In a few days I’ll be in Uganda, and that’s just the beginning. Scrambling over the last week, we put together a mammoth plan: USA to Uganda, Uganda to Rwanda, Rwanda to Tanzania, Tanzania to South Africa. (And there might be a little Kenya sprinkled in there, too.) All in 3 weeks and all in service of a dream to find ways to make social computing more relevant to the next billion users.
I’ve had a long standing interest in using technology to empower underserved communities, dating back to my thesis work in inner city schools. When I came to IBM, I decided to focus on other things but I never stopped writing about the possibilities. And over the past few years, it became clear to me that the opportunities in developing nations (or in corporate-speak “growth regions”) was too big to ignore. What shocked me, though, is that IBM agreed — and sent me to India as the social computing delegate to a thought leadership study on technology for the “next billion users.”
From there, I was given a year to “figure it out.” What is IBM’s social computing play in developing nations? There are so many questions out there — how do we answer? For me, it’s the opportunity of a lifetime. But, then, that’s both a blessing and a curse: given enough rope, will I hang myself? What’s followed has been anything but easy: politics, economics, complex partnerships, tickets bought and canceled at the last minute, seeing the impact of dead aid first hand, losing the person who made so much of our work possible. There are a million moving parts and, as the team lead for the work, I’m consumed by holding them all together. It’s been the biggest emotional roller coaster of my life: exhilarating in one instant, soul crushing the next. And through it all, a classic David Mamet scene has been on repeat in my head:
Malone: You said you wanted to get Capone. Do you really wanna get him? You see what I’m saying is, what are you prepared to do?
Ness: Anything within the law.
Malone: And then what are you prepared to do? If you open the can on these worms you must be prepared to go all the way. Because they’re not gonna give up the fight, until one of you is dead.
Ness: I want to get Capone! I don’t know how to do it.
Malone: You wanna know how to get Capone? They pull a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue. That’s the Chicago way! And that’s how you get Capone. Now do you want to do that? Are you ready to do that? I’m offering you a deal. Do you want this deal?
Ness: I have sworn to capture this man with all legal powers at my disposal and I will do so.
Malone: Well, the Lord hates a coward.
[jabs Ness with his hand, and Ness shakes it]
Malone: Do you know what a blood oath is, Mr. Ness?
Malone: Good, ’cause you just took one.
Now what are you prepared to do? With every showstopper, the question keeps coming back. And I keep hoping I have enough of an answer to keep this thing alive, to make it something bigger, to have some chance of making it a career. I’ve always felt I had a few threads I could pull together to define my research identity, but never has it been so crystal.
For my thesis I did what I was good at, at times at IBM I’ve done what I could be paid to do, and in tiny bits of spare time I pursue what I want to do. Now I have a window to bring it all together and hit the sweet spot in the middle. Or watch it fall apart.
So, in getting on that plane to Kampala I’m well aware I have tons to learn. (I’ve been to the continent twice before but never to do work there.) But my hope is that this is at least the end of the beginning — a point where my group and I (because god knows I couldn’t have gotten here on my own) can start in some small way to have an impact. I’ve fought so hard to get to this point, I have to make it matter. Can’t break promises to Jim Malone, now can we?
The trip is booked end to end with conference presentations, meetings with innovative NGO partners, universities, and government. But I hope to have some photos and stories to tell, too. See you on the road!