• Written by Mark Charmer
    3 November 2014

I really like being in 2014. Seriously, I do.

I know parts of the world are in a real mess, but I think there’s also an amazing renaissance happening right now, in how we develop understanding and how people express themselves. Ultimately I am convinced this will win out.

On that basis, we’re lined up to fix a lot of really fundamental problems over the coming 50 years or so. There’s no doubt the Ebola crisis in West Africa is a wake-up call that accepting chronic poverty, and terrible basic health and utility infrastructure, is not a sustainable approach to global security, let alone global development. That the 85 richest people on the planet are as wealthly as the poorest half of it, is something I hope we’ll look back at one day like we now look back on how odd the First World War seems, 100 years on. It also means I’m one of the world’s richest one per cent. Which I find ridiculous. So I figure I’m one of the world’s richest one per cent who doesn’t think that’s right. And I know I’m not alone.

As Oxfam’s Winnie Byanyima put it in January this year, three and a half billion people own no more than a tiny “elite” who could all fit together on a London bus.


A London bus. Tottenham Court Road. Saturday, 1 November 2014.

I don’t think the next wave of innovation will be around technology, either. Which is what most assume. The personal computing era of 1990 to 2010 was dominated by the Windows operating system and the way people could use it. But since the launch of the Apple iPhone in 2007, and the subsequent introduction of similar (ahem) mobile operating systems such as Android, the design pattern for the next generation of computer hardware and software has been established. It’s not going to change any time soon. We have our Windows of 2010-2030 and it looks like iOS and Android, handled mainly through smartphones and tablets (and yes, I want that watch too). And it’s pretty great. We can work with what we now have.

Instead, the next wave of innovation will be around organisation, in its most literal sense. So how we organise, how we coordinate, building on the base of technology we now have – this is the key to a 21st century that offers a much better balance of prosperity for the vast majority of people in the world.

And that’s Akvo’s business. We’re part of a movement to ensure that in 2050 the poorest quarter of the world’s population does not live in a shambolic series of urban and rural slums, due to poorly coordinated investment in infrastructure, services and governance.

From data, to decision

Our role is mainly about data, and how it is gathered and used well, by people. The “people” bit is really important, because people interpret information and use computers in different ways. Any “app”, put into people’s hands, brings up a whole load of interesting challenges around “data skills”.

So we provide tools and support to help people gather and use much better data to chart and monitor local infrastructure and services, and their own and their partners’ interventions, in places inhabited by the poorest quarter of the world’s population.

Our objective is to integrate this data into decision-making, so we work to connect data across networks of partners. Currently most of the people we support work in organisations tasked with managing intervention projects and programmes in the sector known as “international development”. Akvo thus markets itself on a business-to-business basis, with our customers, which we term partners, being organisations involved in this category of work. This includes non-governmental organisations (NGOs), government departments in donor countries, consultancies and implementing agencies, and national, regional and local government organisations.

Data to decision can cover many problem-solving situations. And we’re learning fast how to help partners tackle these. But we must try also to not be prescriptive about the problems people solve with our tools, and in fact we expect that the design focus of our core tools will anticipate and encourage a greater diversity of application in the years to come. This is something Loïc Sans, our very talented French product design lead, continually reminds me about.

We’re not a charity

Peter van der Linde wrote on Friday (in no uncertain terms) about how seriously at Akvo we take the challenge of building a sustainable organisation, that is “not for profit, not for loss”. And myself and Thomas Bjelkeman-Pettersson wrote about this in March in the Huffington Post too.

I want to be really clear about something. Akvo is a not a charity giving its software away to help Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. That just perpetuates mistakes of the colonial past and holds back emerging prosperity of huge parts of the world. The next 50 years needs a much more sophisticated change than that. And anyone that says there is a neat, simple technological answer is missing the point. Making things simple is never easy. It takes a lot of work. But read Peter’s piece for more on that.


Some other things that aren’t so simple

I want to also briefly explain some interesting changes that affect what we do, which I’ll expand on later.

The first is about the computers and particularly how they hook up at the back. How data is used, how it’s protected, how the underlying code and components beneath software and hardware are designed, published and licensed and with what goals in mind, are all really important things to get right. Otherwise we’ll have a really dangerous system emerge where people share everything and it gets turned back on them. Or people will embrace systems over which they have no subsequent influence. Whatever you may think of Julian Assange (my friend Judy thinks Richard Branson is scary, so I can appreciate you may not like Assange), I urge you to read “Cypherpunks”, as it will help you get your head around the risks ahead. There are a lot of people in the world who would like to control it, by concentrating power and wealth around themselves. So we need to be careful we don’t create new ways to make that easy.

Something else that’s really confusing is how the process of creating and distributing things is changing – in particular the idea of marketing. At Akvo we’ve always understood marketing in general. But we rarely describe it as such. Using a traditional definition, known as the “Marketing Mix”, marketing is about the development of the “Four Ps” – a Product, that can be provided at a certain Price, delivered to partners or customers in a certain Place, supported by a Promotion strategy. It’s something that has been shaped by all three pillars of our organisation – partnerships, engineering and PR/Communications.

Akvo marketing is affected profoundly by the fast-moving nature of being a technology business, the wide number of problems our partners will seek to solve with our tools and support, and the geographic dispersion of our work.

This puts some really interesting pressures on the Four Ps, things that are easy to interpret as meaning the old rules don’t count. But actually making sense of the new and how it changes and interplays with the old is what we’re all about. That’s the art of understanding your time, and how to work successfully in it. Which I hope every day is what we’re managing to do, just well enough to have a real impact. We’ll write more about that in part 2.

Mark Charmer is a co-founder of Akvo, and director of communications. Photo of Mark at top of article by Loïc Sans. Rotherhithe, London, 14 October 2014.

Co-founder and communications director.