Changing the world

I really like how sometimes a small change, or a new technology meant to solve one problem, can end up making a huge difference in other ways.

For example, a service called M-PESA allows people in Africa to pay each other via text messages on their cell phones. Households using M-PESA in Kenya have increased their incomes by 5-30%! How? They are using the phone account as a bank account. It enables them to have emergency savings which means when something goes wrong they don't have to sell the cow or their livelihood. From the Economist:

the service is used by some people as a savings account. Having even a small cushion of savings to fall back on allows people to deal with unexpected expenses, such as medical treatment, without having to sell a cow or take a child out of school. Mobile banking is safer than storing wealth in the form of cattle (which can become diseased and die), gold (which can be stolen), in neighbourhood savings schemes (which may be fraudulent) or by stuffing banknotes into a mattress.

Do you have a similar story about how technology or free software has improved life in a developing country in unexpected ways?

Exciting times at Grace Hopper!

I’m at the Grace Hopper Women in Computing conference this week. I’ve been looking forward to it for months. However in the past couple of weeks I’ve had so many “women in open source software” or “women in free software” conversations – some good and some very draining – that I was half way dreading coming to a conference where the whole focus would be women in computing for days. Turns out I was worried for nothing.

The energy at Grace Hopper is awesome! Everyone is excited, people go out of their way to introduce themselves when they sit next to you and everyone is talking about real and exciting challenges. And there’s plenty of people to meet – there are 1600 people here, most of them technical women! About half are students and about a quarter of the attendees are presenters too.

Last year while I was here I met the HFOSS folks and the conversation led to three interns working on GNOME projects last summer. Who knows where this year will lead? So far I’ve had interesting conversations. For example, I spoke to the woman who works at iRobot on reaching out to kids to encourage kids to get involved in robotics. (You know, the folks that make the Roomba.) Anybody do robotics programming using GNOME?

I’ve also spoken to other women about how to get more women developers on a project, how to cultivate more positive energy on a project or serve productively on a board. I’ve also had some interesting conversations about careers. One woman I talked to wondered if she should switch careers because she’s not passionate about coding and everyone keeps talking about how passionate they are about their jobs. Turns out she really likes user interfaces.

Thanks again to the Grace Hopper folks for sponsoring my travel to this event! It’s a great event celebrating and encouraging technical women. Next year I’d like to see more presence from free and open source software projects. (I am on an open source community panel this afternoon.)

There’s a very active conversation about the Grace Hopper conference on twitter.