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I joined Twitter because of frequent flyer miles.

No really.  It’s true.

I kept trying to use my miles and failing, due to blackout dates or not having enough points to go where I needed to. The use-em-or-lose-em deadline came up on one particular airline, so I accepted an offer to sign up for some magazines. In addition to a hefty increase in junk mail, I began receiving Wired Magazine – and my synapses started firing at a million miles per hour.

This was around 2006. I’d find myself suddenly having breathless conversations with the few people around who would listen about technology and the science of networks and other similarly nerdy stuff. This really wasn’t like me, but then, I was late to the game for a couple of reasons: for one, I spent the 1990’s in El Salvador and there was not much Internet or Wired magazine available there at the time. Secondly, I’d always been much more of an alternative music/ development/ social sciences geek than a computer / video game geek.

But something had changed since high school and college. There was Radiohead for starters… but on top of that, it became strikingly clear to me that things were aligning in a way I hadn’t seen before. Tech could really have a social purpose.

In Wired, I started reading about the idea that the Internet was horizontal, that things could be free, that people could collaborate in self-organized nodes, that social media could bypass ‘official’ pronouncements and allow alternative voices and ‘citizen journalists’ to be heard. I started thinking about how many of the principles and philosophies behind social media networks were closely aligned with those underpinning participatory approaches to development:  self-organizing, community-led processes and self-management, accountability and transparency, ownership, learning by doing, building on local knowledge and localized expertise. I got hooked on trying to link some of the ideas that were fueling social media and online networking with the work that the organization that had been employing me for several years (Plan) was facilitating with young people and communities. I started reading blogs about technology and aid, and I began writing one too.

Over time, my initial interest broadened to how new technologies — not only social media networks, but also new tools like mobile phones and GPS units and digital maps and all kinds of other new tools and platforms — could be put at the service of community development.

In large part, the reason for the branching out and wider perspective was that in December 2008, a couple of development and technology leaders/ bloggers/ mentors (Ken Banks and Erik Hersman) gave me a suggestion. “Get on Twitter,” they said,” if you really want to keep up with what is happening.”  I was wary of the platform, so instead of my real name, I used the name of a kitten we used to have – @meowtree  – also a bit of a play on my last name.

Quickly I realized there was nothing to fear. Twitter opened up a whole world at the professional and personal level. I found all kinds of people from a variety of disciplines and backgrounds who were discussing, debating, trying, failing, learning, blogging, and collaborating on a variety of projects related to technology, human rights, global development, community work and other fields I am very interested in.

Joining Twitter was like signing up to get an online degree in a very specialized field, where everyone was both teacher and learner. The quantity of information and knowledge shared among practitioners and theoreticians in my field and related areas was infinite, as were the ranges of opinions.

Through Twitter I’ve had the opportunity to work on voluntary side projects and connect with experts and practitioners for research and professional or personal advice. Sometimes a number of us join together to get across a certain point that we feel strongly about, and it ends up getting to the ears of someone who’s making major decisions or it gets brought up by individuals in personal conversation, spreading the ideas offline. A group of Twitter folks who are part of the ‘Smart Aid’ collaborative recently conducted a survey to find out more about who reads aid and development blogs, for example, and what they do with the information there.

Not just a news and professional education platform, Twitter is also a friend and colleague network. Over the past 3 years, I’ve met a few hundred new people in real life that I initially connected with on Twitter.

It’s a great feeling when you are chatting with someone at a conference, and they look down at your name tag (where you’ve penned in your Twitter handle with a Sharpie) and exclaim “Wait! You’re @meowtree!? I’m @so-and-so!” You’ve only just met, but because you’ve connected on Twitter, you already feel like old friends. You can immediately jump into a conversation and continue on with a topic you’d been batting around on Twitter or make plans to partner up on a work-related initiative or simply discuss the fact that you both like the same kind of beer.

Last week a colleague alerted me (via Twitter, naturally) that I’d been named by the Guardian as one of the “20 Global Development Twitterati” to follow. It was unexpected, and I’m hugely honored.  The Guardian’s Global Development team does fantastic and highly credible work facilitating forward-thinking debates and discussions around development. Being listed alongside the 19 other “Twitterati” is indeed a privilege, as they are some of the leading voices in the aid and development debate.

So if you have an interest in development and/or new technology, you can either accumulate a ton of unusable frequent flyer miles and follow my convoluted path, or you can skip all that in-between and simply “Get on Twitter!” Once you do, be sure to follow the Guardian’s list of 20 Global Development Twitterati. But don’t stop there – the Twitterverse is full of brilliant minds and voices that you won’t want to miss if you are serious about engaging in a stimulating global development conversation.

Note: this post originally appears on PlanUSA’s blog.

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A little more than a month ago, I wrote a post asking ‘Where is the ICT4D distance learning.’ Ernst Suur and I had been trying to figure that out since last July.

A bunch of ideas and information came in via the comments section that helped us to figure out what is happening in the space, including info about ICT4D advanced degrees options, short courses, related courses, etc.

In addition to following up with a couple established universities to see if (and when) they might be offering Masters level ICT4D programs, Ernst and I had a skype meeting with Mark Weingarten and Nick Martin, the folks over at TechChange (the Institute for Technology and Social Change).

TechChange is a new organization dedicated to training practitioners and students to effectively leverage emerging technologies for social change. They are building tools and courses for ICT4D and have already partnered with a number of universities — eg., American University, George Washington University, the UN University for Peace — to deliver face-to-face courses in topics like ‘technology for crisis response’ and ‘social media for social change.’ They also have upcoming projects planned with U4UshahidiSouktel, and FrontlineSMS. In addition to in-person trainings, TechChange is designing learning tools for use in online courses and degree programs.

As Mark commented, ‘We are developing curricula for practitioners (including those working in the field), and recognizing that needs and schedules vary. Some people and organizations might want to quickly learn how to use specific ICT tools, but others may want a more in-depth understanding of the entire ICT4D ecosystem, its successes, its failures, and where things are headed in the future. We want to better understand this range of needs and tailor our courses. We’re also interested in knowing more about what else is being done in this space and what other examples we can learn from.’

In order to get some wider input, we invite you to join us for a twitter chat on ICT4D Distance Learning on Friday, January 14th at 11 am EST. The hashtag will be #ICT4DDL.

We will cover 5 questions:

  1. Topics: What sorts of courses would interest you most? What topics are most relevant?
  2. Timing: What timeframe for distance learning courses would best suit your schedule and needs? Short-term courses on specific topics (or tools) vs. more in-depth courses?  3 hr modules or ten week facilitated trainings?
  3. Credit: How important are things like credit or degree programs? Are certifications enough?
  4. Skills: What skills would you like to gain as a participant – considering 1) university students just entering the field and 2) practitioners taking professional development courses.
  5. Delivery: How does connectivity affect your ability to take courses? What about in the case of others who might be interested in this type of training but are not on Twitter/online as often? Is a mobile option a good idea?

Tips for a good Twitter Chat:

  • Login 5 mins ahead of time and be ready with a short introduction (eg, Cathy here, I manage maternal health pgms at XYZ in Malawi, we’re just getting started with ICT4D).
  • Tools like TweetChat which automatically add the hashtag and refresh often are helpful to keep up with the conversation.

We look forward to chatting on Friday, January 14th at 11 am EST and welcome any questions or comments before then!

Related posts on Wait… What?

Where is the ICT4D Distance Learning?

3 ways to incorporate ICTs into development work

Demystifying Internet

ICT4D in Uganda: ICT does not equal computers

It’s all part of the ICT4D jigsaw: Plan Mozambique ICT4D workshop

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Before I left for Cameroon, I had started doing a little of my own research via blogs and Twitter to learn a bit more about ICT4D in the Cameroonian setting. I wanted to get a feel for what the situation was so I’d be more in tune and also to see if there were any potential partners or people on the ground who I could learn from or link with Plan Cameroon. In the end, I was able to meet with Mambe Churchill Nanje the founder of http://www.afrovisiongroup.com/ and a partner on http://www.villagediary.org/, a project of the LINK-UP development group. Photo: Mambe Churchill Nanje of AfroVisioNgroup.

Since I’m coming from a non-profit and child rights background (at Plan International), and since we are looking into ICT4D as an enabler and facilitator for existing program work, and since much of our work centers on HIV/AIDS, memory books, birth registration, participation and child protection, I especially like the idea behind village diaries. This is some really interesting stuff on several fronts. The mission of the Village Diary project (summarizing from their website here) is “to enhance access to legal, social and health services for orphans, vulnerable children and widows experiencing different forms of abuses. It also serves as a platform to track the cultural and historical background of families and villages.”

By supporting the establishment of marriage licenses, birth certificates and last wills and testaments and providing secure access to digital backups of these documents to authorized case workers, Village Diary aims to alleviate the problems that arise after the death of a leading family member. Village Diary also collects stories by women and children to provide a forum for making change and at the same time offers a window into community life.

Village Diary does this by operating an online database that documents and shares cases of abuse of women and children for education, research and advocacy purposes, establishing institutional partnerships to enhance legal, social and health services and facilitate access of such services to orphans and women, strengthening existing support networks for women in the community, and recording cultural, environmental and historical changes of the people and villages involved in the project.

So on top of being involved in some very cool projects, Churchill is also a very cool guy and it was great to have the chance to hang out with him and a few friends on Saturday in Yaounde. Thanks, Twitter (and ourman, billzimmerman, and downeym!). I’m looking forward to seeing where this guy is in a few years, as he has some fantastic ideas for IT in Cameroon.

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Ha, my daughter knows me better than anyone.

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