Tarek Amr's Homepage

Egyptian Budget ins and outs

Amr Sobhy and I created a new application to make the Egyptian budget available to everyone in a machine readable, visual and easy to understand manner.


As explained by Quartz:

Mwazna (budget in Arabic) the brainchild of a data scientist, Tarek Amr, and a web developer and hacker, Amr Sobhy, aims to inform Egyptians on how their money is being spent through an easy to use Arabic and English site.

Huffington Post also wrote about it:

Last week saw the launch of a website which has the potential to be far more explosive that any of the bombs which are regularly detonated in Cairo and Alexandria. Mwazna is the Arabic for "state budget" and it's the name of a new platform which lets citizens to monitor the income and spending of the Egyptian government.

Here is a link to mwazna.com, which is also available in Arabic.


Mother's Day

Dear Vodafone and all other retail stores who have got my mobile number,

I really appreciate that you keep texting me to remind me to get a present to my mom in the Mother's day. I also appreciate all the present ideas and generous discounts you put in front of me. But, I'm sorry to tell you that I won't be able to make use of any of your offers, either this year, or in the future.

Best regards.


Tarek's Dictionary - Volume II

Last year I published a list of the new English vocabulary I learnt, and was planning to keep publishing new words as I learn them, but I didn't. Thus, here is the second volume of my newly learnt words.

Benign: If you too are dyslexic, then you may read it begin, but no, benign means gentle and kind. It's of a Latin origin, that's why the equivalent terms in French and Spanish are bénin and benigno respectively.

Wrath: Extreme anger.

Thwart: Prevent someone from accomplishing something. The thieves plans were thwarted by the police.

Indemnity: A payment made to someone because of damage, loss, or injury. It is used more in legal documents. The latin word indemnes means unhurt.

Selfie: You sure know that already, but it is a newly invented word which refers to a photograph one has taken of himself, typically one taken with a smartphone or webcam and uploaded to a social media website.

Contemplate: to view or consider with continued attention, or to meditate on.

Futile: incapable of producing any useful result; pointless. Her efforts to educate them good manners were futile.

Squidgy: Soft, spongy, and moist.

Kinship: In biology, it typically refers to the degree of genetic relatedness or coefficient of relationship between individual members of a species. More commonly, it may refer to the feeling of being close or connected to other people. He feels a strong kinship with his colleagues.

Toddler: A toddler is a child between the ages of one and three. It comes from the verb toddle, which is to run or walk with short, unsteady steps.

Tatters: Irregularly torn pieces of cloth, paper, or other material. He was forced to wear rags and tatters a beggar would scorn.

She is easy on the eye: She is good looking or pretty.

Squint: Look at someone or something with one or both eyes partly closed in an attempt to see more clearly or as a reaction to strong light: the bright sun made them squint.

Tongue in cheek: Saying something that shouldn't be taken very seriously. E.g. He always speaks tongue-in-cheek, he never takes things seriously. Ann made a tongue-in-cheek remark to John, and he got mad because he thought she was serious. The play seemed very serious at first, but then everyone saw that it was tongue-in-cheek, and they began laughing.

What's the Craic: An Irish saying, referring to "what's up?" or "what's going on?"

Trough: A a long, narrow open container for animals to eat or drink out of. Pronounced like enough.

Exhume: Dig up, unearth, bring out of the ground. Humus means soil, thus exhume means to dig into the soil and bring something from there. It has a Latin origin, and the French and Spanish verbs are exhumer and exhumar respectively.

Bonkers: Crazy, mad.


Decoded: The Science Behind Why We Buy [Book Review]

I have just finished reading a great book by Phil Barden called Decoded. The book shows us how branding works in order to influence our purchase decisions. Barden argues that, "Strong brands have a real effect in the brain, and this effect is to enable intuitive and rapid decision making without thinking".

The main foundation of the book is based on the work of Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in 2002 for showing that people are not the rational agents that economists had thought they were. Kahneman summarizes his work in his book, “Thinking, Fast and Slow”.  Kahneman's book stated that the mind incorporates two systems: an intuitive “system one”, which makes many decisions automatically, and a calculating but lazy “system two”, which rationalises system one’s ideas and sometimes overrules them.

Back to Phil Barden and his book Decoded. He incorporated the ideas of Kahneman into the field of marketing saying: "There are two decision-making systems at work in any decision we make: an implicit system working like an autopilot, and an explicit system". Thus, when we make a purchase decision we are under the influence of both System 1 (Autopilot) and System 2 (Pilot).

The explicit pilot system is a rational one and rule-governed. So you may argue, why do we base our decision on the implicit autopilot system which is irrational. The point is that the autopilot system is fast and can process multiple pieces of information in parallel, and above all, it is effortless and doesn't consume much of our energy as opposed to the implicit system. Thus, in our day-to-day tasks we cannot make use of the the explicit system all the time. You may think of implicit autopilot system as our intuition, it is what helps us to turn the steering wheel in a fraction of a second when we face some dangerous situation while driving. It is also the one that is trained that the red colour means stopping or rejection and the green colour means proceeding or acceptance, and that's why when our mobile phones ring, we press on the answer button based on its colour rather than by reading what is written on it. The pilot system is learnt by explicitly memorizing rules. This is the one that learns the multiplication table and is used to calculate mathematical operations such as 5 * 12. The autopilot system on the other hand relies on Hebbian theory, "What fires together wires together".

Phil Barden explains the Hebbian theory as follows: "The first time we hear the word No [as babies] it is just a phonetic pattern, a sound. But we recognize that the voice becomes louder and Mums face looks different the second time she says it. Some minutes later the word No is accompanied by her taking something away from us. After a while we learn the meaning of the word No. This implicit learning is completely different to how we learn a foreign language in school". That is why the autopilot system is slow-learning despite that fact that it is fast-acting.

How can all this affect our purchase decisions? Barden referred to the researches of Brian Knutson, an associate professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Stanford University, whose studies show that purchase decisions are based on a reward– pain relationship. Barden elaborated: "The neuro-logic of a purchase decision is based on the equation: Net Value = Reward – Pain. The higher the net value, the more likely the purchase". The reward in our case is the value a product offers to its purchaser, while the pain is its cost. Both value and cost are divided into explicit and implicit components, each of those components targets its designated system in our minds. Thus, in order to increase Net Value, there are four strategic playgrounds which can all be used at the same time":

  1. Value (reward)
    1. Explicit value
    2. Implicit value
  2. Cost (pain) 
    1. Explicit cost (financial) 
    2. Implicit cost (behavioural)

Barden gave an example to the Implicit Value using Voss, a branded water from Norway. Rather than using normal plastic bottles, they pages their water into bottles that look more like table decoration or perfume bottles. Thus, even though the taste of Voss can hardly be differentiated from tap water, its packages offered an additional implicit value by telling our implicit autopilot system that it is a premium water.

Similarly, the way prices are presented the the users may make them look higher or lower than they are. The author added, "The implicit level of cost allows us to maximize net value without actually reducing the price. Reducing behavioural costs can be a powerful lever to increase net value and thereby gain a competitive edge". Chapters 2 and 3 are must read to understand the tricks used to alter the perceived value and cost of products. There is also this other book review that you might like to read.

Stores not only entice you with sales, they also use limited-time offers to increase your sense of urgency in making a purchase.

Goal-based valuation

In addition to the aforementioned Net Value equations, we also value the things we buy based on how much they coincide with our goals.  The author explained, "Why do we buy what we buy? To answer this question we will introduce the concept of goals. Goals are a hot topic in psychology and neuroscience. Goal-based valuation is the most sophisticated level of value in the human brain, and it is a key concept in our journey to answer the question of why we buy what we buy". He then added, "The autopilot implicitly matches signals in the environment with goals that are currently active. As a result of this matching, attention is allocated to the signal which shows the highest fit to the active goals". He also explained "The winner takes all" effect and why a brand show make sure it offers the highest fit to its customers' dominant goal, there is no room for the second place here. "Consumers choose the product with the highest fit to their dominant goal in a given situation".

"Goal achievement underlies what we call relevance in marketing".

As with everything else,  a brand should tailor its message to respond to the customers explicit and implicit goals on the same time. "There are two levels of jobs for which we can employ brands and products: to meet explicit goals that are category-specific, and to meet implicit goals that are more general and that operate at an underlying, psychological level".

In the case of Bounty, the product experience is the basis for the implicit goal of escapism.

"The explicit goals are the reason why a product category emerges, so all competitors who want to survive in the market have to meet these goals". While the implicit goals on the other hand are brand specific, and are not directly related to the brand. For example in the advertisement of Bounty chocolate, the explicit goal may stress on its good taste or cost, but the implicit goal focuses escapism. Notice the deserted island and the image of stay away from the crowded city. "The connection between explicit and implicit goals is important. In the case of Bounty, the product experience is the basis for the implicit goal of escapism: chocolate with coconut. The associations we already have with coconut provide a credible bridge to the implicit goal of escapism – palm trees and desert islands". The author compared this with that advertisement of Snickers, and how a similar implicit message doesn't suit them. "Contrast this with Snickers, for example, where you have to bite through nuts – a link to the implicit goal of escapism here is much less credible than one linking to a performance goal".

"Greek philosopher Plato, who talked about emotion being the black horse that needs to be controlled by the white horse which symbolizes reason and rationality. This dualism made its way through history, including Descartes and Kant". Decoded's author continued to explain how in marketing we should not entertain such dualism. He added that the products and their features are their to serve the customer's explicit goals, while the brand it there to serve the customer's implicit goals.

But what are the possible goals customers may have? Barden listed "prevention and promotion" as the two most basic motivational drivers for humans.  He then added that marketeers have to pick the one that fits their brand more. "To maximize relevance, we have to know which focus is the most dominant one for the majority of customers".

Carlsberg is probably the best lager in the world (autonomy), Carling taps into security (male camaraderie), while foreign beers such as Cobra or Tiger have their centre of gravity in the excitement domain (e.g. they are from exotic countries like India.

He then added,  "The psychology of motivation, show that out of the rudimentary motivations of prevention and promotion, there developed what one might call the Big 3 human motivations that are grounded in physiological processes, operate deep within us and are universal in nature:" Security, Autonomy and Excitement.
  • Security: nurturing, belonging
  • Autonomy: power, recognition, status
  • Excitement: adrenaline, drive to change
There are also combinations of each two of aforementioned motivations:
  • Adventure: Excitement and Autonomy combine
  • Discipline: Autonomy and Security combine
  • Enjoyment: Excitement and Security combine
When designing your brand image you have to have to pay attention where on the above hexagon you have to position it. That's why you need to understand your customers very well.

For me the book was very useful and enlightening, and it helps me in my business where I try to help marketing teams make use of Data Science in their jobs.


Egypt's Interactive Governmental Budget

The Budget of the Egyptian Government is published every year by the Ministry of Finance. The financial year in Egypt starts in the 1st of July and ends in the 30th of June the following year. I've created this graph to show the different categories of the government's expenditure for the financial year 2013/2014. You can also download the detailed budget from there. The data is also available in both CSV and JSON formats.


4 Books Reviews

Purple Cow: Transform Your Business by Being Remarkable

In this book, Seth Godin shows how being remarkable should be enough for an advertisement to your business. Stumbling upon a Purple Cow in your way will grab your attention without it making any effort advertise itself. The same should be the case for your business. I generally like Godin's blog and books, and this one is not bad, but it was very repetitive. I felt really bored half way through it. May be I am too late to read it now, hence, the boredom. After few chapters in the book, I started to feel that book itself and its message are not becoming a purple cow to me anymore.

I gave the Purple Cow 2 stars on GoodReads.

Design Crazy

This book is about Steve Jobs Inc., better known as Apple Inc., and how the company's obsession with design and the tiniest details in their products was the key to their success. THe book format is a bit strange. The author, Max Chafkin, interviewed a number of people who worked with Jobs, and each chapter is just a sequence of quotes from them, where those quotes together form a coherent narrative. You might not feel comfortable with such a format at the beginning, but later on, I found it nice. The book as a whole is well written, ehm, curated, and the Kindle edition is less than on quid on Amazon. The book is more of a biography than anything else, by the way.

I gave the Design Crazy 3 stars on GoodReads.

City 2.0: The Habitat of the Future and How to Get There

I liked reading this book. It has lots of interesting ideas about how to transform cities using individual initiatives or wisdom of the crowd. Each chapter is in the form of an essay, so it is more of a collection of essays rather than a book, that's why it is less coherent, and ideas are not glued well together. Would love to read a proper book out of this done by urban researchers who can pour in some analytical and theoretical aspects to glue all ideas here into a more interesting book.

The Functional Art: An Introduction to Information Graphics and Visualization

Rather than wasting your time reading my review here, just go and buy this book now. I loved it so much. The title says it all. In this book, Alberto Cairo will take you in a trip showing you how to represent your data into graphical format. You can call it a guide book, since he touches bases with interactive design, graph theories, cognition and mental models. I read it out of interest in the topic, however, I believe others who might not be interested in the information graphics can still read, and enjoy it.

I gave The Functional Art 4 stars on GoodReads.


Don't "World Tread Center" on me

A friend of mine was putting this image in her Facebook profile. I didn't get it at first. Well, I could tell it's a vagina for sure, and it was obvious that it has something to do with women rights, but, what is that grass underneath? Why the yellow background? And what's motto!? After some search, I discovered that it is a play on the Gadsden flag, a flag that was used during the American revolution. In the original flag, it is a rattlesnake snake rather than a vagine, and the snake seems to be provoked, and is striking. Hence the warning; Don't Tread On Me (or I will strike). So, now it is clear.

A dictionary is enough to tell you that the world "tread" has nothing to do with "trade". Treading is some synonym of walking, hence the "treadmill" and W.B. Yeats' verse, "I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams”. But a dictionary is not enough to reveal the essential cultural background one needs to understand things people from other countries say.

I can write a sentence in perfect English, that no one can understand but an Egyptian here: "Mr. X has no end". An English speaking person will sure understand the sentence as sequence of words, but he will not understand what I mean by it, since he probably hasn't seen the Egyptian film the sentence was used it. If I say that someone is in Switzerland now, most of you will think of that European country whose flag is red with a white cross in the middle. But only an Egyptian will think of that one being in jail instead.

That's people who claim to be multilingual confuse me. For me, it is hard to speak more than two or three languages, it is even harder to understand the cultures of those languages as well. And not knowing that culture makes it even harder to claim that you speak that language fluently.


UK Border - between humans - Agency

The day I arrived to England, I knew I'd go back to Egypt after I finish my studies here. This fact didn't stop me from volunteering in charity work every while and helping others whenever I can. I don't have to belong to a country to do good there, because, in the end, I belong to the people living there. We do not share the same citizenship, but we share the fact that we are all humans.

Today, the UK Border Agency reminded me that I am wrong. They are not there only to draw borders on the map, but they also build borders between humans. I wanted my father to visit me for a couple of weeks. Because of a family matter, I needed him to be here with me and he needed to be here too. We applied for his visa, and filled and submitted every single document that is required. But in the end, those in UKBA recklessly refused the visa. The reason they gave was that they are not sure if he will return back to Egypt after he comes. The documents he submitted and his return ticket are supposed to be enough proof that he will, but the fact that we belong to a thirds-world country was enough for them to think he won't. I always believed that "all humans are equal", but the UK Border Agency reminded me today that, for them, "some humans are less equal than others".


Making myself a cup of memories

Making myself a cup of tea reminds me how 8 months ago I used to put the the electric kettle on its base with its handle on the right side, while my mother used to put it with the handle on the other side, because she was left handed. I didn't know how to cook, and I seldom made my bed unless she asked me to, and my only way to say that I can be useful was to offer making her some tea every while. I then developed a bad habit. I used to put the kettle on and simply forget it, and usually I found her coming into my room later on, after making me the cup of tea I promised to make.

Later on, after I travelled to England to do my postgraduate degree, I started to learn how to cook different dishes. Although, they are some simple dishes, but I was really happy that I now can promise to make her one of them after I return back home. Spaghetti is the safest option, but come on, that one is very easy. May be, I should try rice with carrots and peas, but that's too cliché. How about a pie? I cannot assure making an edible pie every time, but if I failed, I can make those muffins I learnt to make too as a last-minute compromise.

The very same thoughts come to me every time I make myself I cup of tea. In fact, I can hardly find any detail in my day to day life where she is not present there. I wish we can bring people back to life the same way the tinniest details of our days bring our memories back to life. And I know the day those details will fail to remind me of her is that day I will be dead already.


Notes on re:publica 2013

This was my second time to attend re:publica. It is a yearly social conference that takes place in Berlin. It started as a conference for bloggers, but now it include lots of other themes from startups to activism to campaigning and marketing. In fact, I attended less sessions this year than the previous one, and I am going to write a brief about them later on in the post, but let me first start with some random notes I grabbed from the conference.

I love the style of those posters of re:publica
  • The smaller the room, the better the session. Well, not only me, but many others have noticed the same thing. The less known speakers giving a workshop-like sessions are more interesting than the well known ones or panels arranged in bigger auditoriums.
  • More than speeches, I enjoy the new ideas I stumble upon while attending such conferences. So here are some of those ideas.
    • Re:public is not held in a fancy conference centre per se. What surprises me last time is that the venue used to be deserted factory, it was prepared and converted into a conferences venue later on. It is cool, cozy and suitable for the spirit of a bloggers conference.
    • In the main hall, where key note and major speeches take place, there is a screen behind the presenter, and his speech is being transcribed on that screen in real time. It is a tough task done manually, but it is very useful for those with hearing impairment, or even journalists or others who take notes of what is being said.
    • This is a new idea, but it is new to me at least. Fabbeo allows those who do not have 3D printers to send them an STL file for an object they want to print. In fact, they do not have 3D printers themselves, but they just serve as a marketplace matching customers with service providers with 3D printers.
    • In conferences like this, people are busy tweeting and taking photos with their phones. So, their mobile batteries are not expected to last for the whole day, right? As a way of promoting their company, Simyo, a German mobile operator, allows people to borrow portable chargers for their mobiles.
    • Last year one company was doing one fine marketing idea. They had a vending-machine-like stand that is connected to the internet. When you go there and publicly check into the machine via Foursquare, it gives you a soda can or something. They were generating a lot of buzz on Foursquare about their company this way, as well as attracting people to their stand.

Eric Hersman
The conference's keynotes was given by Eric Hersman. For those who do not know him, he is an American born and raised in South Sudan. How now lives in Kenya. And you can call him an African entrepreneur. He started iHub, a startup incubator in Kenya, he made Ushahidi with others and is widely respected technologist, blogger and commentator who specialises in the impact and application of technology throughout Africa. I believe the choice for the keynote came because, although he is a bloggers, but it also reflects re:publica's intention to present itself as a conference for entrepreneurs and business startups too. His choice also reflects the need to shed the light on a usually ignored continent, especially when it comes to technology and development.

Eric is an okey speaker. The speech was not impressive or strong as Eben Moglen's keynote last year for example. Eric was focusing on the startup scene in Africa, giving examples from different countries. Showing the incubators across the continent, the entrepreneurs and their challenging spirit was a good thing, but the choices for some of their products was patronising in a way. He pointed one of the main problems that face local investors in the Middle East and Africa, where there are lower hanging fruits such as real-estate business and food chain, which attracts investors diverting them from funding technology startups sometimes. For sure, market economics shall fix that someday, but this still is one of the issues. He then stressed on the need for entrepreneurs to find way to collaborate with each other and build communities and ecosystem. He referred to huts building in Africa as an example where a whole village collaborate to build it. It's up to each one to choose whether he want to be a "villager" or an "individual". Being an individual is okey, but they shouldn't expect people to help or collaborate with them. Then came the main point of his speech, at least according to me. He said that Africa does have its own problems, and entrepreneurs have to solve those problems of their local communities as no body else is going to offer to fix them. In other words, a product made for Berlin or London is not usually suitable for Nairobi or Delhi. He gave an example with a 3G model they are producing in iHub. In a way, it is not a new idea, it is just 3G modem produced everywhere. But giving it a second thought, you can see that electricity is not stable in Africa. Hence, their 3G modem (BRCK), is rugged, portable and can work on batteries rather than electricity. He finally ended his talk with the following summary notes: "There is A LOT going on (in Africa)", "Local problems need local solutions" and "Support and growth are lacking".

Ben Scott
Another session I attended was given my Ben Scott. Ben used to work as a Policy Advisor for Innovation at the US Department of State. He worked at the intersection of technology and foreign policy, or to use his own words, he worked with Hilary Clinton on how to change the US policy in the internet age. Prior to that he worked for 6 years in Free Press. He described Free Press as a non-profit organisation that tries to organise people online and help them engage with wider audience on the internet to discuss internet policies and see how to put forward "good" internet policies. I put good in between quotes here because I have no idea how he defines good policies. Ben started talking about internet campaigns and how all successful campaigns share the same aspects. He added that the internet doesn't really care what you are for and what you are against. Using internet for campaigns is basically the same for all causes. He then referred to Obama's presidential campaign in 2008, and how for the first time they harnessed the internet with such scale. "What Obama realised in his 2008 campaign was that the power dynamics is changing because of the internet", he added. Although, most of what he is saying is well known, I enjoyed some of his examples. To elaborate the contrast between social campaigns now and twenty years earlier, he wondered what are the odds that someone with a camera is taking photos when something like the Boston Marathon bombing takes place in 1985, compared to it in 2013? He then warned that it is - however - not about technology any more, it is more about social change. A successful campaign should make use of technology, but it should also know how to use it to get engaged with the audience. To elaborate more, he added that two companies might use the internet and social media to deliver their message, but a successful social media strategy should not be how you shrink your press release into 140 characters, it is how you engage with people. Back to Obama campaign, he added that they realised than that people want to be heard. The campaign success came from the fact that they gave people a platform to be heard. A campaigners objective should focus on engagement with audience even before listening or just speaking to them. Additionally, social media is not only about delivering a message now, it is also used for collaboration or even funding causes, for example: kickstarter. Both SOPA and PIPA are example how laws can be defeated by the power of internet collaboration. When one of the audience asked whether he is very optimistic about the internet and its super powers, given that some countries like Iran already control and censor the internet. He replied: "30 years ago, if you wanted to start a revolution, you had to control the broadcast station; and to stop it, you had to install armed forced around the station. Now it is that you go online to start a revolution, and you censor and police the internet to stop it". Then he added regarding the case of Iran, "the thing to do in such case is to find alternatives for the internet, or any other parallel ways for communication".


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