During one of my many epic walks around Palo Alto last week, I stopped and tapped this into my phone:
Let me explain.
When I started out in mobile almost seven years ago, there were very few people working in the space, which meant there were very few people to turn to for support, guidance or advice. In fact, there were so few people with any meaningful experience I was offered my first major piece of mobile work based on my IT knowledge and conservation/development experience alone. Today, there would have been dozens – if not hundreds – of applicants for that job and it’s unlikely I’d have stood a chance.
But getting a chance is what it’s all about. When kiwanja.net officially came into being towards the end of 2003, it took me almost four years to get any serious traction, let alone funding. Emails went unanswered, requests for charity-rates at conferences were snubbed, begging letters to mobile operators and handset manufacturers were blanked. It may be hard at the top, but it’s harder at the bottom. That’s why, today, I never forget what it was like when I started out. And that’s why I never take anything for granted, and why I never forget to make time to help students, researchers, NGOs, organisations – anyone from all walks of life, in fact – who find themselves working their way off that first rung of the mobile ladder.
Last Friday I attended the UN Youth Assembly in New York. If there’s one thing I love – other than having my own name plate, of course – it’s talking to a room full of fearless students. I spent the best part of this morning following up on their emails, the fallout of my short talk on kiwanja.net and FrontlineSMS.
If we can help anyone on their journey, then we should. Whether that be giving advice or a positive critique on an idea, helping raise awareness through blog posts, giving tips on fundraising, making introductions to other projects and people with the same interests, or offering to be a future soundboard as their ideas grow and develop. These are all things I didn’t have when I started out, and using them productively now that I do is one of the biggest contributions I believe I can – and should – make to the future growth of our discipline. Our legacy shouldn’t be measured in the projects or tools we create, but in the people we serve and inspire.
In the mobile world we talk a lot about project sustainability, but little about human sustainability. If we’re to have any chance of ongoing success then we need to attract the brightest young minds to the “mobile for development” field, and then give them all the support they need to keep them there. Empowerment isn’t just something we do in a distant land. There’s plenty we can be doing on our own doorstep.
It’s a different kind of empowerment, but that doesn’t make it less valuable. If anything, it’s more so.