Mobile as exploration

It was early evening, 14th October, last year. I’d just received the email completely out of the blue. I’d had a long day in London, and was staying over for an early start the following morning. The email was from National Geographic, and it carried news that I’d been named an “Emerging Explorer“. Of course, I thought it was spam.

Because the nomination and selection process for these Awards are entirely confidential, I still don’t know to this day who nominated me. Not only that, but I also had to get my head around what on earth my work had to do with exploration. The email wasn’t spam, after all.

On reflection, it was a very bold move by the Selection Committee. Almost all of the other Emerging Explorers are either climbing, diving, scaling, digging or building, and what I do hardly fits into your typical adventurer job description. But in a way it does. As mobile technology continues its global advance, figuring out ways of applying the technology in socially and environmentally meaningful ways is a kind of 21st century exploring. The public reaction to the Award has been incredible, and once people see the connection they tend to think differently about tools like FrontlineSMS and their place in the world.

The Awards were made during “Explorers Week” in Washington DC in June. You can watch my 15 minute presentation (above), or read a short blog post of thoughts from the start of the week. We’ve also recently begun a new series on the National Geographic website – “Mobile Message” – designed to help spread the word on what mobile technology means for the developing world.

It was a huge honour to be the first mobile innovator to be named a National Geographic Emerging Explorer. With the incredible progress being made by many other friends and colleagues, I’m confident I won’t be the last…

“Living a boys adventure tale”

I was no different to many other children my age, taking every opportunity to get my hands on a National Geographic magazine and flicking through each colourful page in wonder and amazement. I’d get most of mine cheap from jumble sales back then – I can afford to buy them full price these days – but that sense of fascination remains.

Thirty years on and I find myself in Washington DC attending the National Geographic Explorers Symposium. I’ve packed quite a lot in over those thirty years – school building in Zambia, hospital building in Uganda, a degree in Social Anthropology, carrying out biodiversity surveys in Uganda, running a primate sanctuary in Nigeria and various trips and visits to a host of other countries, most on the African continent.

Since 2003 my career took a significant turn when I started working in mobile, and the development of FrontlineSMS takes up the majority of my time these days. It was this work which caught the eye of the panel at National Geographic, culminating in the Award announced last month.

I’ve always been keen to take the mobile story out of the entrepreneurship, social media, activism and technology circles and more into the mainstream. Many of the articles I used to write for PC World were primarily designed to do just that. I’m excited to be able to talk about the role of mobile technology around the world to the Symposium delegates and attendees this week, and am excited to meet at first hand some of the amazing explorers and adventurers I was previously only able to read about (the man who helped discover the wreck of the Titanic among them).

It promises to be a fascinating few days, and I’ll be taking every opportunity available to see how our work – and how mobile more widely – can be applied to some of the work being done by National Geographic and their incredible family of Fellows and Emerging Explorers.