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Happy birthday to me: On half centuries and legacies

This time tomorrow, fifty years ago, I came into the world and spent the proceeding twenty-seven years trying to figure out what the hell I was doing here. With the summer of 1993 came something of a rebirth, one that put me on the path to where I am today. But the years before were dominated by prolonged spells of frustration, searching and disappointment. It feels, at times, that I’ve only lived half a life, which is probably why I don’t feel anything like the fifty I’ll be tomorrow.

Birthdays with significant numbers often bring with them periods of reflection, although reflecting is something I tend to do on a regular basis. I’m my own worse critic, always challenging and never allowing myself the opportunity to feel comfortable, or develop any sense of achievement in what I’m doing. I’m ridiculously driven and, because of that, tend to see the glass half empty most of the time, reflecting on things I’m yet to do rather than the things I’ve done. There’s never been room for complacency in my life. There’s always more to be done.

In the twenty-three years I feel I’ve actually ‘lived’ a life I’ve certainly crammed a lot in, even if it doesn’t always feel like enough. Living and working across eight African countries, getting a degree, building out one of the more successful mobile messaging platforms, speaking all over the world, winning numerous prizes and awards, publishing two books and building out my spiritual home on the web – kiwanja.net – into a well established social innovation/development site. And none of that includes the more recent addition of a young family – something I thought I’d never have given all the time that had passed me by.

If anything, having children has had the effect of driving me even harder, if that were at all possible. What I see happening to other families around the world compared to the peace and stability of life at home tears me up in ways I struggle to describe. Life is cruel. The refugee crisis is a bigger reason as any to not become complacent. There is plenty more to be done.

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Uganda 1995: A photo which would face much derision today given the growing ‘white savior complex’ debate. Yes, I have made some mistakes along the way.

Birthdays with significant numbers also put more of a spotlight on legacy, but in this case not mine – more the people who have been instrumental in shaping the last twenty-three years of my own life. People like Freddie Cooper, who let me tear into his Commodore PET computers in the early 1980s, an act not as destructive as it sounds but one that built the foundations of all my later technology-based work. Or Karen Hayes and Simon Hicks, who called me up from my sick bed in the autumn of 2002 offering me the chance to explore an emerging technology – mobile phones – and their potential for development.

And, of course, there was my mother, who encouraged and supported me the whole way, and who thankfully lived long enough to realize, as my work took off, that all her efforts and sacrifice were worth it. Sadly she never got to meet Henry, our first child, who was born four months after she died. She would have made a brilliant grandmother.

In an early school report I was described as ‘too sensitive’ and, if I’m honest, a vast majority of the things I choose to do are a reaction to that oversensitivity. Empathy, something that seems to be lacking in many, exists in abundance and I have no problem identifying with the suffering of others, whatever and wherever it may be. One of my favourite films of all time is The Green Mile, and one of the stand-out quotes from John Coffey, the central character, resonates for that very reason:

I’m tired, boss. Tired of bein’ on the road, lonely as a sparrow in the rain. Tired of not ever having me a buddy to be with, or tell me where we’s coming from or going to, or why. Mostly I’m tired of people being ugly to each other. I’m tired of all the pain I feel and hear in the world everyday. There’s too much of it. It’s like pieces of glass in my head all the time. Can you understand?

zero-degrees-empathyFiguring out how we might use technology to raise levels of empathy, compassion and understanding is close to the top of the list of things I’m yet to do. It’s one of those ideas that’s been gently burning away in the background for years, but now feels like a good time to focus on it a little more. This weekend I started reading a new book.

I’ve been very fortunate over the years to develop a way of working which allows me to write, speak, consult and earn money and then use excess funds to subsidise many of my own personal projects. In each case I’ve done most of the work myself to keep costs down, and used WordPress to develop the websites. Ideas I’ve managed to work on the past couple of years or so include two books, Donors Charter and Everyday Problems. Right now I’m working on a new mobile giving app called altruly, another app with a working title of For My Children, and a wider thought-leadership piece going by the name of Hacking Development.

It’s for others to judge how significant, meaningful or impactful my work has been but, whatever the outcome, I’ll continue on as I have for the past twenty-three years. I still have a distant dream of opening a community cafe, but am saving that for the end.

The biggest challenge for me is going to be knowing when that is.

Everyday Problems: Are you paying attention?

On what would have been Nelson Mandela‘s 98th birthday, today seems like a better time than any to launch a new website I’ve been working on…


You shouldn’t need anyone to tell you that there were refugees long before the Syrian crisis brought their horror further into the public consciousness. There was famine before recent announcements of severe food shortages in Yemen, Malawi and Nigeria, too. And, today, with over fifty countries run by dictatorships, oppression isn’t in short supply, either.

As heartening as it is to see the public response to the latest humanitarian crisis or injustice, it’s a shame that in so many cases it takes a major news event to bring a particular concept of suffering to people’s attention. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if people were always paying attention, always aware of the inequalities in the world, and always willing to help chip away at it, wherever it may be? How many of these events might never have happened if we all paid more attention and supported those working to fix their root causes? In today’s always on, always connected, 24/7 news world, there’s no excuse to not know what’s going on in the lives of people less fortunate.

Heartbreaking stories like the drowning of the young Syrian refugee were meant to be turning points, but for many people those shocking images are now just a distant memory. Yet refugee children and their families continue to drown in boats every week. The problem has not gone away, even if the attention of the press has. 

As part of my wider work helping support and mentor social innovators – and would-be social innovators – around the world, I’ve launched a new site, Everyday Problems. The site is designed to highlight the fact that people face problems every day, even when the news doesn’t report it. In particular, the site encourages people to:

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During my time as a mentor with Unreasonable at Sea, I had the honour to sit on a panel with Archbishop Desmond Tutu in front of several hundred students hungry to find out how they could help make the world a better place. It was a wide-ranging conversation which you can see in full below. (The Archbishop later wrote the Foreword to my first book, which you can read about here).

Feel free to check out the Everyday Problems website, and if you’re an educator please make use of it as you encourage your own students to take an interest in, and build solutions for, the kinds of problems people face around the world on a daily basis – whether those problems are in the news or not.

Due diligence? We need an app for that.

The ubiquity of mobile phones, the reach of the Internet, the shear number of problems facing the planet, competitions and challenges galore, pots of money and strong media interest in tech-for-good projects has today created the perfect storm. Not a day goes by without the release of an app hoping to solve something, and the fact so many people are building so many apps to fix so many problems can only be a good thing. Right?

The only problem is this. It’s become impossible to tell good from bad, even real from fake. It’s something of a Wild West out there. So it was no surprise to see this happening recently. Quoting The Guardian:

An app which purported to offer aid to refugees lost in the Mediterranean has been pulled from Apple’s App Store after it was revealed as a fake. The I Sea app, which also won a Bronze medal at the Cannes Lions conference on Monday night, presented itself as a tool to help report refugees lost at sea, using real-time satellite footage to identify boats in trouble and highlighting their location to the Malta-based Migrant Offshore Aid Station (Moas), which would provide help.

In fact, the app did nothing of the sort. Rather than presenting real-time satellite footage – a difficult and expensive task – it instead simply shows a portion of a static, unchanging image. And while it claims to show the weather in the southern Mediterranean, that too isn’t that accurate: it’s for Western Libya.

The worry isn’t only that someone would decide to build a fake app which ‘tackles’ such an emotive subject, but the fact that this particular app won an award and received favourable press. Wired, Mashable, the Evening Standard and Reuters all spoke positively about it. Did no-one check that it did what it said it did?

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This whole episode reminds me of something Joel Selanikio wrote in his contributing chapter to two books I’ve recently edited and published. In his chapters, which touch on his work on the Magpi data collection tool in addition to some of the challenges facing the tech-for-development community, Joel wrote:

In going over our user activity logs for the online Magpi app, I quickly realised that no-one from any of our funding organisations was listed. Apparently no-one who was paying us had ever seen our working software! This didn’t seem to make sense. Who would pay for software without ever looking at it? And if our funders hadn’t seen the software, what information were they using when they decided whether to fund us each year?

Donors are not alone. Whether you’re the media, or a judge in a competition, or a charity looking to make use of an app, surely there’s an expectation that some due diligence will be done. In the case of I Sea, perhaps some was, but clearly not enough.

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The shear number of apps available that claim to solve all manner of problems may seem encouraging on the surface – 1,500 (and counting) to help refugees might be a case in point – but how many are useful? How many are being used? How many solve a problem? And how many are real?

Due diligence? Maybe it’s time we had an app for that.