Bjelkeman's travel notes

Travels with the cloud in my pocket.

Arrival in Bengaluru

The trip to Bengaluru (Bangalore) from Stockholm was essentially uneventful, which is how I like it. One hour delayed departure due to rain in London, where we transferred through LHR Terminal 5. We were met by a taxi driver at Bengaluru International Airport at 06.00 in the morning, and it was 15 degrees C and very foggy. The taxi driver was so cold he was shaking, quite a difference in perception compared to how we felt.

We didn’t sleep that much on the flight, so we grabbed a couple of hours of sleep at the place we are staying before we headed over to Arghyam, where the reception was warm and enthusiastic as always. It was good meeting those who I know already and seeing the new faces, also the new Arghyam offices. It seems a lot of the people at Arghyam had watched the video of me, which Mark Chamer shot, where he asked me what I was going to do in India. This brought out quite a few laughs, as I hadn’t seen it myself yet. After that we wandered around a bit to familiarise ourselves with the neighbourhood and ate some at the local vegetarian restaurant.

The day wrapped up with the weekly conference call with the Akvo team, using Skype, where we had ten people in (I think) nine separate locations, sitting in San Francisco, London, Hague, Gothenburg, Stockholm and Bengaluru. The internet still amazes me, and I have been working with it for 15 years.


Filed under: Arghyam, India, Travel

Electronic preparations

Packing your clothes is probably what you think about when preparing for travelling, but like I posted in the last blog post, getting ready involves a lot of things, including getting the communications gear organised.

Today the preparations consisted mainly of those things you can not touch: travel insurance, paying bills, wrapping up bits of work that has been left hanging, and nearly all my work is communicated electronically. Even a day like today, when I am supposed to be packing and getting ready I managed to send 30 emails. But writing email was probably just a displacement activity, for… packing clothes. 🙂

The highlight of the day though was when our friend Paul arrived, who will be hanging out in our home when we are away.

Filed under: India, Travel

Cloud peripherals kit

To be “useful” at the edge of the cloud I really do carry too many things. Someone picked up my backpack the other day and only said “heavy”. It is clear that I could rationalise this somewhat, but I am not quite there yet. The KeySpan remote could be replaced by an application on the iPhone (not depicted, I took the picture with it). I could stop carrying the camera and the Flip video camera, but the quality of my iPhone 3G camera isn’t really good enough and it doesn’t do video. I could skip my Moleskine notebook and only take notes on the laptop, but it is really distracting to do that when you are meeting someone. The noise cancelling headset is great for flights but I don’t like wearing it during long Skype/iChat conferences et cetera.

I actually travelled on a semi-business trip with only my iPhone once. It worked, but it was really cumbersome not to be able to take notes in meetings, not be able to show a presentation properly and only get crummy pictures of some of the locations were were in. So there we are, a much too big collection of stuff to connect to the cloud.

Filed under: India, ITC technology, Travel

Getting prepared for India

I am going to India for a couple of months. Specifically Bangalore, where I am going to hang out with the Akvo partner Arghyam who very graciously will let me borrow some office space with them and let me learn from them. This blog will be a travel diary for this period, specifically discussing our work together.

The diary also serves as a point of contact for my tutor, Clas Hättestrand, at Stockholm University. At the university I am working on the last parts of my environmental science degree, and this practical work experience is the last thing I will be doing on my degree before my master thesis.

Filed under: India, Travel

You need guts to innovate in old structures

Tim O'Reilly

When @timoreilly says he talks to the World Food Programme about “reviewing their plans to create next gen IT infrastructure for emergencies. They need help. Plan to connect geeks”, then I sincerely hope that they understand that they have to let go of some of the control of how they are running their organisations. True change and innovation often needs more than incremental improvement and setting out to radically change how you do things requires guts, and a lot of it.

When we started we made a specific point of having people from different backgrounds working on the project together. Early on we included people who are software engineers, communicators, water/sanitation and development aid specialists, entrepreneurs and designers. And we didn’t pull these people of the street either, we brought in an entrepreneurial team that could start a new internet business from scratch.

A lot of development aid does not have a good reputation, and there are plenty of examples in the water and sanitation sector where we are still making the same mistakes as we did 30 years ago. But there is also an aversion towards innovation. People are truly hesitant to try that which is new. So when we started Akvo, we didn’t want to repeat these mistakes, but we also wanted to make sure innovation and new thinking was at the top of the agenda. We did this by adding entrepreneurial people from all these different areas to the team, and we didn’t start before we had a team which we were convinced could pull off what we are working on.

Often when information technology and communications (ITC) tools are brought into an organisation they are brought in by the management who think they need the standard tools, like email, internet access, document handling, mobile phones etc. But they don’t know how to really ask for innovation. Improved ITC ends up being: “can you get the email spam filter to work better?” Not changes that will turn the whole sector upside down. The kind of changes which the music industry is going through because of the internet or the book selling industry.

25%-50% of all deaths in the world happen because of abject poverty (ref: @leashless, great bit of video if you have some time) and development aid does a poor job of improving that. We really need to change how we do things.

At Akvo we think we have a small component of the solution, which we are working on. What we are trying to achieve is actually quite a lot bigger than what you can see us working on. But we believe in delivering stuff that works, and less talk. As, like most others, we will be wrong in many of the things we think are the solutions to our problems, but it isn’t until we actually build and try it out that we find out. Build a little, test a little. (Old engineering mantra, hijacked by the open source crowd.)

But doing that takes belief in the process. Belief in the idea that you can create whole new ways of working from scratch in just years. For us who have actively taken part in the Internet revolution, we have seen this happen, close up on a massive scale. For us it isn’t a leap of faith. But for a lot of people, even those that use the Internet on a daily basis, don’t really understand or truly believe with their gut, that it can be done.

So my advice to the World Food Programmes team is:

– Team up with “geek” entrepreneurs on an equal basis, you need to share control
– Team them up with food aid “geeks”, but those that dare to innovate and throw away the old
– Be brave, you can change things for the better

Good luck!

– Thomas

Filed under: Development aid, Open source