The end of a golden age of discovery?

Exactly six years ago this week I was in Washington DC to collect the Pizzigati Prize for Software in the Public Interest, and award given each year to an individual who has created or led an effort to create an open source software product of significant value to the non-profit sector and movements for social change. While the Prize came in a golden spell for me and my work, I wonder if that golden age of discovery in our wider sector – which I was privileged to be a part of – is now over?

When Livingstone, Stanley and Speke set out on their voyages of adventure across Africa, their objective was not only discovery but to show the impossible was possible – that you could penetrate into the heart of Africa – the ‘Dark Continent’ – and live to tell the tale. Although later discoveries and adventures still roused public and press interest (and awards and recognition for the individuals involved) for many that early raw, frontier period was gone, never to return.

Bushbuckridge, South Africa (2003). A frontier of mobile exploration. Photo: Ken Banks

When I look back through the 15-year history of kiwanja.net, much of the first few years felt like a period of raw expectation and raw exploration. It was a bit of a Wild West. Nobody really knew what would work, how it might work, or who it might benefit. Most people weren’t even aware of the early signs of what was to famously become the ‘mobile revolution’. Back then, innovation wasn’t a word thrown around casually, you could have put everyone working in mobile-for-development into a local cinema, and there wasn’t such a thing as best practice. For me and many of those around me, it felt like those early days for Livingstone, Stanley and Speke. It felt like we were making trails that others might follow, but we didn’t know where they would lead, if anywhere, and what we might learn.

My early work, without any doubt, felt like it came in a golden age. It felt like we were forging a path – one centred around the use of SMS in conservation and development – where no-one else had been before. Like those early Africa explorers, interest and fascination among the public and press was high. And because of it, the project grew and awards and recognition came. Over a six year period multiple fellowships, awards and prizes arrived, along with considerable amounts of funding for FrontlineSMS which, for a while, seemed to be everywhere. You could try anything, safely in the knowledge that it was unlikely anyone else had tried it before.

In the true spirit of adventure, in 2010 I had the huge privilege of being named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. At the time it felt like a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers were either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But as I think about it today, as I write this post, in a way it does. As mobile technology continued its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways was a kind of 21st century exploring. Since 2010 a number of other friends and colleagues have gone on to be named Emerging Explorers whilst working in the technology sector, continuing a trend at National Geographic of reframing exploration in a digital age.

Today – as I reflect on this, the later stages of my career – my time is increasingly spent helping others cut their own route, and sharing stories of those who succeed. Today we have more tools than ever at our disposal to help solve the social and environmental problems around us – perhaps too many – but despite this the golden age feels over. Our field has become professionalised, and with it we have lost a lot of the magic.

In reality, all that has really changed is that frontiers have shifted. Maybe I just prefer the one I lived through all those years ago.

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.