Bridging the academic/practitioner divide

Last year I had the pleasure of attending ICT4D 2009 in Doha, where FrontlineSMS and Ushahidi were represented in the “Technology Showcase”. The event was a bit of a gamble. The Agenda had a strong academic focus, and I for one usually tend to avoid these kinds of gatherings, which are more often than not dominated by people simply standing up and reading through papers.

As it turned out, it was largely that. If anyone was previously in any doubt, by the second day it was abundantly clear that there was, indeed, a divide between the practitioners at the event, and those who spent their time evaluating what the practitioners did. Much of the research presented made little sense to those “out in the field”, and in some cases there was such a mismatch in language that practitioners hardly recognised their own projects when they were discussed.

Last August, I attended a related event hosted by UC Berkeley in which selected members of the computer science community sought to identify their role in the practicalities of the ICT4D world. It was a fascinating event which I blogged about in “Computer science, meet global development” shortly afterwards.

There is little doubt that a number of mobile-relevant disciplines have traditionally lived largely in their own silos – practitioners, social scientists, academics and computer scientists among them. Later this year a workshop will be held in London at ICTD 2010 designed to break at least one or two more of these down. According to “Qual Meets Quant“:

The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones in developing economies has enabled the capture, for the first time in history, of massive amounts of behavioural human data in areas of interest to international development. Proper analysis of such data could provide important insight into areas from health and education to microfinance and agriculture. Unfortunately, much of the research related to mobile phones and development has been done in methodological silos: technical researchers focus on quantitative analysis; ethnographers perform in-depth qualitative research; and policy makers extrapolate policies from published research

It looks like being a great workshop, not because it’s particularly fascinating from an academic standpoint (although it could well be), but because it seeks to bring down practical barriers in how disciplines approach and study ICT4D – and aspects of mobiles-for-development in particular. The Programme and Organising Committees boast some big names in the space, with Kentaro Toyama, Nathan Eagle, Jenna Burrell, Tapan Parikh, Bill Thies and good friend Juliana Rotich among them.

Further details on the Workshop, and how to submit papers, can be found here [PDF, 100Kb].

Neglected hobbies #1: Photography

I don’t remember my first camera, but I do remember signalling my intent to take photography seriously when I bought a rather expensive Minolta 5000 about twenty years ago. A lot has changed since then, a time when experimenting was a frustrating (and expensive) affair. The advent of digital cameras changed all that, and in 2006 I moved away from my old Minolta and acquired a Panasonic Lumix FZ5, a camera which I still use today.

This is a very small selection of some of my favourite photographs from that camera. I have dreams of one day buying one of the latest Canon cameras, and mastering Photoshop, but that will have to wait. Sadly, for now, photography remains my number one neglected hobby.

Sandy feet (California, 2006)

Autumn flight (Palo Alto, 2006)

Museum of Islamic Art (Doha, 2009)

Grameen Village Phone (Uganda, 2007)

Mountain view (Banff, Canada, 2007)

Dead wood (Grand Canyon, 2006)

Light at the end (Los Angeles, 2006)

Incoming (California, 2006)

Making waves (Universal Studios, California, 2006)

Eye in the sky (San Francisco, 2006)

Top of the world (California, 2006)

Chris Lowe, Pet Shop Boys (San Francisco, 2006)

Haze on the 18th (Half Moon Bay, California, 2006)

In the shadow of the gull (California, 2007)

Celebrating the “enabling environment”

“From the palm streets of Sierra Leone to the fireworks of Boulder, we bring you an episode throbbing with life and contemplation. This time our exceptional production team highlight the work of 2010 Unreasonable Fellow Ben Lyon. Ben talks about his company FrontlineSMS:Credit which provides an effective technological bridge between mobile money providers and microfinance banking solutions to deliver state of the art financial services to the bottom of the pyramid consumers”.

This is a great video for a number of reasons. It captures Ben’s vision, ambition and spirit perfectly, and gives him an ideal platform to tell his own story in his own words.

Stories are increasingly important, and this was reinforced recently during my week with National Geographic (who always need more than just solid science to justify a magazine article or TV slot). The best way to resonate with others, and inspire, is to have a story and a passion which resonates and inspires. As Fried and Hansson put it in their recent book, “Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell. Decommoditise your product. Make it something no-one else can offer”.

I met Ben through Josh Nesbit – Executive Director of FrontlineSMS:Medic – last June. That’s a little over a year ago. It’s incredible – and by no means unreasonable! – to see how far he’s got in such a short space of time, and with so little funding and resources (although that is rapidly changing). An early PC World article we pushed out was intended to generate some interest in his idea, but I think what’s happened since has surprised even Ben.

It’s also great to see the kind of support available to budding innovators and entrepreneurs today. When I started out in mobile in 2003 there was little by way of any genuine support network, and it was more a matter of everyone feeling their own way. Organisations such as the unreasonable institute now play an invaluable role identifying and nurturing young talent, and there’s very little doubt that many of the 2010 Fellows have got a great future ahead of them.

The term “enabling environment” may be ambiguous and over-used, but there’s little doubt it could be applied here better than anywhere else.

Related posts:
Mechanics vs. motivation: The two faces of social innovation
Enabling the inspiration generation

Rethink. Reboot. Rework.

This is the book I’ve been waiting for for years. And it’s been a revelation in the few days I’ve had it. Broken down into largely single page ‘chapters’ – making it an incredibly easy read – it debunks many of the myths of running a business, of entrepreneurship, of innovation. What’s more, it’s written by doers, not talkers. I have plenty of time for doers.

Here are just a few of my favourite snippets from the “Rework” book:

“With so much failure in the world, you can’t help but breathe it in. Don’t inhale. Don’t get fooled by the stats. Other people’s failures are just that – other people’s failures”

“What do you really learn from mistakes? You might learn what not to do again, but how valuable is that? You still don’t know what you should do next”

“Ideas are cheap and plentiful. The real question is how well you execute”

“When you don’t know what you believe, everything becomes an argument”

“There’s a world of difference between truly standing for something and having a mission statement that says you stand for something”

“Great companies start in garages all the time. Yours can, too”

“Start a business, not a startup”

“If you’re successful, people will try to copy what you do. It’s just a fact of life. But there’s a great way to protect yourself from copycats – make you part of your product or service. Inject what’s unique about the way you think into what you sell. Decommoditise your product. Make it something no-one else can offer”

If you only buy one “business” book this year, make this it. Wonderful stuff.

Two “social mobile” related posts:
Social mobile: Myths and misconceptions
Mobile applications development: Observations