A new chapter

Eight years ago, I applied to the Digital Vision Fellowship Program at Stanford University with an interest in developing GIS (Geographic Information Systems) tools to map conditions that could lead to conflict in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Benetech generously sponsored the fellowship hoping that I could help them with Martus, a human rights reporting tool that they were developing for people to report human rights abuses using computer networks. But when I got to Stanford (fresh from being transfixed by Larry Lessig for the first time) I started volunteering for Creative Commons and was so excited by the potential for cc in Africa that I did a 180 and worked on copyright reform and digital culture in Africa and globally for the next five years.

In 2009, driven by some of the hard questions that I started to ask myself about what we were doing with iCommons, I came back to the US to do my Masters at the UC Berkeley School of Information. It was here that I discovered ethnography in a class taught by the wonderful Jenna Burrell. Jenna is not only a great teacher (her classes actually demonstrate the philosophy that she’s trying to teach!) she also brought me around to thinking that there was a way that I could combine my passion for writing and journalism with deep, systematic analysis of where virtual and “real” worlds meet (and sometimes collide). And so I decided that I wanted to be an ethnographer.

But ethnography jobs in the tech sector seem to require PhDs and I was starting to give up on actually being able to find someone to give me a break. Last week, I saw a job posting on Ushahidi’s website for an ethnographer/behaviorist and I immediately wrote to Jon Gosier to ask what he required for the application. I have always had deep respect for Ory Okolloh who co-founded Ushahidi and Erik Hersman (aka “WhiteAfrican“) who is now Director of Operations and Strategy, and intuitively thought that it would be a really wonderful opportunity.

Jon called me yesterday to interview me for the job. He asked me to tell him my story, about the work I was doing and why I wanted to work for the Ushahidi platform. I briefly introduced him to my ethnographic work and he asked me to tell him more about my Wikipedia research. After a while, he said: ‘This is going to sound strange but your essay was one of the reasons why I dreamed up this position. It made me realize how this kind of work could really help what we’re doing. I wasn’t going to say anything when you applied because I wanted to hear why you wanted to join us, but I know all about you and was stoked when you applied for the job.’

I have been wondering for a long time how I would ever find anything that fitted me. I kept thinking about how I didn’t want to end up in a position where I didn’t have the freedom to be who I am, to speak out about what I’m passionate about, and to feed my passion for Africa while still doing something that is globally relevant. And then all of a sudden, the universe provided me a job that was – literally – made for me. Speaking to Jon, I felt like a gibbering wreck I was so blown away. The job will enable me to work on improving SwiftRiver and Ushahidi’s great tools for harnessing the social web. And since I’m working 70% time for them, I’ll get to do some teaching and writing on the side. I will be mostly be in the San Francisco Bay Area but the job isn’t dependent on a particular location so I’m hoping to spend some time in Kenya learning Swahili and researching Wikipedia as planned. More than that, I have no idea, but I feel like this new chapter is going to be a pretty exciting one. I start 1 June.

20 thoughts on “A new chapter

  1. Oh wow, the essay link, alone, makes the whole thing sound (and I’ll make a hash of the spelling here) besheerdt (roughly translated it means “meant to be”). It sounds very exciting, good luck!

  2. Heather. I can feel your excitement in this post … and simply want to wish you health & happiness in your new role. I look forward to seeing how it plays out for you all … as I have no doubt that somewhere along the line, our paths will cross. Delighted for you all.

  3. Fab! I can hear all those puzzle pieces clicking into place. This is great news, Heather. Congratulations. A perfect fit, I suspect. And they are lucky to have you…

  4. So glad you have persevered, flourished, connected, and branched again. You are an inspiration and I know you make your mother proud🙂

  5. Thanks, thanks, thanks! Siyabonga🙂 I’m a lucky girl to have friends like y’all.

  6. YOU ROCK!!!!!!! reading this in china makes it all the more powerful! you are an inspiration girlfriend! and what the hell would a phd give an ethnographer ohter than a degree? degrees don’t give insight and empathy.

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