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Category — Musings

Reflections on a career in IT

Exactly ten years ago next month I started work in the fledgling mobiles-for-development sector. I was incredibly lucky to get in so early, in large part due to the incredible foresight of the corporate team at Fauna & Flora International who realised the potential of mobile in the conservation and development fields very early, and invited me on board to help figure out the technology challenges.

I’d never worked with mobile phones before, but to be fair in December 2002 very few other people had either. What did stand me in good stead was my earlier IT experience. Looking back now it all looks incredibly archaic, demonstrating – more than anything – the speed and rate of innovation in just half my lifetime.

This is the computer I learnt to program on. The Commodore PET had a whopping 32K of RAM, no hard drive (just a cassette deck to save programs to tape), and a massive 40 character screen width. Learning how to hack this as a teenager eventually launched a career in IT (with a bunch of travel and a university education in between).

In the mid-1980′s, as my professional IT career began, I took charge of this beauty at Hambros Bank in Jersey. This Burroughs B1900 mainframe had 2Mb of RAM and ran all of the bank’s systems. It had six exchangeable drives and a command console to drive everything. These were the fun days of computing when everything was big, everything seemed to breathe, and machines had soul.

I doubt I’ll look back at my iPhone or MacBook Air with the same feeling of nostalgia and romance. But let’s save that for another post, perhaps when I celebrate my twentieth anniversary in mobile…

November 6, 2012   5 Comments

Ideas vs. execution: A personal history

“An idea that is developed and put into action is more important than an idea that exists only as an idea” -
Hindu Siddharta, Founder of Buddhism (563-483 B.C)

Like many people I meet on my travels, I’m never short of ideas. Short of good ones, perhaps, but never plain old ideas. As everyone knows, though, ideas alone are rarely enough. Equally as important (if not more so) is execution – taking those ideas and putting them into action. Like the majority of people, the majority of mine have remained just that – ideas – and sifting through some old note pads recently brought home how many I’d had over the past few years and done nothing with.

On the plus side it turns out many of my ideas weren’t mine alone, and most have since become reality for other people, i.e. those who did take that extra step and put them into action. This post is largely testament to what I didn’t do, and what others did. It’s also quite reflective as I approach ten years working in mobile, and ten years of “going it alone”. There have been plenty of big changes lately – fatherhood, the loss of our Motherhanding over the baton at FrontlineSMS, a new project – all of which have driven something of a rethink, or reinvention, or rebirth, for me and my work.

Idea #1: Incubation Centre
Date: March 2008
Status: Not executed

There always seemed to be some new Centre or other going up during my two years at Stanford, and I wondered how great it would be to have one dedicated to appropriate technologies, and I briefly blogged about it in March 2008. Of course, Stanford wouldn’t have been the best place for this given the cost, so the idea slowly evolved from my crude mock-up (above) to something a little more eco-friendly based in rural Cambridgeshire. I’d still love to pursue this idea, but given the growing number of innovation hubs appearing around the world, maybe the chance has gone.

Idea #2: Means of Exchange
Date: June 2012
Status: Executed (and in progress)

I only tend to work on things which seriously interest or bother me, and for a number of years this has been one of them. Means of Exchange is a new project focusing on methods of economic self-sufficiency. It’s looking at how emerging, everyday technologies can be used to democratise opportunities for economic self-sufficiency, rebuild local communities and promote a return to local resource use. Our dependency on – and relationship with – a broken world economic system is unhealthy, and has lead to a loss of community and a drift away from the consumption of locally produced goods and services. By reconnecting people with local resources, and each other, we can build a degree of resilience to protect ourselves from future shocks.

Idea #3: Mobile Sensing
Date: June 2005
Status: Not executed

On 8th June 2005, the idea for a Mobile Environmental Monitoring Device was born. MEMD would:

“… gather environmental information as people move through their landscapes. Indicators such as temperature, air quality, CO2 levels and air pressure would be recorded along with a fix on each location. For the first time individuals will be able to monitor their own exposure to local, relevant environmental hazards”

Manufacturers such as Nokia began pushing their own concepts a couple of years later, and today mobile sensing with mobile devices is nothing new. I originally blogged about MEMD – another idea whose time has passed – in more detail here.

Idea #4: SMS Competition
Date: September 2007
Status: Executed

This is one idea which was executed, in September 2007 to be precise. Its purpose was to encourage NGOs to think about how they might apply text messaging to their social change work, and the prize for coming up with something innovative was a laptop, phones, modems and cash – everything they’d need to put their idea into practice, in fact. We have been planning to run an adapted version again, but with so many mobile and ICT4D competitions around these days, we’re hesitant. NGOs have more important work to do than spend all their time trying to win things. More on nGOmobile here.

Idea #5: Mobile Payments
Date: September 2003
Status: Not executed

On 1st September, 2003 – during a field trip to South Africa and Mozambique – I put together a diagram showing how someone might pay for a newspaper using their mobile phone. Mobile payments are nothing new today, but back then very little was happening. If I’d ever wanted to be rich, this might have been the idea I should have stuck with, not that I’d ever have been able to make it happen. Further details on a blog post here.

Idea #6: Field communications hub
: October 2005
: Executed

FrontlineSMS is one thing I did develop and stick with, although it was touch and go on more than one occasion. A seed of an idea during a series of trips to Kruger National Park in 2003/2004, FrontlineSMS became the first text messaging hub aimed at grassroots non-profits when it was released in October 2005. For the full story, check out this article - “And Then Came The Nigerian Elections” – from the Spring/Fall 2007 edition of the Stanford Journal of African Studies [PDF].

So, what lessons could I draw from what’s happened with my ‘Top Six Ideas’? Well, FrontlineSMS has been a fascinating journey, and sticking with that has clearly been the right thing to do. If I’d have tried to see out all of my ideas then I may well have let it slip, and ended up doing a lot of things fairly well rather than one thing very well. As my near-ten years in mobile have taught me – over and above anything else - focus is key. Swami Vivekananda, an Indian spiritual leader, sums this up better than I ever could. Take note:

“Take up one idea. Make that one idea your life – think of it, dream of it, live on that idea. Let the brain, muscles, nerves, every part of your body, be full of that idea, and just leave every other idea alone. This is the way to success, that is way great spiritual giants are produced”.

October 8, 2012   22 Comments

Social innovation and the art of reinvention

Big companies are on the move.

Within the next few weeks Microsoft will officially launch Windows 8. Their flagship operating system has undergone a complete redesign on a scale not seen since Windows 95. Myspace are going through a vigorous rebranding exercise ahead of a major relaunch. And Nokia are feeling the pain as they work through a huge shift in their approach to the smart phone market. Three different organisations. Three different challenges. One thing in common.

Windows 8 is Microsoft‘s response to the growing threat of the smartphone and tablet, two high-growth markets where they’re not yet major players.

Myspace are attempting a fight back for fourth time as their value and online membership continue to lose ground on the Facebook’s of this world.

And Nokia, like many device manufacturers, got totally caught out by the iPhone which did, in fact, change everything. As market leaders they had furthest to fall. The rest is history.

Three companies, three challenges, all responses to external market pressures. In a sense, you might argue that the ultimate destiny of these companies is no longer in their hands. Out of the three, Microsoft are best placed in that they’re responding at a time they’re still relatively dominant. It’s the opposite for Myspace and Nokia, who in reality are on the slide and attempting to fight back from much weaker positions. If either gets their new strategy wrong, it could be curtains.

Today, Apple are riding high and can do no wrong. But they’d be the first to admit that they’re in a precarious position – they, after all, have it all to lose. Despite the rhetoric, we’re yet to see a true iPhone killer, but there will be one. And Apple need to make sure it’s them who build it. Apple, in a sense, have to kill their own product if they’re to succeed in an increasingly competitive future.

This kind of “inward reinvention” is not so common in the ICT4D world. Solutions come and go, pilot projects come and go, some organisations even come and go. The vast majority of the changes we see are driven by one single external factor – technological innovation. Think of all the new projects and organisations that have come about as a result of the growth of smart phones in emerging markets. And think of all the new ones that will exist when tablet computers, or 4G, become ubiquitous.

Once they’re up-and-running, few ICT4D-focused organisations undergo radical changes in their approaches or technologies, instead focusing on incremental upgrades to policies and technologies. Some of those are voluntary, but many are forced by new entrants into the market, new technologies, or some kind of paradigm shift. It’s those that strike first – adapting their approaches and offerings before change is forced upon them – that will survive in an increasingly competitive world. And, yes – developing solutions to the world’s social and environmental ills is a competitive industry.

Although technology-focused non-profits don’t face the same problems as their commercial counterparts, this doesn’t mean they shouldn’t regularly rethink their strategy, their brand, their leadership or their technology solutions. If they’re to succeed in the longer term they need to be the ones in the driving seat, not the ones simply responding to external pressures or developments. ICT4D as a sector is still relatively new in the grand scheme of things, and as things hot up – as they will – increasing numbers of organisations will end up calling it a day. Fortune will favour the brave.

Many find themselves under pressure in a few key areas:

Increasing competition for funding. The number of technology-focused social enterprises is rising at a higher rate than available funding, putting a squeeze on donors. Social enterprises responding with hybrid models – allowing them to raise investment as well as donations – will stand a better chance in this brave new world, as will those who master the emerging crowd funding phenomenon.

The democratisation of development. As I wrote in a recent BBC Future article, the spread of the Internet and mobile phones means there are likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history. There’s a lot of competition out there, and a lot is coming from garden sheds, bedrooms and kitchen tables.

The rise of local innovation hubs. For quite some time there’s been general agreement that the best people to solve developing world problems are people in the developing world. I’ve always maintained that the greater the distance between a problem and the problem solver, the less likely the chance of success. The rise of local innovation hubs around the world – Africa in particular – means that not only is that distance shrinking, it’s nurturing entirely new industries in developing countries.

An increasing focus on emerging markets from large companies. Non-profits have historically only had to compete with other non-profits, but that’s no longer the case. Designing (mobile) applications for the next billion, or the bottom of the pyramid, or the other 90% – whatever you choose to call it – is big business. IBM’s announcement earlier this month that their next research centre will be based in Nairobi – their first in Africa – is further proof. According to IBM, “We want to help train Africans to innovate in Africa. The best minds there should be working on big national problems and African problems”. Google, Microsoft, Nokia, Hewlett Packard and Samsung – among others – have set up shop there, too.

In a couple of months time I’ll be celebrating my tenth year in mobiles-for-development. I’ve been incredibly lucky to have been there from almost the beginning, and I’ve seen first-hand the growth of the discipline and the impact of the technology on communities across Africa. The next ten years will present a whole new set of challenges for our sector, and if many ICT4D-focused organisations are going to survive they’re going to need to work very hard – and be very brave – to stay one step ahead of the game.

Something Myspace, Nokia (and Blackberry, come to think of it) – with all their resources – failed to do.

September 26, 2012   24 Comments

In search of an ICT4D mantra

In many sectors of international development it’s hard to imagine how you’d have much impact if you weren’t out in the field. After all, teachers want to be in-class. Doctors want to be in-clinic. And conservationists want to be in-situ. There’s only so much any of them can do when they’re not. Getting ‘stuck in’ is largely what it’s all about.

So why are so many ICT4D professionals happy to work remotely? And why does much of the ICT4D sector not find that odd?

In an article due to be published this week on BBC Future, I write about how technology has ‘democratised development’ and that there are “likely more people working on solving social and environmental problems in the world today than ever before in human history”. The spread of mobile technology and the Internet has made all of this possible. These are exciting times, make no mistake.

But  just because these tech-based opportunities have literally come to us in the comfort of our own homes, we mustn’t kid ourselves into believing that we don’t need to make any effort to lay the groundwork to our apps and ideas by getting out and spending time in the field. Just because the very technologies we use, by their very nature, allow us to work at-a-distance – remotely – that doesn’t mean we have to. If that doctor, or teacher, or conservationist could do their work without stepping into that Malawian clinic, or Lusaka classroom or Namibian national park, would they? I doubt it.

Last night I caught sight of a tweet from Tony Roberts. Although it sounds like something an anthropologist (or philosopher) might say, it perfectly describes an approach the ICT4D sector might like to adopt.

The beauty of the Internet, and the spread of mobile technology, is that anyone anywhere can quickly develop and distribute a mobile-based solution to a social or environmental problem, and start picking up users immediately. The technology is in place, and the distribution channel is there. All that’s needed are good, solid ideas and a drive and passion to fix a problem somewhere – and, let’s face it, there are plenty of those. All-in-all, the barriers to entry are lower than they’ve ever been.

But they’re so low we end up with a different problem.

For the doctor, teacher or conservationist, understanding the context of their patient, student or endangered species is critical for the work they do if they’re to do it well. With few exceptions, they can only get that by spending time in the field. This isn’t perceived to be the case for a programmer or coder. The result? A majority of apps written in isolation which have little chance of success.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. With the barriers to entry so low the cost of building and distributing these apps is minimal. The fact that so many people are taking an interest in fixing things should be encouraging enough. But there’s no doubt that spending time with your users, understanding their context, discussing what they need and then building a tool based on all of those things gives you the greatest chance of success.

Further reading
Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions
Mobile applications development: Observations
Rethinking Schumacher.

August 27, 2012   53 Comments

Good idea, bad idea or no idea?

For every one of our failures we had spreadsheets that looked awesome

Scott Cook. Founder and Chairman, Intuit

One of the biggest privileges of working in the technology sector for so long are the number of young entrepreneurs and innovators who approach me for thoughts on their big idea. As I’ve written before, whenever I can add value to someone else’s work I’m more than happy to. Giving back is important.

There’s something of an assumed wisdom in the social entrepreneurship and innovation sectors that “ideas are cheap” and that what it’s really all about is execution. While that’s true to an extent (I’ve only put a few of my ideas over the years into practice) good ideas certainly aren’t cheap. It’s just that sometimes – most of the time, in fact – they’re frustratingly hard to spot. Just to complicate things further, ideas often evolve over time, so could well start off in the lower half of the score card but then rise to dizzying heights later.

We’ll never know what would have happened to the tens of thousands of product ideas Steve jobs famously turned down, but the ones he did pursue were clearly good calls (with the exception of Apple TV, perhaps). For the Apple CEO, turning down a great idea was a price worth paying to maintain his relentless focus on focus.

But focusing on ideas and execution doesn’t give us the whole picture. One of the most effective tools in an innovator’s toolbox is passion and, although it won’t turn a mediocre idea into a great one, being passionate about it will certainly impact positively on their ability to deliver.

Passion is easy to spot, but what about the potential of the idea being communicated? In a recent Co.Design article, Scott Anthony provided a few helpful tips. Before getting too far down the road, he says, ask yourself these five questions:

1. Is it targeting an important problem that customers can’t address because existing solutions are expensive or inconvenient?

2. Does it solve the problem in a simpler, more convenient, or more affordable way?

3. Is there a plausible hypothesis about an economically attractive, scalable business model? Don’t believe financial forecasts, but ensure that there’s at least a sensible story

4. Does the team have the right stuff to course-correct according to in-market learning? Avoid dogmatic teams that will keep trying to prove they are right in spite of mounting evidence to the contrary

5. Can early profitability be a choice? The sooner there is a line of sight to profits, the better. You might make a strategic decision to be unprofitable by investing in marketing, sales capability, and so on, but at least you know that the core part of the model works

One of the key lessons FrontlineSMS taught me was the importance of getting your idea out there as quickly as possible and letting your users shape it. Thanks to the Internet, product launches – in the technology sector at least – are today only a mouse click away. Products can be accessed, used, hacked and abused in no time – or simply not used at all – giving you the quickest and clearest indication possible of its potential. Twitter was, in effect, shaped this way.

In terms of the tools, networks and opportunities available today, it’s never been easier to be an innovator or social entrepreneur. The difficult part has remained the same for generations of innovators gone by – that tricky combination of nailing a great idea, convincing others of its value, and then delivering on it.

Further reading
Three Ways To Predict What Consumers Want Before They Know It

July 25, 2012   19 Comments

The Cobra’s Heart

“I lived in Africa for several years. I first went there in 1957. Then, over the next forty years, I returned whenever the opportunity arose. I travelled extensively, avoiding official routes, palaces, important personages, and high-level politics. Instead, I opted to hitch rides on passing trucks, wander with nomads through the desert, be the guest of peasants of the tropical savannah. Their life is endless toil, a torment they endure with astonishing patience and good humour.

This is therefore not a book about Africa, but rather about some people from there – about encounters with them, and time spent together. The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’.

In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

Ryszard Kapuscinski, “The Cobra’s Heart”, 1998

July 17, 2012   5 Comments

“Work. Life. Balance”. An interview with Voice America

Over the past few years I’ve given a fair few interviews, and have been grateful for the continued interest and enthusiasm from others for our work. Most interviews have focused on combinations of my time working in Africa, my technology interests, or the evolution and development of FrontlineSMS. Until now, none had asked me to go way back and talk about my background, family and upbringing, or dig deeply into what drives me and my work.

Last week, Kate Ebner on “Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life” did just that. You can read the write-up below.

Finding What Lights You Up:  The Unassuming Wisdom of Mobile Innovator and Anthropologist Ken Banks

Ken Banks finished up his hour on our radio show and, moments later, tweeted “thanks for the therapy!” with a cyber smile. During his radio hour, Kate invited Ken to tell his life story at length for the benefit of our listeners. The story began in Banks’ childhood — in Jersey, England, one of the Channel Islands off the coast of Normandy, France. To date, it takes place in Africa where Banks is bringing mobile technologies to enable effective communications channels for communities in the developing world through his organization kiwanja.net and his free, open-source software FrontlineSMS.

Why did Kate invite Ken to spend so much of the hour telling his story? “Ken’s story is one of overcoming loss, uncertainty and adversity to find his path. He is an optimist with high standards for himself and the world. He hasn’t always been able to see how the pieces of his story quite fit together. We can relate to those feelings and circumstances. How Ken moves through life — the decisions that he has made and how he makes them — is so instructive and inspiring for all of us.”

Here are just a few of the wise nuggets that Ken Banks imparted during his hour on Visionary Leader, Extraordinary Life:

Everyone should be given a chance to maximize their potential. Inspire people to feel they have something to contribute to the world and help them find ways to make it happen. Read Ken’s blog post, “Enabling the Inspiration Generation.”

Just think about how you can help 4-5 people. You don’t need to save the whole world. If everyone helped just 4-5 people, the world would be a better place.

Anything is possible. Regardless of the cards you are dealt in life, pick yourself up and walk on. You don’t need parents in high places, or lots of money to make a difference in the world.

Do something that feels right. Don’t let others dictate your path. Only you will know what is right for you at any given moment in your life. If you feel good about what you are doing, don’t give up.

Make your own opportunities. If you haven’t found the one thing that immediately switches you on, get out and put yourself in the kinds of environments where you have a better chance of finding it. You won’t find it sitting at home and watching television.

Maximize every opportunity. You are only as good as the last thing you have done. It doesn’t matter that you gave a great talk last year – it’s all about the one you are doing now. If you give everything 100%, it will start to pay off and you will build momentum and people will want to support you and your ideas.

To hear more, listen to Ken’s interview (also available on the kiwanja.net website here).

This interview was in part dedicated to our Mother, who passed away one year ago last month.

May 6, 2012   5 Comments

With innovation, less can be more.

If your technology solution turns out to be more complicated than the actual problem you’re trying to solve then you’ve probably fallen into the “over-engineering” trap. The temptation to try to be all things to all people, or to cram in as much functionality as possible, can be the death of many technology-based projects.

In the world of innovation, interesting things happen if you train yourself to “think lean”. In the examples below, less is not only more – it’s the secret to success. Google looked at rivals and stripped back their home page, leaving the one vital component – the search box. Blogger, originally a component of a much larger information management platform called Pyra, was spun out after it proved the most useful feature. And Twitter took one small part of Facebook – the status update – and revolutionised how many of us communicate online.

Search engines

From: Yahoo!’s “all things to all people”

To: Google’s simple search


From: Pyra’s holistic project management platform
(ValleySpeak screenshot indicative only)

To: Blogger’s simple publishing tool

Social media

From: Facebook’s rich timeline

To: Twitter’s simple status update

The lesson? Strip back your idea, get to the essence of what it is you’re trying to do, and drop the clutter. Focus is king.

April 13, 2012   17 Comments

Cometh the hour. Cometh the technology.

For NGOs and developers alike, the ICT4D space can be a tough nut to crack. While NGOs generally struggle to find the tools they need to meet their particular needs, developers face the opposite problem – getting their tools into the hands of those who need them the most. Attempts to connect the NGO and developer communities – physically and virtually – continue to this day with varying degrees of success. There is no magic bullet.

Of course, bringing together the two parties in one place – community website, conference room or chat room – is only a small part of it. Getting them to understand each others needs, often over a technologically-fuelled chasm, can be another. While one side may approach things from a “technology looking for a problem” angle, NGOs often have it completely the other way round.

One of the earlier attempts to join the non-profit/developer dots took place in February 2007 in the boldly titled UN Meets Silicon Valley conference, where the United Nations met up with a bunch of Silicon Valley companies to explore how technology and industry could bolster international development. Lower-profile events also began to emerge around that time, often in the form of ‘user generated conferences’ such as BarCampAfrica (held in 2008) which aimed to:

… bring people, institutions and enterprises interested in Africa together in one location to exchange ideas, build connections, re-frame perceptions and catalyse action that leads to positive involvement and mutual benefit between Silicon Valley and the continent of Africa

Having worked for many years in the non-profit sector, particularly in developing countries, I’ve seen at first-hand the kind of challenges many face, and their frustration at the lack of appropriate ICT solutions available to them. I’ve also been on the developer side of the fence, spending much of the last six years developing and promoting the use of FrontlineSMS. Unfortunately, despite what you might think, seeing the challenge from both perspectives doesn’t necessarily make finding a solution any easier. Getting FrontlineSMS, for example, into the hands of NGOs has become slightly easier over time as more people get to hear about it, but it’s been largely a reactionary process at a time I’d much rather have been proactive. No magic bullet for me.

Sadly, for every ICT solution that gains traction, many more don’t even see the light of day. While you may argue those that failed probably weren’t good enough, this isn’t always the case. Take Kiva as a case in point. In the early days Matt and Jessica Flannery were regularly told by ‘experts’ that their idea wouldn’t work, that it wouldn’t scale. They didn’t give up, and today Kiva is a huge success story, connecting lenders – you and me – to small businesses in developing countries the world over. Since forming in late 2005 they have facilitated the lending of over $200 million to hundreds of thousands of entrepreneurs in some of the poorest countries in the world.

A key turning point for Kiva was their decision to switch from business plans to ‘action’ plans, getting out there and building their success from the ground up. Some of us would call this “rapid prototyping”, or “failing fast”. Whatever you choose to call it, it’s an approach I firmly believe in. In places like Silicon Valley getting it wrong isn’t seen as a bad thing, and this encourages a “rapid prototyping” culture. Sadly the story is very different in the UK.

Some projects – Kiva and FrontlineSMS among them – are based on experiences gained in the field and the belief that a particular problem can be solved with an appropriate technological intervention. Of course, before any ICT4D solution can succeed there has to be a need. It doesn’t matter how good a solution is if people don’t see the ‘problem’ as one that needs fixing. In the case of Kiva, borrowers were clearly in need of funds, yet lenders lacked access to them. With FrontlineSMS, grassroots non-profits were keen to make use of the growing numbers of mobile phones among their stakeholders, but lacked a platform to communicate with them. These two initiatives worked because they were problems that not only found a solution, but a solution that was appropriate and one that was easy to deploy.

The ICT4D space is exciting and challenging in equal measure, and by its very nature practitioners tend to focus on some of the most pressing problems in the most challenging parts of the world. Whether it’s a natural disaster, a stolen election, human-wildlife conflict, a crushed uprising or a health epidemic, elements of the ICT4D community spring into action to either help co-ordinate, fix, or report on events. Interestingly, it can sometimes be the events themselves which raise the profile of a particular ICT solution, or the events themselves which lead to the creation of new tools and resources.

In 2006, Erik Sundelof was one of a dozen Reuters Digital Vision Fellows at Stanford University, a programme I was fortunate enough to attend the following year (thanks, in large part, to Erik himself). Erik was building a web-based tool – “inthefieldonline” – which allowed citizens to report news and events around them to the wider world through their mobile phones. This, of course, is nothing particularly new today, but back then it was an emerging field and Erik was at the forefront. During the final weeks of his Fellowship in July 2006, Israel invaded Lebanon in response to the kidnapping of one of their soldiers. Erik’s tool was picked up by Lebanese civilians, who texted in their experiences, thoughts, hopes and fears through their mobile phones. The international media were quick onto the story, including CNN. Erik’s project was propelled into the limelight, resulting in significant funding to develop a new citizen journalism site, allvoices, which he ran until recently.

In a similar vein, it took a national election to significantly raise the profile of FrontlineSMS when it was used to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections in 2007. The story was significant in that it was believed to be the first time civil society had helped monitor an election in an African country using mobile technology. As the BBC reported:

anyone trying to rig or tamper with Saturday’s presidential elections in Nigeria could be caught out by a team of volunteers armed with mobile phones

Although FrontlineSMS had already been around for over eighteen months at that time, its use in Nigeria created significant new interest in the software, lead to funding from the MacArthur Foundation and ended with the release of a new version the following summer. The project has gone from strength to strength since.

One of today’s most talked-about platforms also emerged from the ashes of another significant event, this time the troubles following Kenya’s disputed elections in late 2007. With everyday Kenyans deprived of a voice at the height of the troubles, a team of African developers created a site which allowed citizens to report acts of violence via the web and SMS, incidents which were then aggregated with other reports and displayed on a map. Ushahidi – “witness” in Kiswahili – provided an avenue for everyday people to get their news out, and news of its launch was widely hailed in the mainstream press. The creation of Ushahidi is a textbook study in rapid prototyping and collaboration.

The interesting thing about all these projects is that they all proved that they worked – i.e. proved there was a need and developed a track record – before receiving significant funding. Kiva got out there and showed that their lending platform worked before major funders stepped in, just as FrontlineSMS did. And Ushahidi put the first version of their crowdsourcing site together in just five days, and have reaped the benefits of having that early working prototype ever since. If there is a lesson to learn here then it would have to be this – don’t let a lack of funding stop you from getting your ICT4D solution off the ground, even if it does involve “failing fast”.

Of course, not everyone can rely on an international emergency to raise the profile of their project or big idea, and it wouldn’t be wise to bet on one ever happening, either. But when it does, an obvious lack of a solution to a problem often rises to the surface, creating an environment where tools which do exist – whether they are proven or not – are able to prosper for the benefit of everyone.

March 27, 2012   55 Comments

Happiness, and regrets of the dying.

A nurse has recorded the most common regrets of the dying, and among the top ones is “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard”. What would your biggest regret be if this was your last day of life?

Earlier this week I tweeted a link to this soberingly-titled Guardian article on the “Top Five Regrets of the Dying“. Since then I’ve had several conversations with people on the subject. For me, the line between ‘work’ and ‘life’ has become increasingly blurred over the past twenty years. Back in the early 1990′s when I first started thinking about the intersection of technology, people, conservation and development there wasn’t a job anywhere where I’d have been able to blend all those skills and interests. My ideal job didn’t exist, so I had to create it. This long-standing quote on the kiwanja website sums up pretty well where I’ve ended up today.

Of course, I’m one of the lucky ones. That said, like everyone I have regrets, but if anyone had told me twenty years ago – even nine years ago when I started out in mobile – that I’d be where I am today I’d never have believed them. I met too many people in my banking days who were content to spend their lives doing jobs they didn’t like – hated even – so they could “enjoy their retirement” with a good pension. For me it’s always been about the journey, not the final destination. I still don’t know where I’m going to end up, truth be told.

In sharp contrast to death and regret, Paul Lamb from Man On a Mission Consulting sent me a random email two days after the Guardian article on the subject of happiness (happy life = fewer regrets?). Having a job you love may be one way to happiness (or fewer regrets), but not everyone is lucky enough to have one of those. So, for anyone who’s yet to figure out their purpose, journey or destination, here’s a few good “Happiness Resources” gleaned from Paul’s email.

Enjoy. And be happy.

The happy secret to better work
Shawn Achor, TED Talks (2011)

The habits of happiness
Matthieu Ricard, TED Talks (2004)

10 Ways to be happy
From the Happiness Project

Taking a Kindness Day off of work
Huffington Post (2011)

The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation

The “social game for good”

The Greater Good Center
The “science for a meaningful life”, courtesy UC Berkeley

The Happy Movie
(In celebration of World Happiness Day on February 11th, 2012)

February 9, 2012   15 Comments