacts to some touch-sensitive metal bits, which, when swiped int he right order, causes a metal arm to release the top of the case.

The machine itself has the base function of collecting and tallying votes. It can handle two candidates at a time; a robotic light sensor (driven by a converted CD-rom) registers your vote when the candidate of our choice is lit by some LED’s. To give some security, your hand is stamped as you vote with an ultraviolet ink; before you are allowed to vote, your hand is scanned for the presence of this ink. Additionally, each voter is to be given a voter chit which is punched and rendered unusable during the voting process. Maxwell has also built in a voice detection system to allow voting for the disabled. And more! He’s apparently been working ont he project for three years now.

Maxwell presented the project to me during a recent trip to his village. When I arrived, a reporter for the Daily Nation was finishing up an interview. After seeing a demonstration of the machine, I was struck by Maxwell’s ingenuity in building the device, as well as the dedication and passion that would keep him working on this for three years. It’s clear that being in touch with a larger community of hardware hackers would be of great value to Maxwell; obviously, there’s no one else working on projects like this in his village, though he is able to bounce ideas off his older brother.

I left Maxwell with a Raspberry Pi and some tutorials on learning Python.  The GPIO pins on the Pi can be used to hook into electronics projects, making it possible to put a full computer into the voting machine framework.  Maxwell’s a fantastic, self-motivated learner, so it will be interesting to see how much progress he makes in the months to come.

So the question is, how can clear innovators like this be given a place to thrive in the Kenyan university system? Or will the Universities remain a place reserved for those who excel at standardized tests?

2 thoughts on “Mad science in Nyanza?

  1. Simeon Obwogo April 10, 2013 / 3:19 pm

    I was stunned beyond words.

  2. Denis Nyakach April 12, 2013 / 4:32 pm

    Wow! Wonderful Idea; within the bungled electoral kits used in the just concluded Kenya general election 2013, I would love to see the working mechanism of this gadget in comparison to the IEBC kits.

    I believe in homegrown innovations, and this is an idea that is bound to challenge many academic institutions. These are ideas that need to be nurtured and developed further. Can’t wait to meet him!


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