1995. 2005. 2015. Two decades of code

Precisely ten years ago this morning I sat down at a kitchen table in Finland and started coding. Armed with a Visual Basic.net manual, a laptop and GSM modem, a couple of SIMs and a Nokia 6100 and cable – and plenty of coffee – I delved into the world of Windows programming for the very first time.

I’d already done a fair amount of professional software development over the years, designing and building a membership/fundraising system for Jersey Zoo, and a range of accounting and amortisation systems for a legal firm, but that was ten years earlier in the mid-1990’s when QuickBASIC was my weapon of choice. Ten years had passed, and I’d never written anything event-driven before. I was on a steep learning curve, but was motivated.

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I’d already figured out earlier that year that I could drive a mobile phone by sending it a series of Hayes commands through a cable – that was my epiphany moment, so-to-speak – so my task that summer was to try and build a nice user interface around it. It sounds almost crazy now to think that a lot of this was new, but back then very few people were building messaging platforms, and even fewer building messaging platforms aimed at grassroots non-profits in the developing world. After two years working across South Africa and Mozambique it had already become blatantly clear to me that there was a growing need there that nobody seemed willing, or able, to meet.

One of the big advantages I had back in 2005 was that it was easy to hide away and be left alone to focus on a project like this. Anyone with no team, no money and a big project idea knows all too well how important it is to be able to get away and focus. Thanks to the luxury of being unknown in the ICT4D world I was able to hide well enough to write a working prototype of FrontlineSMS in just five weeks.

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Designing the ContactManager form

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Coding ContactManager

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The finished, compiled article

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The first FrontlineSMS website, built in a day. The field banner was the view outside

Fast forward to today, I once again sit hidden away taking on a new coding challenge (my decades of code seem to take me from 1995 to 2005 to 2015, which may or may not be significant). In a similar vein to my attempts to tackle Windows programming in 2005 – which didn’t turn out too badly, I guess – today I’ve started work on my first iOS app. With a long list of ideas it’ll hopefully be the first of a few. Not surprisingly, they are pretty-much all based on improving how we interact and engage with the people, causes and world around us. I’m close to securing angel investment for the first app, which is another first. And it has a solid business model, which is another.

Interestingly, my brushes with code seem to have taken me through each of the key platforms of the past twenty years – MS-DOS, Microsoft Windows and, now, iOS. And, like 2005, I find myself with a window of opportunity to hide away and code as I continue my summer sabbatical. Watch this space for more.

Gazing into development’s crystal ball

It’s a sector that famously likes to look and plan ahead. So what does the development professional of today think it takes to be a professional development worker of tomorrow?

In partnership with the USAID Global Development Lab and PSI, Devex recently conducted a survey of development professionals to see what tools, skills and approaches they think the next-generation of development professionals will need to thrive ten years from now. Last week they published a report of these findings. And it’s enlightening on a number of levels. From the report:

“The results paint the picture of a well-rounded, flexible professional who takes a holistic view of development work. Just as likely to be a venture capitalist or high-tech whiz as your traditional aid worker, the future development professional will need to be agile, collaborative and constantly learning new skills.”

A few elements of the report particularly stood out for me. For a start, the fact that only 10% of respondents felt that disrupters would play any significant role by 2025. Perhaps today’s emphasis on disruption is a passing trend, or we’re just over-estimating its significance? Or perhaps development professionals are blind to what’s going on out in the real world, and they choose to not recognise it?

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There was some recognition, though, that the traditional top-down approach would decline, although I’m not quite sure how the target communities will be able to meaningfully engage in the debate that replaces it. I guess the survey respondents assume that by 2025 we’ll have finally nailed those tricky little feedback loops.

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It was also interesting to see where the respondents felt most of the ‘development professionals of the future’ were going to come from. We’re already seeing a blurring of boundaries between aid and business (i.e. Facebook and Google’s approach to last mile connectivity issues), and perhaps that trend will continue. If this forecast does turn out to be true, I’d argue that they shouldn’t be called ‘development professionals’, though (in the same way we don’t call Facebook and Google’s work in Africa today aid or development).

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Last but certainly not least, this was one of the most revealing slides for me. Lack of empathy is already a huge problem as people by-pass time in the field and opt to develop solutions far away from the problems without speaking to anyone. It’s great to see empathy on the list, but it should be higher. After all, none of the other skills matter if you don’t understand the people you’re trying to help, surely?

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So, what was missing? Well, I’d loved to have seen a breakdown of responses from aid workers in the developing world vs. aid workers from the developed world. I’m sure some of the attitudes would have been quite conflicting and, in turn, revealing. And I’d love to see a similar survey carried out among aid recipients – their thoughts, concerns and hopes for the sector – something that will be increasingly important if they do, quite rightly, begin to have more say in how ‘their’ aid is spent and administered.

You can download your own copy of the survey findings here.

Publishing and the art of iteration

Eighteen months ago, “The Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” hit the shelves. The product of a combination of donations, crowdfunding, ten inspiring innovators, an editor with too much time on his hands, and an engaged publisher, the book was always something of an experiment. Tales of people innovating ‘outside the system’ – people with little by way of resources or money, and often without qualification or permission – just getting on with fixing social ills that deeply bothered them seemed like stories the world needed to hear.

Today, it looks like I may have underestimated the number of people who wanted to hear them.

Professional book reviews are hard to get, particularly when you self publish. But the couple we got were great (here’s one). Amazon reviews were even better – standing today at 43 and counting, and all five star reviews bar a couple. It even topped Amazon’s “Development Studies” charts for a while. All of this, of course, in addition to the couple-of-dozen fantastic post-publication endorsements we got.

Interestingly, universities and colleges around the world quickly started picking up on the book as it found its way into numerous social innovation and ICT4D classes. For me, this has been the biggest positive for the book. One typical response appeared on Amazon:

Stories for every college campus

Ken Banks has collected a volume of stories here that need to be told on every college campus. College campuses are at this moment unique seedbeds of opportunity. Populated with “Millennial Searchers” who, in increasing numbers, tell us they define life success in terms of meaning, purpose, and making a difference, and shaped by the larger movements of social entrepreneurship and sustainability, college curricula have begun shifting towards educating students to become agents for change.

What our change agents need above all right now is not more information, but stories – stories that the move them from paralysis and despair in the face of social disintegration and ecological loss to actions shaped by courage, humor, and hope. These stories do this. And because they inject so much of the raw, the uncertain, and the unformed portion of reality into their tales they are stories on which students will clamber for in the face of the challenges of their generation.

These stories speak eloquently about power – the power of connections, the power in confronting power structures for the sake of the marginal, the power of serendipity, the power of the human spirit to overcome immense challenges and work towards transformation and justice. In doing so, they function as a calling to that part of ourselves that will recreate and restore human and natural communities, that bears witness to our capacity for both good and ill, and that remembers the full range of ingenuity and wisdom we possess individually and as a species.

Wendy Petersen Boring, co-editor, “Teaching Sustainability: Perspectives from the Humanities and Social Sciences”

Over the past few months it’s become increasingly clear that I ought to make more of the book. So I started speaking to an international publisher, and am delighted to share news that I’ve now been offered a full publishing deal to release a new, revised and re-worked “Rise of the Reluctant Innovator” early next year (though the title will need to change to something a little more search-engine-friendly, apparently).

Over the summer I’ll be working with the existing chapter contributors, and some new ones, putting a little more structure around each of their stories. The essence of the book will remain the same, but we’ll make it more useful to students of social entrepreneurship and social innovation. We’ve already learnt that our approach is a little unique, and that it stands out from other books which are often dominated by theory and stuffy concepts. Ever since I started inviting FrontlineSMS users to write about their work and experiences using the software way back in 2005, I’ve been increasingly convinced that people are primarily motivated and inspired by raw stories of innovation.

Watch this space for news and updates over the coming months. In the meantime, you can check out the current book offering here.