Musings on a blogging century

For as long as I can remember I’ve enjoyed writing. Not writing to the orders of a teacher, but writing on my own terms – as much as I like, when I like and about what I like. Most of my early efforts were poems, and I would regularly wake early in the morning pen in hand. According to my teachers I was quite good. They must have been right – I won a number of competitions. The acquisition of a very old and heavy Imperial typewriter – a gift from my mother from the “Under £5” section of our local newspaper – opened up a new world for me, and one of my early projects was an epic on oil. I still have that masterpiece today, preserved in an A5 plastic folder bought from our local Boots the stationers. I still can’t quite believe that I managed to produce something like that at such a young age. I must have been around 11. I was a strange child.

Despite my love of writing and a long career in IT, I was a little late combining the two and didn’t start blogging until around the spring of 2006. The original idea was to write anonymously, the logic being that I could rant about anything that frustrated or annoyed me – and there seemed to be much – without somehow being accountable. The joys of the Internet. I even went as far as registering a URL, and was going to blog under “”, which was a play on the word gazumped, or ‘let down, tricked, misled’. I never did do much with it. I’m generally quite impulsive, and after thinking it through a little more decided I’d be better off blogging on the website.

Like most people, I have a wide variety of interests. Unlike most people, I’ve been incredibly lucky to have created a role for myself where I can combine every single one. This is more down to luck than good planning, although I’ve stubbornly stuck on this path despite everything that’s been thrown at me. So, in the context of my blog this means I can write about almost anything I like since it almost always falls into one of the four interest areas. These interests – which are really more like passions – are technology, anthropology, conservation and development – hence the strap line. The technology comes from well over 20 years in the IT industry, the anthropology from my degree at Sussex University, the conservation from the family gene and the development – and the conservation again, come to think of it – from numerous projects and numerous trips to the African continent over the past 15 years, including a one year spell working with primates in Nigeria. I could never have planned it better than this, so perhaps it’s lucky that I didn’t.

Fortuitously for me, these four interest areas turn out to be incredibly complimentary from a professional stand point, and if I wasn’t so honest I would probably be telling people that it was all part of a big plan. In the mid-1990’s, when I started to think how cool it would be to use my IT skills in developing countries, this whole ICT4D thing wasn’t really around and there was nowhere obvious to go. I was already building my development experience by then, having been on a couple of school and hospital building projects to Zambia and Uganda before I decided to go to university and study development ‘properly’. At Sussex you have to do development studies with something, so I settled for anthropology because it looked more interesting than history, French or Spanish. Although I didn’t realise it for some time, this was a great decision.

So, one of the end results of all this is this – a growing website, some incredibly interesting work and a collection of a few of my favourite blog postings (called “Musings“, pictured) from my first one hundred entries, which cover a range of topics under this technology, anthropology, conservation and development banner. I didn’t necessarily compile these because I thought anyone will be particularly interested in reading them – although I hope at least some people do – but because it felt like something of a minor victory to have hit my century. is also on the verge of its fifth birthday next month. Another reason to celebrate. 2007 was an incredible year. 2008 looks like being another…

Out of nothing comes something

I don’t usually work on planes, even eleven hour transatlantic flights. But this time I thought I’d give it a go – maybe do something a little bit more interesting than reading reports or doing email. So I plumped for this.

I’ve wondered for a while what the FrontlineSMS footprint is, you know, where it’s been used since the launch just over two years ago. So I did the grunt work on the plane and have just thrown it onto a map. And here it is.

The totals are quite impressive. It turns out that FrontlineSMS is being used in 41 different countries, and in some cases by more than one NGO in that country. I counted over 60 uses of the software, too. From helping blood donor clinics and human rights workers to promoting government accountability, keeping medical students informed about education options, providing security alerts to field workers, the capture and exchange of vegetable (and coffee) price information, the distribution of weather forecasts, the co-ordination of healthcare workers, the organising of political demonstrations, the carrying out of surveys and the reporting and monitoring of disease outbreaks. Oh, and election monitoring, of course. There are many more. I knew the tool was flexible but, for the first time having this information available has been a real eye-opener.

The latest version of FrontlineSMS is being developed as we speak, with work on a new website underway. We have a fantastic product, a great vibe in the non-profit world, increasing publicity and a great donor in the MacArthur Foundation. There are also plans afoot for an exciting global launch at a major GSM Association event in Cannes next May. Momentum is at an all-time high, and proposals for the next phase of development, starting mid-2008, are already out.

From nothing, apparently, comes something…

m-Reality bites

Going through an old hard drive backup over the weekend (a spot of well-overdue housekeeping), I ran across a Word document showing how someone could – potentially – pay for a newspaper using their mobile phone.

This, of course, doesn’t sound particularly revolutionary today – mobile banking is one of the hottest topics around. But what does make it particularly interesting is the date.

1st September, 2003.

I remember talking to a few people about it back then, and showing them my ridiculously simple diagram. Of course, it wasn’t possible four years ago, and it’s only just beginning to happen now. Was this a missed opportunity? Maybe, but I’ve always maintained that “mobile for development” shouldn’t be a race, and the fact is that big guys like Vodafone were always going to have a better chance of actually executing something like this than I ever could.

m-pesa is testament to that.