The problem with blogging… (and a long overdue update!)

So, the biggest problem I have with blogging – and I am sure many of you will relate – is making time to do it regularly enough.

More specifically the fact that, after a month or two has gone by with no sign whatsoever of a blog post, it becomes harder and harder to write a new one.  Each additional month adds to the pressure of “the next one better be good after all this time”, making it ever harder…

indexEven though I know that this is unimportant, nobody really cares (not even my 8 followers! Joke, ish! ), it creates a mental block that seems to say “after this long you can’t get away with just a brief paragraph, an event promo, a guest blog…” even though any of these things would be entirely legitimate…

So, in the interests of unblocking my blogging (unblogging?), a brief update of what’s been going on since my last update in . . . January!?  Sheesh… Anyway, moving on…

  • The last quarter of 2015 ended up with a lot more travelling and a lot less working than I anticipated – Thailand, Indonesia, Australia, Philippines, Malaysia, Singapore, India (cycling tour then Christmas in Goa) and Dubai (for New Years).  Not that I am complaining… Ahem🙂
  • In January I finally started some serious sabbatical work in Nairobi, Kenya.
    • Initially for a very cool civil society group who support pan-African social movements and political activists (Fahamu) and publish the well-known pan-African news website Pambazuka News.
    • Later, my colleague George Flatters and I undertook some extremely interesting research for Oxfam’s ICT in Programme , looking at the state of “ICT4D” in Horn, East and Central Africa and identifying gaps and opportunities where NGOs (or others) could play a useful role.  Watch this space, the research will be published soon and I will promote it here.
  • In June and July, knowing I was exploring opportunities in Latin America, I decided to brush up on my Spanish and spent two months living and studying in Valencia.  Interesting to learn the (over-stated) differences between Spanish and Latin American Spanish (not much apart from vosotros and being very careful with the verb coger!), although ironically… not as useful as I had hoped… (see below)
  • In August, my brother was finishing some work with an NGO in India and suggested we go to Burma.  Well, it would’ve been rude not to…
  • I then had to get to Latin America from Burma, which involved travelling through Bangkok, Hong Kong, Japan, California and Florida.  Ok, admittedly there may have been more direct routes, but what’s the point of an unpaid sabbatical if you don’t use the time to see the world and spend way more money than you can afford eh?
  • Finally…  I arrived in Latin America this month…  In Brazil…
  • Yes, Brazil… that famously NON Spanish-speaking country…
  • So, I am now working with a very well-known ICT4D NGO here, who until recently were called CDI (Committee for Democratisation of Information or the Centre for Digital Empowerment, depending where you look), and are currently rebranding but for the moment are known as RECODE (Digital Empowerment, Recode your life, Recode the system, very in-line with their Paolo Freire inspired roots).
  • So I am now living in Rio de Janeiro – probably until Christmas, who knows.



So, now that is out of the way, I have no excuse anymore not o start blogging regularly again.

Entonces…  então

Nos vemos pronto (6 months…)


Join me in Nairobi at ‘Tech for Tax Justice’ (Feb 1-3)?

So yes, I am now in Nairobi…  I clearly haven’t got the hang of blogging regularly, so intermittent snippets will have to do I’m afraid.

I am here spending some time helping out a really interesting group called Fahamu who help social movements and activists to have more impact and also publish the interesting, alternative pan-African publication Pambazuka News.  Oh and I am also meeting a ton of interesting ‘tech4dev’ people but more on that another time.

Next week I am attending a 3-day workshop/hackday organised by Oxfam Kenya (at the intriguingly named Homeboyz Innovation Hub!).

The workshop will explore how we can use ICT4D tools to shift the balance of power and create more transparent, responsive use of citizen generated evidence, and is seeking to identify and deepen understanding on the opportunities of ICTs to contribute to Oxfam’s “Progressive Domestic Resources for Quality Public Services” project as well as develop a strategic plan to introduce the ICTs and provide a platform for information sharing and joint action.

Sounds really interesting and am looking forward to it.

Hopefully I will find the time to do another blog afterwards sharing some of the learning, results, attendees and photos.  Hopefully!

Oh and there is still space, so if you’re even vaguely techie,why not come and be part of the Tech 4 Tax Justice movement and help Oxfam to use technology to contribute to reduced inequality and improved quality of life for poor and vulnerable.  

If you’re in Nairobi, join us!  Email or call 0725690506 if you’re interested.



(oops… not) heading to the eBorneo Knowledge Fair


*UPDATE* : Combination of various accumulated travel frustrations, cancelled planes, long van journeys, lack of sleep and a few other things – mean I didn’t make it to eBKF in the end and went to Kuching, oops!  So no blog about it I’m afraid but if anyone else writes one I would love to read it and maybe do a summary/link here? Have left the original blog intact below just because… well… why not…***

So after my disastrous attempt at getting a visa for Pakistan, and some time in the Phillipines looking at apps for facilitating cash transfers in emergencies (and then some time travelling and seeing some amazing beaches), I have headed to Borneo.

Obviously, I had to visit the Orangutans at Sepilok first (including a hairless one who bears more than a passing resemblance to Gollum, odd!)


The reason for the side-trip to Borneo..?  To attend the fifth eBorneo Knowledge Fair (formerly eBario Knowledge Fair).

I’d first heard of eBKF years back when I was reading Telecentre replication initiative in Borneo, Malaysia: The CoERI experience as part of my dissertation at IDPM in Manchester.  Since then I have exchanged occasional emails with Professor Roger Harris and so when I realised I was nearby (well the Phillipines is a very short flight from Borneo) and the 5th eBKF was imminent – I thought it would be rude not to go!

It sounds exciting for a few very important reasons:

  • Its an Unconference which is very much my kind of thing – at Aptivate we do Open Spaces all the time, and formal “sit and face the so-called-expert at the front” events just never seem to cut it for me any more…
  • In its own words it is organised “in conjunction with the local community, bringing together researchers, practitioners and policy makers with the resident indigenous peoples” – which couldn’t be a more textbook example of practicing the participatory approach we preach if it tried!
  • It includes sessions on wide-raning topics such as sustainability, innovation, indigenous knowledge, community-based tourism, the impact of research on policy and practice and many more.  Given the diverse range of attendees I have high hopes that these will go beyond the usual lip-service so often paid to these kinds of topic!
  • It covers a range of technologies – not just mobile phones (which a lot of the ICT4D sector seem to think are the only thing worth paying attention to), but telecentres, aerial photography using drones, digital arts and that old favourite so often forgotten – community radio.
  • It’s in a lodge in remote Ba’kelalan, which involves a Twin Otter small aircraft flight and a 4×4 journey to get there, exciting!

So, looking forward to it.

I’ll hopefully get some good notes and photos and do a proper in-depth blog after (either here or more likely on ICT Works so it gets seen more widely).

And in the meantime, I’ll be tweeting as I am sure many others will on #ebkf.

Musing on Monitoring & Evaluation for ICT Works

I recently published a piece at ICT Works with some of my thoughts on the challenges facing the development sector when it comes to M&E/MEL.  It is provocatively titled “Why M&E is LAME (or should be)”.

I’ll say no more, except that it challenges a few preconceptions, destroys some much-loved and even more hated development industry tools (Log Frames specifically), and that LAME is a bit of a misdirection.

You’ll have to read it to find out what I mean though😉

Could Agile + Adaptive Programming = A new dawn for ICT4D?

I am in Manila at the moment, supporting World Vision Philippines with advice around selecting and managing a local agile software development firm. It’s been interesting work, and I was particularly interested to discover that their internal IT teams are all in the process of adopting agile too. Agile is definitely coming of age within the sector!

This got me thinking about what might happen as both development and software switch to adopt these new paradigms…

Up until a few years back, ICT within development was simple.

Donors would give money for a 3-5 year program. An NGO would design a 3-5 year delivery and implementation plan. And any software or other ICT components needed would be designed and built at the start to support the duration of the delivery.

It was simple. And it worked.

Ok, when I say it worked… What I mean is… The ICT and the development-practice elements were compatible and mutually reinforcing… It ‘worked’ in the sense that the software supported the way the program was designed and helped it deliver what it set out to.

Of course it didn’t actually work – if by working we mean making a substantive positive change in the world, or reducing poverty, empowering communities, reducing inequalities of power, defending human rights, or any of the other things ICT4D and wider aid/development is actually supposed to be about. But it ‘worked’ in the sense that a lot of NGOs got and spent a lot of money, and the software helped them write reports about this…

Then along came two very similar disruptive ideas – Agile emerged in the software field, suggesting that designing software up-front is a bad idea, and it is more successful to launch the smallest piece of software you can as early as possible, and then evolve it based on interaction with real users. And in the development space, people began to argue against the top-down up-front planning and calls for participatory and ‘process’ approaches have steadily increased, leading to the emergence of things such as Adaptive Programming which challenges the way development programs are planned in a very similar way to the way agile challenges the way software is built.

These trends reflect the realtity of work in the field – it is impossible to plan for complex and evolving circumstances.  And development is nothing if not complex and evolving!  Reality is more like this great visual from Duncan’s blog (linked above):


The increasing use of these emerging approaches has led to some interesting scenarios and incompatibilities…

At Aptivate, we use Agile for all our software and other ICT4D development work. When we are working with a client who has this same approach and flexibility in their wider development activity it works like a dream. When we work with clients with very engineering-style top-down approaches to development, it causes tensions, frictions, and the results are less impressive.

Similarly, in previous jobs I have worked in (non-development) organisations seeking to implement highly flexible, evolving and adaptive charitable programs, but the ICT component has been delivered by non-Agile software companies who insisted on designing and specifying everything up-front, and building the entire application before launching anything. This caused enormous delays to starting work and continual frustrations when we wanted to adapt the software based on evolved understanding and learnings, but the budget had already run out and the software firm had moved on to other projects!

It seems that when methodologies align, things go smoothly. When methodologies clash, things can be fraught with problems and arguments.

And when the methodologies that align, are both built on an understanding that learning, flexibility and adaptiveness are key – the potential for improvement in the way things work is enormous.

So perhaps the time is right within development to bring these two trends together.

ICT/Mobile is a major component of many development programs these days. How would thing work if we start with Adaptive Programming for the wider planning, and then add in agile for the ICT elements within it (or even a hybrid of both sets of techniques which could apply across the board – after all ICT isn’t fundamentally different from any other aspect of delivery).

I’m keen to find out.

If you have something already going on, I’d love to get involved and see if I can help (see my previous blog post about my year’s sabbatical).

If you think you’d like to start something, or have the ear of a friendly donor and would like to put an idea to them, Aptivate would love to explore this area too.

Anyone else keen to explore this, drop me a line

World Tour… the story so far…

So some of you will be aware that I have taken a year off work at Aptivate to get some hands-on experience at the hard face of ICT4D…  Or to travel the world seeing exotic places… depending on your perspective…  Basically to do some voluntary work at interesting – ideally participatory tech – development organisations around Africa, Asia and/or Latin America…

Well, the first 6 weeks was a little mini-break holiday, but I guess I should bring things up to speed so my first proper serious blog has some context…

London, Doha (stopover), Bangkok (land of rain and hangovers), Bali (cycled the whole island – Legian, Candidasa, Tejakula, Lovina, Ubud, Sanur), Gili Air (finally a proper tropical beach!), Melbourne (most liveable city in the world… as literally EVERYONE you meet will tell you!), Sydney (like coming home again after over 15 years…)

Whew, that was easy…


  • The rain in Bangkok on our “big night out” being so torrential even the locals were videoing it!
  • Being taken to a hidden bar in a residential street in a nice Bangkok suburb… To find it full of ex-pats…  And ending up nicknaming someone ‘shame’ because I was drunk and didn’t hear his real name.  Oops… He wasn’t impressed…  I think the name stuck though poor guy!
  • A cycle tour of Bangkok that took us away from the touristy areas and even involved cycling through a slum…  Probably not the worst slum, but it made me realise I’ve never actually set foot in a proper slum before…  Pretty poor show for someone who works in development and is interested in urban poverty!
  • Cycling downhill about 20km to Ubud… After getting a van to take us to the top… Cheating?  Maybe but worth it!
  • Helicopters, wine tours, beaches, scenery and general all round fun in Australia.  Oh and the food, my god the food!🙂
  • The realisation that I love travelling but hate other travellers.  This is going to be tricky!

So, the party finally ends… My travelling companion leaves…  I start to arrange my plans for the first placement at a really interesting poverty lab in Pakistan (IPAL), and I come to the grinding problem that… government bureacracies are the same the world over…  They won’t give me a visa unless I go back to the UK to apply for it.  Not happening!

So… The search begins for a different place I can go at short notice until Christmas…  Lots of leads, but most were kind of on-hold so lets see how this goes.

Watch this space!

Oh, and suggestions of voluntary work… offers, requests are welcome!  Ideally in Asia, as I’d like to stay in this part of the world till Xmas before I move on…

Oh and I guess a few random photos are kind of required….  See below…  Some interesting, some just showing off…🙂

IMG_8414 IMG_8450 IMG_8454 IMG_8501 IMG_8551 IMG_8601 IMG_8677 IMG_8750 IMG_8780 IMG_8797 IMG_8918 IMG_9022 IMG_9189 IMG_9298 IMG_9509

Labour leadership and a Free Press in the UK

I just posted a response to an article about The Guardian coming out in support of Yvette Cooper in the UK’s Labour leadership race.

It has been bothering me for a while but I only just realised why.

We make a big deal about a free press in other countries.  If the press in Venezuela support Chavez its because he controls them (he probably does), but when the press here take a stance it is somehow seen as independent…

So who is behind the Guardian – with its significant influence over partiocularly the centre-left – choosing Yvette Cooper…  Is this an “independent and free press”, or is it simply another vested interest of the type we would deplore if it happened elsewhere?

My comment on the Guardian site is repeated below.  I’d genuinely love to know the answer!

So I have a serious and important question about this.

“The Guardian” supports Yvette Cooper. What does that mean exactly..?

Does every single member of staff at The Guardian, from the boardroom to the print room and the entire suppy chain support her… Unlikely…

So how was it decided that “The Guardian” – an indefinite entity comprised of 1000s of individuals with different views, a history and a brand, should choose her over the other candidates?

Was there an election internally? Was every member of staff consulted? Was it one member one vote or did the editors get more say, was it fairly conducted? And if there was some kind of election (even an informal poll on the intranet!) – what were the results? 100% for Cooper? 55%? 35%?

And if this didn’t happen, who has decided that these 1000s of people are happy to support her… A combination of the financiers and the chief editors..? i.e. The upper/middle-classes who stand to lose significantly if a left-wing debate ever became mainstream and accepted…

So which is it? Does The Guardian practice the democracy it preaches and if so, where’s the transparency – show us the results!

Or should this actually read “5-6 rich and powerful people who happen to work at The Guardian support Yvette Cooper…” – in which case it rightly carries a lot less influence.

I strongly suspect not to see an answer to this!😦

Too many blogs spoil… something…

too-many-china-blogs-530x353It just occured to me that I blog (rarely) on the Aptivate site… and I blog (very rarely) on this site… And I even blog (very very rarely) on ICT Works…

Maybe I should find a way to bring this all together…

For now though, as a quick and dirty solution..

My Aptivate posts:

My ICT Works post (actually only one is live, others in the pipeline):

Looking for hands-on experience with grass-roots participatory technology… Can you help?

So my colleagues at Aptivate have kindly approved my proposal to take a sabbatical.  So from October 2015 I will taking a break for the UK to explore a core interest of mine – the intersection of ICTs/mobile technology and participatory methodologies.

I have been interested in this area for some time since starting work on on Masters dissertation, but really want to get more hands-on experience working on the ground, in the Global South,  with a group that are doing this stuff well.  It may be a bit selfish and of course I need to be useful to the organisation I spend time with, but . . . the main reason for taking time out is to learn from people who really know their stuff when it comes to participatory methods (things like REFLECT or PLA/PRA/RRA etc..)!

Can you help?  Do you know anyone you could recommend?

In short, what I am hoping to do is…

  • Work pro-bono for a few months (at a guess 3-6 but am flexible – if I happen to be in the area of an interesting project, then even offering my services for a week or so of research, evaluation or workshops could be interesting)
  • For an organisation working directly with end-users in their local communities
  • Ideally within a project making use of ICTs and participatory methods (serious participation – something like REFLECT or Participatory Rural Appraisal, not just a consultation or a feedback loop)
  • But . . .  as this may be a tall order,  a good ICT/Mobile project and a good participatory project as two separate experiences might work
  • Where?  Pretty much anywhere…  Latin America and Myanmar are particularly appealing, but really the nature of the work is more important so Kenya, Ghana, the Phillipines, India, Mexico . . . you get the idea…
  • When?  I will be travelling to Australia during September / October 2015 and could start straight after that, or early in 2016 if it makes more sense to come home for Christmas and start over.  The only real deadline is that I need to be finished by September 2016 at the latest.
  • Doing what?  Well this is tricky – obviously I need to be helpful to the project/organisation so my ICT4D practice and research skills – project management, program development, research and evaluation, fundraising, strategic consultancy etc. are all potentially useful.  BUT I also need to learn about what makes for good, effective, fair participatory work, so I want  to be directly involved in this delivery.  I’m sure we can work something out! :-)  Oh and it’s always possible that wider collaboration opportunities with Aptivate might emerge too, who knows!
    • So after a couple of emails I was reminded that the term participation/participatory covers a lot of ground so maybe I should clarify…  What I really want to get some experience of is a group, project, or program working at the top-end of Arnstein’s ladder – full and meaningful participation of the local community at every stage – from defining the goals, through delivery to evaluation – something that is genuinely empowering…  Using technology… A tall order?  I know, hence this  blog!🙂

So this is a plea  for advice…

Do you know of the perfect project?  Do you know others working in this space?  Have you read about, heard about something that seems relevant?

Please download my CV from my profile page and email me (matt /a/ if you have any ideas – I am open to any and all suggestions!🙂



Is it time for ICTD conferences to have a bit of a shake-up..?

websiteheader2It was with some reservations that I booked my travel to Singapore to attend ICTD2015. It’s a long way to go for a conference, and I had heard very mixed things from friends and colleagues who have been before – “it’s too academic” and “there aren’t enough practitioners” is the most common complaint.

Well, I like to keep one toe dipped in academia so I thought whether those concerns are valid or not, I am sure it will be interesting and useful.

Half a day in and, while enjoying it, I notice I am having a few misgivings.

Reading through the list of papers, notes, open sessions and demos there is no shortage of practitioners, organisations from the South and technical folk alongside the list of University names, Doctors and other noted academics (although @ICTD2015 / @ICTD2017 – an attendee list would be invaluable – please try and arrange before the final day!).

Where things fall down is not in the attendees or the subject matter, but the format…

Days 1 and 4 are the so-called “open sessions” which I had been informed are interactive spaces where the whole room will engage and discuss or work on things together. Great!

Well, so far… Day 1 so far is a series of sit and face-the-front lectures with a few minutes of Q&A at the end. Apparently this is not always the case, but for this year at least – given the choice of lecture theatres as spaces, this was either planned or at least inevitable.

Frustratingly, the subject matter is great! The format is not. Why does this matter..?

Why do people attend conferences like these? Invariably it is either to learn or to network and collaborate.

The last few decades have taught us many things about learning – and it is now pretty well agreed that lectures are not a good learning format. There are practical arguments why they might be necessary, especially with groups of 100s of people, but they should be the format of last resort not the go-to-format which is reached for first. And for the smaller sessions, with 10-20 people – there is literally no reason for this format when a round-table, group work, or any of hundreds of well-established and easy to facilitate interactive approaches would make for a better learning experience.

For the second reason – networking and collaborating – face-the-front lecture style sessions are all but useless, where small and large group interactive sessions are invaluable! Even better networking opportunities between sessions would be a good backup!

So I am already here… Why am I writing this?

Well, OK I am English, so of course it is nice to live up to the stereotype and whinge now and then… But more importantly, I would really like this to be better!! There are a fantastic group of people here, in one place, together, for four days! And this risks becoming a wasted opportunity for something exciting and valuable to take place!

So a plea to the @ICTD2015 / @ICTD2017 organisers – for future years, please try your hardest to make the conference more interactive – I think you will find the practitioner-community flocks back in droves if you get this right. And by more interactive I don’t just mean getting the open-sessions working as intended – why not open it up much more? How many people really want to spend two full days in a lecture theatre watching presentation after presentation..? Break it up a bit, have more participant involvement, more streams, more hands-on, more facilitated networking, more options!

I know Aptivate would love to work with you and help you do this – we regularly facilitate Open Space / Unconference type events (

As for this year… Well it’s probably too late to change anything, but maybe as attendees we can at least fill the gaps and do some networking and collaborating and sharing of learnings ONLINE…

Please post your suggestions at the lowest-bandwidth simplest collaborative idea I know of –

Comments from other attendees or organisers welcomed below!🙂