If you thought innovation was a word not associated with Pakistan, you would be very wrong. This year, the MIT Technology Review, one of the world’s most prestigious technology publications, included Pakistani Dr Umar Saif, in their global list of the top 35 innovators under 35.
Thirty-two year old Saif, currently an associate professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), now shares this honour with an elite club including, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, Jonathan Ive of Apple, and the co-founders of Google, Larry Page and Sergey Brin.
Saif was propped into the limelight for creating BitMate, which he calls the “poor man’s broadband system” and SMSall.pk, which enables mass SMSes to be sent out.
In Pakistan, the bandwidth of an average landline is about 32 kilobits per second. Assuming the connection doesn’t drop that means it can take more than 20 minutes to download a five-megabyte file. In the US, an average connection can download the same five-megabyte file in less than a second. To overcome this connectivity divide, Saif developed BitMate. The software allows different users in the same area, to pool the bandwidth of their connections to reduce download times, typically by half. Released in February, the software has already been downloaded more than 30,000 times by people in 173 countries.
BitMate and SMSall.pk, were both developed by Dr Saif and a team of his students at LUMS.
“The one thing that every Pakistani, poor or rich, does have is a mobile phone,” said Saif behind his desk at LUMS. “It is the easiest way to communicate and spread a certain message. SMSall can be used on an individual level as well as for marketing or other like purposes.”
More than 4 billion SMSes have been sent using SMSall.pk, by around 2.7 million users. It is now Pakistan’s largest SMS social network. Major political parties, NGOs, schools, and corporations use this platform.
After completing his undergraduate at LUMS in 1998, Saif went on to pursue graduate studies at the University of Cambridge and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Saif then worked and taught at the MIT Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.
He gives much of the credit for his success to the competitive environment at these two institutes. “The quality of students one gets at MIT and Cambridge is very good. It’s a real pleasure working with them,” he said.
This, he thinks is the major difference between people studying at these world-class institutes and here. “They are a different breed altogether,” he admitted. “If I were to ask people to do work at MIT, I wouldn’t have to remind them to work. They don’t need to be told to work hard, they already are hard working.”
“There, one might even take offence if one were reminded more than once,” he added jokingly.
Currently, Saif is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science department at LUMS where he leads a team of students in the Dritte initiative, which aims to create technology that will foster development.
Dr Saif, is now working with this team of students on taking SMSall to the next level. They are working on speech systems that will allow for mass voice messaging. Saif believes it is an essential step in a country where many cannot read or write. Other platforms that Dr Saif has initiated include Geodost.tv and iSamaa.tv, which are powered by SeeNreport, a platform developed in an attempt to give a boost to citizen journalism in Pakistan.
Saif has also founded one of Pakistan’s first start-up incubators in Lahore, Pakistan, called the Saif Center of Innovation.“Not everyone can be a superstar here,” conceded Saif. “A system needs to be in place where every member of the team can be productive.” MIT, he insists works like a well-oiled machine. The researchers have proper funding in place, the strong student body and the availability of your peers means, one knows where to go with one’s ideas.
LUMS has filled in this vacuum to a large extent. Many of his students have helped him with the projects that have won him many awards and distinctions. They are young bright minds and all they need is direction and “they can change our world.”Entrepreneurship is burgeoning in Pakistan like elsewhere and to give it a boost, government support is essential.
But Saif or his Dritte initiative has not received any financial support from the Pakistani government. “Whether or not I am supported by anyone else,” Saif said, “LUMS has always been there for me.” In a press statement following the announcement by the MIT Technology Review, the vice chancellor of LUMS Adil Najam said,
“We are immensely proud of this recognition … Saif’s work demonstrates not only the potential for innovation in technology for development but also the level of enterprise and expertise that already exists within Pakistan and the larger developing world.”
This piece was done by Hosh media contributor Bushra Shehzad. Hosh media is a volunteer based organisation that aims to bring youth voices onto the mainstream media in Pakistan.