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.

Coffee, Clark, Careers

All great journalists immediately put you at ease. Clark Boyd, someone I’ve been extremely fortunate to have spoken to on a number of occasions, is one of them. Interviews feel more like chats over cups of coffee in the dentists waiting room than recorded interviews set to go out over the airways in the US (and beyond).

Clark recently got in touch and asked if I’d be interested in giving a little careers advice – not to him but to people interested in mobile, technology, Africa and so on. Never one to turn down the opportunity, we recently sat down for coffee at my village dentist and chatted over coffee. Since these are the kinds of questions I regularly get asked by students and others interested in my work, it seemed sensible to re-post it. So, here you go. Apologies for Clark’s choice of picture. The original post is here.

Ken Banks: Cell Phones on the Frontlines

Ken Banks, kiwanja.netI have to say, this Wide Angle assignment was a tough one. In my nearly 6 years of covering technology now, I have to say I’ve come across quite a few people who have very, very cool jobs. But few people with those cool jobs have the drive, energy and determination that the man at right does. This is Ken Banks, and his online home is kiwanja.net. The tagline for the site says it all: “where technology meets anthropology, conservation and the development.” Ken is as close to a true “renaissance man” that I’ve come across in my forays into technology across the globe. His interests seem as wide and varied as his abilities. And the fact that he’s managed to somehow combine those interests and abilities into a career is, even to this jaded journalist, inspiring.

I’ve done stories on a number of Ken’s efforts in the past few years. The one that really grabbed my attention is a project Ken’s been working on called FrontlineSMS. So, for this Wide Angle Podcast, I begin by asking Ken to describe FrontlineSMS in his own words.

(Clark’s podcast can now be found on the kiwanja “Audio/Video” page here)

(Picture comes courtesy of Ken’s friend, another guy with a cool tech job, Erik Hersman)

The return of the Dark Continent

For centuries Africa was known as the Dark Continent. It was place of mystery, exotic animals, vast wilderness, all manner of beasts, evil spirits, disease, cannibals and pretty much anything else you’d care to imagine. You just have to take a look at this 1838 map to see how little was known of the interior. Although of course it wasn’t that bad (not in every case, anyway) it’s something of a shame that so few places hold such mystery any more. The world has been pretty much explored and explained (and in some cases exploited) and that’s the end of that. Shame the wonderfully named Mountains of the Moon never existed.

Today the words Dark Continent mean something quite different. Over 150 years may have passed since the map was drawn – it’s now been pretty-much filled in – but once the sun sets it’s time to turn back the clock.

Africa at night. Use a little imagination, and the mystery returns…