Going… Going… Gone.

I’m not the kind of person who tends to get easily attached to material things, but this was a little different. Since my second month at Stanford – way back in October 2006 – this particular “material thing” has been my home, kiwanja’s North American HQ and my Sunday morning ride to Trader Joes, Peets Coffee and the laundrette. Until today, that is.

I decided soon after arriving in California to get a VW camper, not just because it was going to work out better on my finances but because I felt that living the simple life in the complex Stanford environment would keep me focussed and “real”. It became apparent after my first few days here that it would be very easy to get caught up in a place like this, very easy to lose focus and forget why I was here, and I didn’t want that to happen to me. I blogged about my thoughts last summer, as my Fellowship came to an end and many of my friends returned to their own particular corners of the globe.

Now, with just two weeks left here at Stanford myself, it was time to move on. The van had to go. I didn’t realise it, but last night literally was my last night.

This was the van I retired to late at night after a long day working on my – and the other Fellows – projects. It was the van which kept me warm during one of the coldest winters in California for a century, and the van in which I read numerous Africa and technology books, strategising my future direction. It was the van that brought me NPR radio and an hour of the BBC World Service each evening, and the van in which I lay while I edited and re-edited my proposal for the new FrontlineSMS. It was my home when I got my first ever grant, from the MacArthur Foundation last summer, and pretty-much the only home I have known since moving here.

This old van has been very much a part of my life here as have the people, the places, the coffee and the Fellowship. I had dreams of keeping it, storing it away somewhere and coming back for it some day, or shipping it over to England. But none of this was ever really that sensible, because at the end of the day this van was only really meant to keep me real, right?

Job done, I’d say.

Analogy of a Fellowship

I’ve never done a real marathon – I find jogging mind-numbingly boring – but metaphorically speaking I’ve been running one for the past fourteen years. A journey which started accidentally back in 1993 reaches a major milestone tomorrow as this year’s Reuters Digital Vision Program winds down. The pace will then slow a little for the next few weeks, but picks up again after a short summer break back home in the UK. Thanks to a generous MacArthur Foundation grant work begins on the next stage of FrontlineSMS in the autumn, returning me to Stanford.

It’s been an incredible nine months, and it’s exceeded all expectations. My top five moments? Well, let me see. In no particular order…

1. Before leaving Cambridge last September I took out a ‘single-trip’ health insurance policy, not expecting to be going anywhere else for the foreseeable future. How wrong I was. A conference invitation in Bangalore came up just three months into my Fellowship, to be closely followed by a workshop in New Delhi, another conference in Canada and then a final workshop in Kenya last month. In the middle of all of that was a visit to the University of Arizona but, being in the States, that doesn’t count. Positive change number one: An increase in invitations to ‘industry’ events. Lesson number one: Take out multiple trip insurance policies in future.

2. Having the opportunity to learn from some of the most talented people around has to be Positive change number two. The great thing about this Program is that it brings in some of the brightest stars from developing countries and gives them full access to the ‘Stanford machine’. The opportunity is huge and those who get invited along are the very people best suited to take advantage of it. Me, for my part, crashed the party under the guise of a support person (or Collaboration Fellow, in Program-speak) but have been helpful enough for no-one to really notice or mind!

3. Without doubt the increase in visibility of my work has been enormous, and ‘Positive change number one’ is testament to that. My website has been around for over four years, and in true organic fashion has been gradually stumbled upon by numerous ICT practitioners, the mobile industry, NGOs, academics and the general public. Positive change number three is therefore my website, which has shot from an average of under 1,000 hits per day to 4,000 now. Not quite a YouTube, I know, but it’s a start…

4. Positive change number four was having my ‘Erik moment’ back in April. An ‘Erik moment’, in the context of the Digital Vision Program, is “a sudden and unexpected event which elevates exposure, and interest, in your project to international level”. (By the way, the phenomenon is named after Erik Sundelof, a 2006 Fellow and now good friend who was working on his citizen blog/journalism site when Israel invaded Lebanon after the seizure of a couple of their soldiers. Erik’s site became an avenue for Lebanese civilians to report what was happening, via their mobile phones, and let the world know how the war was affecting them personally). My ‘Erik moment’ came on Friday 20th April when the BBC announced to the world that my FrontlineSMS system was to be used that weekend to help monitor the Nigerian Presidential elections. Very few people, however hard they work at something, are lucky enough to get 15 minutes of fame, never mind courtesy of the BBC. I was, and will be eternally grateful for it (and the work of the Nigerian NGO, NMEM, who carried out the project on the ground). FrontlineSMS has since been used to help monitor the Philippine elections, and discussions are underway for it to be used in Kenya later this year.

5. Last, but not least, funding becomes Positive change number five. Through the increased exposure in my work, the chance to mix with some great people on this Program and, of course my ‘Erik moment’, the MacArthur Foundation now take my work to a whole new level by announcing a $200,000 grant for FrontlineSMS. Coming as it did, during the last week of the Program, it’s been the icing on the cake of an amazing nine months here.

The challenge now is to match this when I return in September. Sadly, it won’t be with Marvin, Cathy, Shashank, Isha, John, Edgardo, Nam, Netika, Steve, Adam, Hernan, Fabiana, Neil, Neerja and Atif.

But a Fellowship is forever, right? And we always have Facebook

Waking up in unexpected places

If you’d have sat me down ten years ago and asked me what my ideal job would be, I’d probably have described something that didn’t exist. It would have been a strange mixture of conservation, people, Africa and technology – maybe an extra one or two for luck – all spiced up with a touch of positive change and a dash of stubborn determination. The chances of finding something like that were remote, if not impossible. But there’s a saying: “If you can’t predict the future, invent it”. And, it would seem, I have managed to do just that.

Along the way I’ve probably taken the term ‘multidisciplinary’ to a new level, but what do you do when you can’t decide, well, what to do? If you’re passionate about a number of things it seems unfair to be forced to make a choice, so I didn’t. My revised strap line, which came out of an early meeting at Stanford with my old friend, Erik Sundelof, describes quite perfectly what I now do. And it has all the right ingredients – conservation, people, Africa and technology. I was told many-a-time along the way that I should concentrate on one thing, that my message was unclear, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

Eight months have passed since I arrived at Stanford to take up a Fellowship on the Reuters Digital Vision Program. It has been an incredibly positive experience, and interest in my work is at an all-time high. This has come at a time when interest in the interface between people and technology in developing countries – and mobile in particular – is about to hit a steep upward curve. It might sound odd, but I feel like I’ve suddenly woken up in this strange place.

The place I dreamt of all those years ago…