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