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Category — Personal

#uksnow

One day.
Two walks.
Three photos.

February 12, 2012   6 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

AOK.TV
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

The never-ending road to self-improvement

“Once in a while it really hits people that they don’t have to experience the world in the way they have been told to”
Alan Keightley

Sports players are always told they can “do better”. Even championship winning teams are told they can “play better”. A musician’s next album could always “sound better” and Little Johnny at school could always “try a little harder”. We seem to be in a constant state of attempted self-improvement. Are we ever happy with who we are or what we’ve achieved?

Survival is the main preoccupation for a vast majority of the world’s inhabitants. If it’s not yours then you’re one of the lucky ones, like me. Also, like me, you’re likely instead preoccupied with building a career, or “trying to make something of yourself” as people like to put it. We’re brought up to be ambitious and conscientious, to strive to be successful at whatever we choose to do. Society does what it can to equip us along the way. We’re in a hugely priviledged position.

Personally, I’ve always believed that I need to have fully developed at least three ideas before I consider myself a success. I have no idea why I think I need to be a success, or why I think I need to prove myself three times, or even who I’m trying to prove it all to. But I do know that I enjoy building and starting things, so each time I decide to go through the process it’s because I enjoy it.

Despite what we constantly hear, though, it’s not just the “taking part that counts”. Whatever we do has to succeed – or lead us on to something else that does – if we’re to “reach our potential”.

Many social entrepreneurs live in this world. Life is about taking the seed of an idea, building it into something meaningful, and then ideally doing it all over again. Do it just the once and it might be luck. Do it a few times and you’re smart. The problem with this approach is that you never quite know when you’re “there”. At what point do you stop pushing and settle for what you have? Surely it’s not possible to constantly self-improve?

As someone who’s constantly pushing themselves to improve, I think about this a lot. Looking at the Zen Habits website, I’m not alone. Quashing the Self-Improvement Urge is a wonderfully reflective post on the subject, and is well worth a read if you’re in the same boat. As Leo Babauta himself concludes:

Quash the urge to improve, to be better. It only makes you feel inadequate. And then explore the world of contentment. It’s a place of wonderment.

I wonder how well this approach would sit with today’s social entrepreneurs and innovators?

January 3, 2012   27 Comments

Primates and people: Understanding local needs

Driven by a curiosity and a strong interest in primate conservation, late one night back in December 2001 I arrived in Nigeria to take up my post as Project Manager at a sanctuary in Calabar, Cross River State. The year I spent there – starting exactly ten years ago this month – turned out to be fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Crucially, combined with my previous experiences working on the continent, it also helped shape my understanding of the needs of local people and local NGOs, a focus which remains a central pillar of my wider technology work today.

Chimp rescue, Lagos 2001

I wasn’t the only arrival that December day. A small baby chimpanzee had been confiscated (pictured) from a local market and was waiting to be collected from Lekki, a conservation and education centre in Lagos run by the Nigerian Conservation Foundation. Primate rescue was to be a theme of my time in Nigeria, as was a sense that a large part of the ‘conservation effort’ was really damage limitation and control. Rehabilitating orphaned primates was often the easier part – even though it was hugely challenging and distressing. Changing perceptions, overcoming local politics and trying to shift cultural mindsets turns out to be much harder. Not only that, it takes considerably longer, time that increasing numbers of species simply don’t have.

Primate conservation, bush meat hunting and deforestation are all inextricably linked. Tackling one without trying to address the others simply doesn’t work. In its simplest form, the whole thing goes something like this.

Loggers enter the forest and either blanket cut or selectively cut trees. To help get the logs out, paths and roads are opened up into areas which were previously difficult or impossible to access. Loggers need to eat, and many actively hunt for bush meat while working in the forest. Local hunters join in. As more trees are cut and more roads laid, hunters are able to penetrate deeper into the forest, reducing wildlife populations – primates included – yet further

If I were to summarise what I learnt about these complex issues from my time in southern Nigeria, I would break it down into the following categories.

The practical

Logging

Although large-scale logging is a significant problem – often carried out by larger (almost always foreign) companies – many poor local people are ‘recruited’ to help in the destruction. Equipped with chainsaws supplied by their employers, they enter community forests and national parks and selectively cut high-worth trees. Roads and paths are cut to remove the logs, which are sometimes cut into large planks before being shipped off. Forestry officials, many of whom haven’t been paid for months, stamp the trees as coming from a legitimate source. I will never forget the haunting sound of distant chainsaws as I walked through those forests.

The cultural

orphanSpeaking with the locals in Calabar, many find it inconceivable that people would ever eat primates. In many communities it’s simply taboo, but sadly the same can’t be said for killing them. As outsiders come in search of work, and as main roads open up alongside the fringes of rainforest, hunters from these communities will go in, track down wildlife – primates included – and sell them at the side of the the road. Bush meat is in great demand, and it’s a brisk trade. If a mother is killed then the infant will be sold as a pet – a double bounty for the hunter. Some of these orphans are incredibly young, and barely alive if they are lucky enough to be rescued, as this picture distressingly shows.

The perception

The many Nigerians I met believed that bush meat was much better for you than ‘farmed’ meat, and given the choice they’d rather eat something from the forest than a farm. This is a major challenge for conservation groups trying to ween people off bush meat and more towards livestock of various descriptions. As a case in point, some Nigerians living in London appear to be willing to pay significant amounts of money for illegally imported bush meat, despite the availability of almost any other kind of meat from legal, local sources such as London supermarkets (see this interesting story reported by the International Primate Protection League).

The response

Conservation groups on the ground spend huge amounts of time on education and alternative livelihoods and farming programmes. In the 1990′s there was considerable focus on the potential for “grasscutters” – a widely-distributed cane rat found in West and Central Africa – and how farming and breeding these could help reduce or replace reliance on bush meat for protein. I’m not sure how many of these projects were successful, although some research has been carried out and there has been some success by individuals in Ghana. From my own observations, keeping livestock of any kind (other than chickens or turkeys, which need little looking after) turned out to be a foreign concept to many people, and efforts to promote it largely failed.

The reality

Dead guenonSpeak with the hunters in almost any rural community and there is almost universal recognition that the wildlife is on the decline. Many fondly speak of overnight hunting expeditions with their fathers, and how they’d return the next morning with a healthy ‘catch’. Evidence of distant permanent overnight camps highlight today’s reality – longer trips, days in length, but ones which still don’t guarantee a single kill. Urban dwellers rarely see this reality. Ask them about conservation and wildlife, and their reaction is one of “the monkeys will never finish” (Nigerians often use the term “finish” to describe extinction). Nigerians clearly have much to learn from each other.

It would have been great to have ended my time in Nigeria with a solution to some of these problems, and even better to be able to outline a few of them in this post. But I didn’t, and I don’t.

What I can contribute, though, is this…

Things you can do

Firstly, take a little time to try and understand the problems – plural. It frustrates me to read blanket condemnation in the western media of local people in African countries cutting down forests and daring to kill cute chimpanzees. Yes, it’s sad and its destructive. I’ve seen at first hand the pain and distress of an orphaned primate who’s had to have an arm broken to release its grip on its dead mother, or the look in the eyes of exhausted villagers struggling to put a decent meal on the table for their children. The problems are complex, but they’re human and animal.

Secondly, join a local organisation working with local communities on the ground. If you’re interested in African primates in particular, a good place to start out is the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance (PASA), an organisation committed to the conservation and care of African primates through the support of in-situ sanctuaries.

Thirdly, if you’re the volunteering kind, check out the University of Wisconsin’s Primate Info Net, but bear in mind that volunteering is really only productive if the local organisation can’t find, or afford, a local version of you among the communities in which they work. If that’s the case, be sure you have a transferrable skill so you can train a local person to replace you when you leave. Sustainability isn’t always financial – it also has a human element to it, too.

Fourthly, find out about alternative conservation/human strategies such as direct conservation payments – different models do exist. Just as primate species are different, conservation strategies also need to be. One size rarely fits all, and this is true whether you’re an elephant, a forest, a primate or a local villager.

Finally, stay positive. Problems are many and working solutions are few. Something good will happen if enough people commit to conservation in Africa. Many people already have.

December 12, 2011   10 Comments

Delivering on your values

I’m just back from my first visit to Harvard University where FrontlineSMS was presented with the 2011 Curry Stone Design Prize. The award ceremony on Monday was followed by a seminar on Tuesday, co-hosted by Nicco Mele and Ethan Zuckerman.

Our beliefs, values and approach come out strongly in this five minute video, put together by the organisers. FrontlineSMS is more than just a piece of software, and I’m equally as proud of the roots and ethos of FrontlineSMS as I am of the tool itself. (You can also watch this video on our community site).

I’ve been involved in international development in one form or another for the past 18 years, and have seen at first hand things that have worked, and things that haven’t. There’s much that’s wrong in the sector, but also a lot that’s right, and for me personally FrontlineSMS embodies how appropriate and respectful ICT4D initiatives can be run, both on a personal and professional level. There’s very little I’d do differently if I started it all over again.

As I wrote earlier this month after news of our Curry Stone Design Prize broke:

Over the past few years FrontlineSMS has become so much more than just a piece of software. Our core values are hard-coded into how the software works, how it’s deployed, the things it can do, how users connect, and the way it allows all this to happen. We’ve worked hard to build a tool which anyone can take and, without us needing to get involved, be applied to any problem anywhere. How this is done is entirely up to the user, and it’s this flexibility that sits at the core of the platform. It’s also arguably at the heart of it’s success.

These core values, built up over six years, remain central to our work. Here’s just a few:

Each and every one is important to us: Putting users ahead – and at the heart – of everything we do, striving for a positive interaction with anyone who comes into contact with our work, aiming to inspire others whilst respecting a diversity of views, always reaching for better, fostering a positive “anything is possible” attitude, making sure we continue to put people – and their needs – ahead of the aspirations of the tech community, managing expectations both internally and for our users, and finally – constantly reminding ourselves why we do what we do.

As we continue to grow as an organisation, maintaining and reinforcing these values will be an increasingly important part of not only who we are, but who we become.

November 10, 2011   15 Comments

ICT4D postcards: The story so far

A couple of weeks ago I sent out an open invitation for people to contribute to the “ICT4D Postcards Project“. The idea was to gather a collection of postcards from people working in international development who had a technology theme – or influence – in their work. Postcards have been coming in since, and I thought it would be a good idea to post a few up here, ahead of the full collection which will be posted online in the coming weeks.

In short, a postcard consists of a photograph and short narrative which explains why the image is important – or how it relates – to that person’s work. The idea is to go beyond usual explanation and website narrative to reveal more personal insights and motivations of the people who work in our field.

Here’s a selection of five which have come in so far. In no particular order.

Jonathan Donner. Kigali, 2003 | Website | Twitter

In 2003, mobile phones were just appearing in Rwanda. Penetration was just 1.5 per 100 people (1.5%) then. It is over 33% now. I organized some studies to ask microentrepreneurs about how they were using their new phones. Everyone was quite accommodating, letting us ask details about each of the last 10 calls recorded on the phones call log. Though we learned a lot about business processes and productivity, our data also demonstrated just how intertwined these phones had already become into daily life – two-thirds of the calls were with friends and family. I suspect these trends still hold.  At this moment, the interviewer (Nicole K. Umutoni) was probably looking back at me and wondering why I was taking this picture.  Now we know!

Jan Chipchase. Lagos, 2011 | Website | Twitter

That your and my cultural sensibilities about what is appropriate is irrelevant. That there are many ways to extend the internet – and that those that make the effort to do so, show us where the value is. That everything can, and will eventually be remixed.

Linda Raftree. Cameroon, June 2010 | Website | Twitter

This picture is taken on top of a large rocky hill during a workshop in Ndop, Cameroon. I love the young man’s rasta hat and the delicate lavender colored felt flower in the girl’s hair, the tender manner that they are learning together to film, and how the camera helps them see themselves and their surroundings in new ways. Up on that rock in the middle of the fields, breeze blowing under the giant sky, watching two young people teach other; the reminder that I am transient in this line of work and do not matter much in the larger scheme of things was strong, beautiful and comforting.

Erik Hersman. Liberia, 2009 | Website | Twitter

“ICT4D” represents a mental roadblock. A term that brings as much baggage with it as a sea of white SUVs, representing the humanitarian industrial complex’s foray into the digital world. It means we’re trying to airlift in an infrastructure instead of investing in local technology solutions. Like the SUVs, it’s currently an import culture that will not last beyond the project’s funding and the personnel who parachuted in to do it.

Heather Underwood. Kenya, 2011 | Website | Twitter

In August, 2011, I visited several health clinics in Kenya to determine the feasibility of using digital pen technology to enhance paper health forms. This photo was taken in a rural clinic in Mangalete. The woman using the digital pen is filling out a partograph – a paper tool used to monitor and detect prolonged or abnormal labors. She simply picked up the pen and started showing me how to properly fill out the form. When the pen’s audio suddenly informed her that she had crossed the alert line and should consider transferring the patient, her surprise and immediate understanding of the quality assurance and training benefits of this tool were incredibly gratifying. This interaction highlighted one of my core beliefs about ICT4D: big problems can often be addressed with simple solutions.

If you’re interested in taking part there’s still time. I’ll need the following:

1. A photo (high resolution if possible) – one you’ve taken, please. All it needs to qualify is to have a technology theme – radio, mobile phone, computer, solar lamp and so on.
2. Details of where it was taken and the year (if you remember).
3. A short description of what it is, and why it means something to you. Keep it short – think back of a postcard! We want personal stories – how you connect with the picture – not just a description of what it is.
4. A link to your website, blog or Twitter handle (or all three) so I can point people back to you and your work.

You can email all of this to postcards@kiwanja.net

November 2, 2011   45 Comments

ICT4D postcards

“Luxury Travel Stories is about the idea of connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”.

Last month I was invited to contribute a postcard to the Luxury Travel Stories project, and chose the photo – and text – below. You can view the post, and those from other contributors, here. The whole site is based on the idea of “connecting the world via ‘stories’ in postcard format. A photo with accompanying text no more than what would fit on the back of a postcard”. Like “Dear Photograph” (which I blogged about here), it’s a simple but compelling idea.

It was 2004, and I was working on a project which took me to the intersection of technology and international development. Much to many people’s surprise, mobile phones were beginning to make their way into parts of rural Africa, including areas like that in the photo. This is Bushbuckridge – an area which straddles Kruger National Park in South Africa. These women spend most of their days queueing for water, and we pulled up one morning when I took this shot. I use it a lot in my work. It highlights the challenges we face in the development community, and challenges me to think hard about the role of technology – if any – in improving people’s lives.

One of the things I’ve always maintained is that we often know little about the background and motivation of people working in our field, and how they came to work in it. So, in part as a way to rectify this I thought it would be great to put together a slideshow of ICT4D-related postcards to share online.

If you’d like to take part I’ll need the following:

1. A photo (high resolution if possible) – one you’ve taken, please. All it needs to qualify is to have a technology theme – radio, mobile phone, computer, solar lamp and so on.
2. Details of where it was taken and the year (if you remember).
3. A short description of what it is, and why it means something to you. Keep it short – think back of a postcard! We want personal stories – how you connect with the picture – not just a description of what it is.
4. A link to your website, blog or Twitter handle (or all three) so I can point people back to you and your work.

You can email all of this to postcards@kiwanja.net

Once I have enough I’ll pull everything together and drop it into Slideshare. If enough people contribute it might be fun to map the photos, and stories, on Ushahidi.

Looking forward to seeing where this goes…

October 14, 2011   36 Comments

The inspiration at the heart of innovation

I couldn’t figure out last night, when I woke at 2am, why Twitter was over capacity. A few minutes later I got the answer. Steve Jobs had passed away. A quick visit to the BBC website confirmed the news. Ashton Kutcher (of all people) seemed to sum the mood up well:

Steve Jobs gave an address to students at Stanford University in June 2005. These seven quotes are the highlights for me, and give us a glimpse of the man – what drove him, what made him tick, his passion for what he did, and how he saw his place in the world.

Steve Jobs. 1955 – 2011.

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life”

“I didn’t see it then, but it turned out that getting fired from Apple was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life”

“Sometimes life hits you in the head with a brick. Don’t lose faith. I’m convinced that the only thing that kept me going was that I loved what I did. You’ve got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking. Don’t settle. As with all matters of the heart, you’ll know when you find it. And, like any great relationship, it just gets better and better as the years roll on. So keep looking until you find it. Don’t settle”

“When I was 17, I read a quote that went something like: “If you live each day as if it was your last, someday you’ll most certainly be right.” It made an impression on me, and since then, for the past 33 years, I have looked in the mirror every morning and asked myself: “If today were the last day of my life, would I want to do what I am about to do today?” And whenever the answer has been “No” for too many days in a row, I know I need to change something”

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure – these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart”

“Death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because Death is very likely the single best invention of Life. It is Life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away”

“Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma – which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary”

October 6, 2011   22 Comments

Football. Beer. Innovation?

Ever wondered where the original idea for FrontlineSMS came from? Find out in this fun 50 second video put together by National Geographic as part of their 2010 Explorers Symposium.

For more information on our work with National Geographic, check out our profile page.

September 7, 2011   33 Comments

When in Rome. Or Africa.

Whenever I find myself in front of a group of students, or young people aspiring to work in development, I’m usually asked to share one piece of advice with them. I usually go with this: Get out there while you can and understand the context of the people you aspire to help. As you get older the reality is that it becomes harder to travel for extended periods, or to randomly go and live overseas.

In the early days of ICT4D and m4d – and development more broadly – it may have been seen as a luxury to understand the context of your target users (many solutions were seen as “universal”, after all). Today I’d say it’s become a necessity.

In my earlier days I did a lot of travel, mostly to and around Africa. (One thing I regret never managing to do was walk across the continent, something I started tentatively planning a few years ago). As our organisation has grown and my role within it changed, I spend more time today travelling to conferences giving talks than actually doing the work. My last major piece of extended fieldwork (i.e. longer than a week) was back in the summer of 2007 when I spent a month in Uganda consulting with Grameen’s fledgling AppLab.

There’s more to it, though, than just “getting out there”. What you learn, sense, pick up and appreciate about the place you’re in and the people you’re with largely depends on the kind of traveller you are. The truth of the matter is you’ll rarely get a real sense of a place staying for just a few days in the capital city behind the walls of a four or five star hotel. Quite often the more you get out of your comfort zone the more you learn.

I’ve been hugely fortunate to have lived and worked in many countries – mostly in Africa – since I set out to work in development almost twenty years ago. And during that time I’ve developed quite a few “travel habits” to help me get the most out of my time there.

Here’s my Top 15:

1. Stay in a locally-owned or run hotel (or even better, guest house).
2. Spend as much time as possible on foot. Draw a map.
3. Get out of the city.
4. Check out the best places to watch Premiership football.
5. Ignore health warnings (within reason) and eat in local cafes/markets.
6. Buy local papers, listen to local radio, watch local TV, visit local cinemas.
7. Use public transport. Avoid being ‘chauffeured’ around.
8. Take a camera. Take your time taking pictures.
9. Go for at least a month.
10. Visit villages on market days.
11. Spend time in local bookshops, libraries and antique/art shops.
12. Read up on the history and background of where you’re going. Buy a locally-written history and geography book.
13. Be sure to experience the city on foot, at night.
14. Wherever you are, get up for a sunrise stroll. It’s a different, fascinating (and cooler) time of day.
15. Don’t over-plan. Be open to unexpected opportunities.

Finally, if you’re looking for advice on what to take on a trip to Africa, good friend Erik Hersman (aka WhiteAfrican) has an excellent post here.

Additional suggestions

Rebecca Harrison (@rhrsn on Twitter):
16. Seize any opportunity to visit homes, especially at meal times.

August 27, 2011   53 Comments