Breakfast with explorers

I’m sitting on the top deck of a 747 after British Airways kindly decided to upgrade me to First Class. After a week in Washington DC it feels like a fitting – if not fortunate – end to a crazy and hugely productive, thought-provoking few days. The main purpose of my trip was to attend the National Geographic Explorers Symposium, but that ended up being sandwiched between various meetings for the Global eHealth Foundation, a CARE International workshop, and coffee with a number of old friends and colleagues. There’s nothing like a bit of diversity in your working week.

The Symposium itself is a bit like Christmas – you sort of wish it would come round every week. Hundreds of Explorers and Fellows converge on the Society’s headquarters for five days and share new and exciting updates on their work. It doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do, or how far up or down you are on the fame ladder. What makes the week special is that, for a while at least, everyone is equal. (Example: On the first night at dinner I sat next to Bob Ballard. For those who don’t know who Bob Ballard is, he discovered the Titanic).

The National Geographic Explorer family

The National Geographic Explorer family

During the week I had the chance to catch up with some older acquaintances, including Meave Leakey (who picked up a Hubbard Medal, the Society’s highest honour) and John Francis, the ‘planetwalker’ – both fascinating, approachable, humble people. And I bumped into Lee Berger, who picked up Explorer of the Year award for his discovery of a new hominid species. Given my passion as a child was conservation and exploration – not unlike many others, I don’t suppose – Explorers Week finds me pinching myself almost hourly. It truly is an honour and a priviledge to be a member of this family.

I had the opportunity this year to share my latest work and decided to focus on my writing and work on altruly, a new kind of mobile giving app. Education came across as a strong theme during the week, and much of what I find myself doing at the moment – writing, speaking and mentoring – proved very complimentary. I also managed to hand out some free copies of “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” (which carries three National Geographic endorsements) to help push the message further. Nothing beats a free book. And after a couple of productive meetings I’m hopeful for a future collaboration with National Geographic Education. Watch this space.

Although I come away energised and inspired, I also come away frustrated and impatient – not just at the problems and challenges of the sector I work in, but in my own progress and ability to make a positive dent on them.

When you meet people at the very top of their game it makes you question the one you’re playing. That’s exactly what Explorers Week does, and one of the many things that makes it so special.

What technology-for-conservation might learn from technology-for-development

Although the majority of my more recent work has sat in the ‘global development’ bucket, much of my early interest lay in conservation. Before I stumbled into the world of mobiles-for-development (m4d) I was helping with biodiversity surveys in Uganda and running primate sanctuaries in Nigeria, and focusing my academic studies on the role of anthropologists in the creation of national parks. My first m4d project looked at the potential of mobile technology in conservation, and it was my work around Kruger National Park over 2003 and 2004 that lead to the idea behind FrontlineSMS.

Conservation is still one of my biggest passions, and I returned to my roots a couple of years ago when I was asked to speak about the potential for, and use of, emerging technology in the global conservation effort at the 2013 WWF Kathryn Fuller Symposium. You can watch that talk below (it’s also available, along with other talks, in the Audio & Video section of this website).

The following year I was invited to an event at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and gave a similar talk at their inaugural Digital Conservation event on how the sector might draw lessons on technology use from global development. Following my talk, I was invited by the organisers to join them in co-authoring a paper for a forthcoming special edition of Ambio Journal focusing on “Digital conservation: Understanding the impacts of digital technology on nature conservation“. One element of the paper proposes a rework of kiwanja’s Donors Charter for the conservation community.

Late last month, that special edition hit the shelves. Here’s the summary of our paper, which was proudly co-authored with Georgina Maffey, Hilary Homans and Koen Arts:

The application of digital technology in conservation holds much potential for advancing the understanding of, and facilitating interaction with, the natural world. In other sectors, digital technology has long been used to engage communities and share information. Human development – which holds parallels with the nature conservation sector – has seen a proliferation of innovation in technological development. Throughout our paper, we consider what nature conservation can learn from the introduction of digital technology in human development. From this, we derive a Charter to be used before and throughout project development, in order to help reduce replication and failure of digital innovation in nature conservation projects. We argue that the proposed charter will promote collaboration with the development of digital tools and ensure that nature conservation projects progress appropriately with the development of new digital technologies.

You can download a full PDF of the paper from the kiwanja website here or via the Ambio website here.

The “Tweet. Recycle. Repeat” of ICT4D

During a rare, quiet, bored few minutes last week I looked through a few early blog posts from some of the longer standing members of the ICT4D community. Between around 2012 and now, many of the same statements, proclamations and questions have come up time and time and time again. The same tweets with the same outcome – usually nothing. Many have regularly appeared on my blog over the past seven or eight years, too, without making the slightest bit of difference.

I recently wrote about the need to stop just meeting up and repeating ourselves in the ICT4D echo chamber, which is what has been happening. But suffice to say it continues, and likely will, for as long as the discipline survives. The most obvious impact of all this activity are tweets and retweets of surprise every time something is said, even if it has been said for the past five years. If we’re looking to keep ourselves in a job and not fix anything, this isn’t a bad strategy, I suppose.

Here’s just a few of the things we’ve been saying over and over again for years.


Okay, so no more pilots. Let’s put an end to ‘pilotitus’. Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?


Okay, after decades of trying we have done some stuff right. So how do we identify the stuff that works and genuinely support that? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?


Yup. The world doesn’t need any more data collection tools or SMS gateways. So how do we put an end to this constant replication and reinvention? Other than talking, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?


In many cases it’s still unclear who should pay to do monitoring and evaluation. Donors seem to think grantees should do it, and grantees only seem prepared to do it if the donor has given money for it. Other than talking, how are we going to fix this, precisely? And how can we enforce it?


Hallelujah. After years of ignoring the end user we’re now entering an age (in ICT4D and global conservation and development, more broadly) where we think it’s a good idea to be consulting our end user. But it still doesn’t happen as much as it should. What are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?


Everyone loves talking about appropriate technologies, but then they go off and build iPad apps for African farmers. We need to lead with the problem and the people, not the technology. But other than saying this, what are we going to do about it, precisely? And how can we enforce it?

When it comes to talking, blogging and tweeting ‘best practice’, I’m as guilty as the next person. We all do it, and we all rightly believe in what we’re saying. But talk is cheap if we do something very different on the ground (or do nothing at all). And after 12 years working in ICT4D/m4d I seem to keep seeing the same questions and issues raised over and over again. I’m sure I’m right when I say we all want to do the best we can for the people we serve. If we’re under performing then that’s something we all should naturally want to address.

Of course it’s pretty easy to rant about how bad things are, but that’s little use if you don’t offer any solutions. I’ve been trying to do more of that lately, publishing a book – The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator – to challenge conventional wisdom around how social innovation happens and should be done. I also launched the Donors Charter which seemed to stir up all sorts of trouble, breaking the SSIR commenting system in the process. Check out the Stanford Social Innovation Review post if you’ve got a couple of hours spare.


The Charter, in short, proposed (quite logically in my mind) that if donors largely control what gets funded, all they needed to do was ask potential grantees a few simple questions before they handed over their money. We could then put a stop to some of the repetitive bad practice that we see. Donors all sign up to the Charter, and enforce it among themselves.

Of course, whether anything like this gets adopted is out of my control. But at least it’s a possible solution, not a rant.

Passions often get fired up in these kinds of debate, and it’s wonderful to see so much of it around ICT4D and m4d, particularly on how we can move the disciplines forward. But if the people and organisations with teeth in the non-profit sector aren’t in the room, and don’t act, then nothing will ever change. Perhaps everyone is too comfortable with how things are, and perhaps people don’t really want change.

Or perhaps we’re only comfortable with disruption as long as it doesn’t happen to us. Tweet that.